Guest Author - Siobhain M Cullen
At the time of her unpleasant encounter with ‘the man in the crumpled suit, Ali Smith's heroine seems young, perhaps barely out of school and is often in trouble with her new employer. Perhaps that's why she is inhibited about asserting her right to respect from an offensive customer – and perhaps why she allows herself to be paralysed into inaction by his domineering presence?
The accurate portrayal of personalities and atmospheres is a skill often displayed by British author Ali Smith and here, slowly , Smith builds tension from the second an odious little author enters the bookshop, full as he is, of his own self-importance and worth to society.
After giving us the backstory behind our heroine’s employment history at the shop, her defiance in wearing ‘the wrong type of clothes’ and her isolation in the smoky staffroom at the back (which is due in part to the resentment of other workers both young at old, at the thirty pounds she was given to buy uniform blouses which are too tight under the arms) Ali Smith positions her victim squarely slouching behind the counter - and there she is, a captive audience, when the man strides in.
In the next three pages, through sparse but effective description, Smith unfolds the drama of the excrutiatingly tense encounter between these two characters. Our heroine’s demeanour gives a clue as to the purposeful way in which the man must have entered the shop. It must have been with an air of authority - as (smarting from her recent reprimands) she quickly stiffens her shoulders – almost like a soldier standing to attention. The military theme develops further towards the finale, but for now it is understated in the typical laconic voice of the adolescent:
‘He looked like he might be important.’
Slowly, with all the confidence of a successful author who can spin out a tale and keep her hooked readers in suspense, Ali Smith continues the denouement as she has her character almost imperceptibly take possession of the space around him - namely the bookshop counter that represents the only physical barrier between the two of them.
In brief, he simply places his briefcase on the counter in front of the assistant. A simple act in itself, it is more the way he does it that speaks volumes about his personality. Still, Ali Smith doesn’t give too much away. The way the author proceeds to open the briefcase without permission is not the only issue - he looks into her eyes while doing so with a ‘defensive’ and ‘clever’ look.
Ali Smith also uses the characters’ dialogue to unwrap the author’s egotistical personality and motives, as the grim contents of his bulging leather briefcase are revealed – shiny new books. Not unpleasant in themselves, it is their subject matter which is to prove offensive:
‘I am an author and a historian. You have probably heard of me. You have almost definitely sold some of my books already.’
The man in the tired suit places one of his stiffly-spined new masterpieces on the counter as if it were a gauntlet – which indeed in some ways it is, for the man pictured on the cover is none other than Hitler himself.
Frowning and attempting to interject with directions towards the history section, the inexperienced assistant is silenced by an upheld finger – a controlling and autocratic piece of body language. Simultaneously, the already-published author twists the book around to better display it, Smith using the word ‘insignia’ here to describe the publisher’s logo – evoking a chilling wartime atmosphere perhaps.
The customer continues his lecture, being sure to ask only closed questions – thus ensuring control of an encounter which is about to gear up a notch. Smith has her villain invade the girl’s personal space by leaning across the counter, stopping in mid-flow only to exact the required responses. He nods at her, thus requiring a nodding response from her too as she tries to maintain courtesy towards her customer.
Slowly Smith pays out the story, describing how the man stands the book on its end precisely on the counter and how he becomes more animated and enthused with his subject. She singles out the fact that his face is becoming flushed for particular notice. Also chosen for our inspection is the juxtaposition between the man’s vile character and his sickly-sweet coy smile, chillingly boyish - given the information he is about to disclose about the theme of his books. These conspiratorial confidences are metred out deliberately slowly by Ali Smith:
‘... smiling close to my face’
In so doing she has moved the character even further across the counter.
This, together with the shock at his announcement of the subject matter of his books, has our heroine retreating under his subtle onslaught, for the books appear to condone the attempted annihilation of a whole race of people at Hitler’s behest during WW2. Triumphantly he continues with the tirade of his paranoid conspiracy theory until the assistant’s hand hovers over the panic button under the counter. Self-doubt over how she will appear to others prevents her from using it.
Noticing her hesitation, the man she now considers to be a bigot then sharply demands:
‘Are you Jewish?’
When she tries to explain that it is more the fact that she has no authority to order books that concerns her, the man becomes angry – perhaps at being thwarted. He hides his true feelings however, behind a cool smile.
In agonising silence they wait together for the sub-manager to come down, Smith precisely recording the minutiae of the wait:
‘.... looking hard at the old peeling sticker.....giving information on how to process barcodes.’
The irony is that, having joined her young employee behind the counter, it takes the older more experienced assistant just a few seconds to give the man ‘short shrift.’ On hearing the news that the bookshop does not carry ‘books like yours’ he smartly snaps his briefcase shut and leaves the shop – just like that - a prime example of the ‘nipping trouble in the bud’ approach that comes with years of retail experience.
This is precisely the confidence with which Smith endows her heroine at the end of her story – the young assistant gets steadily promoted into a position where she can wield the power to remove customers who offend her – that of Bookshop Manager.