Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 December 2017
Ali Smith's six novels – Like (1997), Hotel World (2001), The Accidental (2005), Girl Meets Boy (2007), There but for the (2011) and How to be both (2014) – are, with one exception, all products of the twenty-first century. We may take 2000 as the year of demarcation of a new cultural epoch, or we may agree with Brian McHale that the following year is a more significant threshold of a new cultural climate in the Western world. More specifically, McHale views 2001 as the date marking the end of postmodernism and the beginning of ‘post-post-modernism’, a term he borrows from Jeffrey T. Nealon, to indicate ‘the ways in which post-postmodernism repeats, albeit with a difference, the postmodernism that came before’, and the ‘new phase's continuity with postmodernism’. Perhaps no British writer captures this transitional phase as well as Ali Smith, whose works may be seen to reflect a Janus-faced attitude towards postmodernism and its legacy.
Indeed, Smith's novels frequently challenge the real/imagined boundaries that postmodernism is preoccupied with. In a typical reference to popular culture – another feature Smith's fiction shares with postmodernism – in The Accidental, Astrid describes the pop music video where ‘the girl … is in a café having a cup of coffee and reading a comic then the comic comes alive and she becomes part of the story’. The reference to a-ha's 1985 hit ‘Take on Me’ exposes the permeability of real/fictional worlds, which is also characteristic of postmodern narratives. If this exemplary passage from The Accidental can be held as representative of Smith's oeuvre, it would place it firmly within the ambit of postmodernism. Indeed, there is no doubt that her novels are often metaleptic – breaking down the boundaries between fiction and reality – as well as being intertextual (echoing other texts) and focused on the hyperreal, the simulated real that, according to Jean Baudrillard, has replaced the real in postmodern culture. Her formal experimentation, while reminiscent of the modernist writings of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, is also characteristic of a kind of writing that self-consciously reminds us of the skilled artifice at the heart of postmodern fiction.