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The Morning News and Powells Present
2006 Tournament of Books
MARCH 28, 2006
The Accidental and Anansi Boys. Two books. One nationality of origin (British). Two twisted families: one, psychologically confused; the other, supernaturally confused. Two overbearing, unexpected houseguests who seduce and manipulate and turn the families’ lives upside-down: one, a mysterious 30-something woman who makes piercing observations and doesn’t shave her legs; the other, a smooth-talking troublemaker with magical powers and a hereditary love for karaoke. Two different literary approaches: one is focused on the flow and form of words, playing with perspective and internal dialogue; the other, a fun, light, contemporary spin on African folk tales. Two different endings: one, cryptic and untidy; the other, cute. One might imagine that, being a fan of fantasy, mythology, ironic humor and a former follower of “alternative” comic books (yes, I went to a few conventions), I would be the ideal candidate to read Anansi Boys. People on say so and, if I personally knew people who would recommend works of contemporary fiction to me, they would probably say so, too (certainly over The Accidental, which is an alien on my reading list). Well, at its best I found it to be a charming adventure with clever twists, simple yet evocative, vividly written, and at worst a bit lacking in depth—it’s sort of like Vonnegut without the philosophical oomph.

The familiar characters, such as the eccentric old lady down the street, embarrassing charming dad with fantastical stories (Big Fish, anyone?), severe skeletal mother-in-law, sleazy corporate boss, etc., may be a conscious extension of Gaiman’s creative play on traditional folk tales, and a sort of comic device. But within the real-world context of the book, this served to be sort of unsatisfying; the characters have just enough reality to summon my empathy but not quite enough to really capture it. It’s an interesting idea to apply this kind of storytelling to a real-world context, but to me it is both an advantage and a problem.
This book is far better than the slow, painful
indie film that may someday be made out of it,
but then, perhaps this book is actually
that film in disguise?

As much of a story as it is a novel, the soul of Anansi Boys does not necessarily reside in its medium, quite unlike The Accidental, whose major attraction lies in the way it is written. What makes The Accidental involving is the highly conceptual narrative form and prose style. Smith seeks to capture the flow of the internal thought processes of the members of the family on which the story is based, and the “Rashomon”-style chapters focus on the individual characters’ perspectives, although in third person, one-chapter-per-character-per-section (the sections being the beginning, middle, and end—apparently the book is too fancy for numbered chapters). Each character’s chapters are sharply distinct, and Smith offers a surprisingly realistic, well-formed insight into the minds of this family. Sometimes the events of the book overlap within characters’ viewpoints, sometimes not. This approach, although it may sound gimmicky, was well executed and, most importantly, keeps the book from becoming same-y. I most enjoyed the narrative of Astrid, the 12-year-old girl, who has a self-absorbed yet authentic disconnect from the relations and soul-searching of her elders.

Still, I am torn about The Accidental, because I am not sure whether it is compelling and intelligent with an edge of self-consciousness, or vice versa. This book is far better than the slow, painful indie film that may someday be made out of it, but then, perhaps this book is actually that film in disguise? Perhaps the form is just masking the content’s true, art-directed self? Either way, the book does not become heavy or precious, and stays interesting even through its lesser moments.

Many others judges will say this, but it’s like apples and oranges. On the one hand, The Accidental is ambitious, creative and insightful while Anansi Boys is rather light and, though personality-infused, not wildly groundbreaking. On the other hand, perhaps The Accidental is trying too hard to do something and Anansi Boys is straightforward and without pretensions. Ultimately, I found The Accidental the more compelling read.

The Peanut Gallery
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