November 2014

Betty Scott

fiction

How to be both by Ali Smith

Ali Smith's How to be both celebrates the gift of surprise. Not only its characters but the reader also enjoys the pleasures of the unexpected, and the first surprise you'll encounter is that the book is in two halves -- "Eyes" and "Camera" -- but not all copies have the same half presented first. When buying the book or checking it out from a library, you might grab one that begins with "Eyes" and then proceeds to "Camera," or vice versa. Smith wrote the novel with the intention that the events of the story can be understood in either order, but my copy had "Eyes" first, and when read this way, the novel also begins with a surprise.

This section of the novel is told from the perspective of a dead Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, and weaves between recollections of the artist's life and observations of a young woman in 2014. Its first few pages read like poetry, its sentences chopped into rushing stanzas and flowing across the page before slowing and solidifying into paragraphs that, while still poetic, are better classified as prose.

Right away, you see that Smith sets forth here to work a little magic, rendering duality into the singular. Is it a poem or a novel? It's both. Even still, the book differs greatly from other works attempting this -- nowhere does it call to mind Ann Carson's Autobiography of Red or James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover. The content of this writing, too, explores this theme of, literally, "how to be both," forging unity from dichotomy. Characters can be at once male and female. The dead can bear witness, recall memories, and learn. Most of all, the two distinct sections are somehow about both main characters, the painter and the young woman narratives overlapping, interweaving, and seeping through each other. Even though the book's title could be a spoiler, I found myself smiling again and again, caught unawares by how well and how beautifully Smith ties together so many seemingly disparate elements. How do you use the song "Wrecking Ball" to make a statement about sexism in STEM fields? I don't know, but Ali Smith does.

Longtime fans of Smith will find her latest effort quite different from her last book, Artful, but still full of the things that seem to be trademark Ali Smith at this point in her career. The past and present are connected through an Internet search, themes of death and memory are explored, pop culture and high art swirl together, and careful research allows the line between fiction and history to blur. There's also a creeping sense of uncertainty when you finish (one half suggests the other may not be what you think) and, of course, Smith's clever wordplay throughout. Also, you will almost surely learn something.

Best of all, How to be both is a book that inserts itself into your life for quite a while after you're done reading. In particular, observations about technology that would seem trite platitudes elsewhere are striking in the mouths of her characters. "You are a migrant of your own existence," the young woman's mother says when she catches her daughter multi-screening. Close your laptop, switch off the TV, put away your smartphone, and lose yourself in this book before you find yourself, as one character does, asking, "What about the things we watch happening right in front of us and still can't really see?" and regretting all your lost chances to look.

How to be both by Ali Smith
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0375424106
384 pages