“Which way around is the Ali Smith you got?” I was asked on Twitter when I announced my purchase of How To Be Both (I do this a lot: look out in the near future for tweets heralding my acquisition of a bunch of bananas, a new key fob, and a small pony). There are few writers working in literary fiction today more clearly associated with the kind of amicable experimentalism that occasions questions of this sort than Ali Smith. In her latest novel’s case, its two parts are interchangeable, and editions have been printed with one or the other coming first; how the reader experiences the novel, then, will depend – if they are ignorant of the choice or willing to get into the spirit of things – on chance. There is, in a more literal fashion than the usual, more than one way to read this novel.
How you respond to this sort of structural playfulness depends very much upon your characteristics as a reader. That response is further complicated in Smith’s case by her showily undemonstrative prose: even when, as in The Accidental, her text is in fact oblique and fragmented, Smith works hard to make it appear unthreatening. There is none of the obvious prosodic wanderings of a Will Self or a Nicola Barker; Smith’s interest is in structure rather than style. One function of style, however, is the way in which it cues the reader to expect difficulty. In Smith, the reader is very often sucker-punched. The Accidental begins as a fairly straightforward bourgeois-in-peril novel, but, almost imperceptibly, the off-key notes begin to proliferate into structural atonality, the novel’s various voices collapsing into each other.
It’s hard not to forgive those readers and reviewers who bounce off Smith, then. Reader, I have been one.What’s interesting about How To Be Both, though, is that in one of its two printed configurations it puts its more classically ‘difficult’ part first, reversing the trick of The Accidental. My own copy, however, features not the time-slipping Renaissance painter known as Francesco del Cossa, but a twenty-first-century teenager named Georgia – or, as she prefers, George. George’s voice is contemporary and conversational, and despite her grammatical pedantry – “You won’t say that when you see them shooting so beautiful over your head,” George’s mother admonishes her daughter’s cynicism about meteors, receiving only the reply, “Fully” [pg. 16] – she is engaging and rather charming company.
George is also, however, in mourning. Her mother, despite being a primary presence in the narrative, is already dead as George’s section opens, and much of her story is essentially about coming to terms with this absence. George has a gift for storytelling, and to this end she comes to doodle elaborate marginalia around the facts of her mother’s foreshortened life. An economist, George’s mother was also a guerilla digital artist, creating and distributing subversive political cartoons across the internet. In this way, George comes to be convinced that her mother was under surveillance by the British state, and that her death was probably something other than the random act of pointless and impersonal cruelty it appears on the surface to be.
“People like things not to be too meaningful,” George harrumphs early on [pg. 5], and she almost aggressively eschews this easy satisfaction. George’s therapist, despite an incredulity about the spy theory, tells George that “we live in a time and a culture where mystery tends to mean something more answerable” [pg. 72], and How To Be Both emerges as a sort of antidote to that reductive turn. When George and her mother visit Italy to view the latter’s favourite artwork, a frieze by del Cossa, George is struck by how “everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind that, and again behind that, like you can see, in perspective, for miles.” [pg. 53]
This form of seeing – of watching, perhaps – is at the core of the novel. George’s mother has a theory that technology has put people in the Western world at one remove from themselves, and there is a sense in Smith’s structural play that she thinks the novel, too, has become too mired in capturing a character – and, in so doing, inevitably flattening what in reality would be a contradictory, fragmented self. Her straightforward prose is the surface, and the unusual shapes beneath it deliberately catch us out, asking the reader to question their assumptions. When George’s mother begins a sort-of-affair with an artist she meets, the artist, too, emerges as an uncertain character: like George’s mother, she has a hinterland, a well of experience and insight that seems in some way out of reach. George, of course, assumes the artist is a spy; her mother simply likes the way she makes her feel. “The being watched,” she semi-explains. “It makes life very, well I don’t know. Pert.” [pg. 123]
How the observer understands the observed – and how the subject, if at all, affects the object – is the novel’s main question. (The novel’s two parts each begin with a glyph: a CCTV camera and two eyes sprouting from a shared stem.) When George sits in a museum looking at a painting by del Cossa, she is in turn being looked at by the ghost of the painter: “the best thing about a turned back,” it says a few paragraphs into its own half of the novel, “is the face you can’t see stays a secret” [pg. 191]. Del Cossa assumes that George is a boy – there are no signifiers of gender about her that the painter can recognise – and this impression is confirmed by the way George reacts, in the museum, to the approach of the woman she knows was once her mother’s lover. “Boy in love?” the ghost ponders. “The old stories never change.” [pg. 223] They do, of course: if nothing else, we learn in contradiction to the interpretation plaque in the museum, del Cossa was in life a woman, breasts bound and sex life secret, encouraged by her widowed father to act the male in order to make the most of her talent for paint.
In so doing, del Cossa learns how to render “things far away and close [so they] could be held together, in the same picture” [pg. 219]; this, of course, is also Ali Smith’s project, demonstrating in her novel that everything is connected, but never simply. The power of properly capturing every aspect of a person or an object is most clearly seen in the sketches del Cossa makes of the prostitutes a friend insists she visit: they have such subtlety, and capture the women so fully, that the brothel’s Madam begins to experience trouble. “They look at your pictures,” she tells del Cossa. “They get airs and graces. They come to my rooms and they ask me for more of a cut. Or they look at your pictures. They get all prowessy. They decide to choose a different life. And all the ones who’ve gone have left through the front door, unprecedented in this house which has never seen girls go by anything but the back.” [pg. 275] Later, del Cossa will paint the Graces with the features and fashionable hair-dos of these women.
Or will ‘he’? There is a very real possibility held out by the text that the del Cossa we meet in either the first or second part of ‘our’ novel is a construct that features in the school homework of George, whom we meet in the first or second part of ‘our’ novel. George is interested in the absence of female painters during the Renaissance and, conveniently, her mother’s favourite artist turns out to be one; the painter also loses her mother at a young age, and the schoolgirl watches pornography in order to give witness to the degradations imposed upon sex workers; most pertinently given Smith’s careful prose, del Cossa’s catchphrase is the distinctly twenty-first-century formulation ‘just saying’, and shortens ‘because to ’cause’ as a matter of habit. This secret – this mystery – is left unresolved, as is the identity of the artist-lover. “Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were, not even we ourselves,” remarks del Cossa, encapsulating the understanding which powers Smith’s Cubist kind of novel.
“I’m so, so sick of what stories are meant to mean,” George sighs to her therapist towards the end of her narrative [pg. 179]. How To Be Both, titled as it is appropriately, does not distil itself down to an essence, refuses to solve or summarise its characters. It isn’t perfect: del Cossa’s voice feels a bit less rounded than George’s, and some of the stuff about the digital aspects of modern life are dicey (there’s a lot of malarkey with del Cossa calling iPads “votive tablets”); but these are tiny quibbles in a novel which delivers on quite intricate levels. It might be Smith’s best book, and it will be hard to beat for the Booker, because it makes a powerful argument both for what a novel should be and how it can be that: “it’s a picture, which means the flowers can’t die.” [pg. 347]