Wednesday, 1 March 2017

How To Be Both by Ali Smith

It's a title that begs a question - how to be both what and what? And the answer, as befits good experimental literary fiction, is more than one thing. How to be both alive and dead. Male and female. Grieving and laughing. In the world and apart from it. Subversive and conventional.

What is best known about this book, perhaps, is the gimmick, and gimmicks always have to work to win me over. In this case, it's that there are two sections of the book, and when bound, half the copies have one first, and the other half have the other first. When we met in my book club last week, it was good to hear that we hadn't all read it the same way, so we could get a little bit of insight into how reading one before the other might change the interpretation or experience.

For me, the section with the Renaissance painter, a woman who dressed as a man to be able to pursue her passion for art (as opposed to, as far as we now, any deep-seated identification with maleness), came first, and it happens both before and after the second section, about a young woman in the present day grappling with the loss of her mother.

The ghost of the painter (perhaps? She doesn't remember dying.) follows George, the young woman, around, and after having read George's section, I could identify that part of when she follows George occurs after the narrative at which George is the centre. I realize this is a bit confusing, and if you need all the answers to be satisfied, this is probably not the book for you.

Which you know Ali Smith knows and is playing with deliberately, from a small conversation in the book about the meaning of the word mystery, both historically and in a literary sense, and how it has moved from denoting something unsolvable and ineffable, to something that must be answered and wrapped up by the time you shut the book. If this book is a mystery, it's not in the sense of ferreting out the solution. It's more about living in the moment in which you find yourself, even when that moment is painful and full of loss.

One book club member said that she'd heard a podcast where everyone there had read George's section first, and probably because of that, they'd come up with quite a different interpretation of the painter's section, one that I can see how you might get there if you read George's first. However, when Francesco's section is first, and to some degree, defined for me the viewpoint and narrative centre of the novel, it's hard to believe. (I also have a small piece of evidence, speaking of ferreting out the truth, as to why Francesco's section is not written by George for a school assignment.)

It's funny that I look for truth that way, when the book is decidedly avoiding definitive answers.

It's also a book about fine details in art getting lost without time and attention paid. To some degree, it seems to be about how attention imbues meaning. In fiction, these can be gleaned both from what the writer writes, and what the reader brings with them to the story. Reading is a collaborative act, and what I get from a book may not be quite the same as what the person beside me does. It's likely there will be similarities, as the writer is certainly more than half the conversation, but my frame of reference will shape how every word affects me.

This book lays that subjectivity a little more bare than usual, and so, in the end, I think the gimmick works. It works because I could have read this without knowing about it, and still enjoyed the book. But knowing it gave me a sense of almost Brechtian distance, as, particularly in the second half of the book, I read with half an eye to trying to spot how I might have read it differently.

It's not a book I'd say I loved. But it was challenging in very good ways, and definitely worth a read. I'm particularly glad it was one I got to discuss with others.

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