“I Didn’t Mean To Go Anywhere”: Emily Fridlund’s “History of Wolves”

I write this a few hours after seeing Emily Fridlund appear at the Cheltenham Literature Festival’s annual Booker Prize shortlist event. She appeared alongside Fiona Mozley and Ali Smith, and, as the discussion began to shake loose of the rather strict sequence of author interviews preferred by the moderator, Gaby Wood, I began to understand a little better what she had been trying to do with History of Wolves, her rather patchy and unwieldy debut novel.

Next to Mozley, Fridlund’s reading was gentle and supple; where Elmet, the other debut on the shortlist, often strikes for plain and even bluff prose, History of Wolves shoots for that wistfully wise tone many American novels these days adopt, and which some see as an excrescence of all those creative writing courses. “It’s not that I never think about Paul,” her narrator begins, at the start of nearly three hundred pages which revolve around him. “He comes to me occasionally before I’m full awake, though I almost never remember what he said, or what I did or didn’t do to him” [p. 3]. We’re already, of course, in the realm of the unreliable narrator, and History of Wolves indeed gives away its secrets slowly and in a muddle. Most importantly, however, we are reading a story told by an adult who doesn’t yet understand her childhood, and therefore herself.

Fridlund said this afternoon that she wanted to explore in this novel the slipperiness of the roles humans fill. Paul is a young child whose parents engage the narrator, Linda, as a babysitter. She is, in other words, his guardian; but she is also a child, his playmate. Paul’s parents, meanwhile – at first just the mother, Petra, and then also the father, Leo, who joins them at their cabin retreat across the Minnesota lake on which Linda’s family also lives – vacillate between being the care-givers we might expect and something else, powered by their own moral codes and belief systems. Meanwhile, at school, Linda is taught by an off-kilter History teacher, Mr Grierson, who proves to be in possession of child pornography, though he fights not to act further on his paedophiloc urges; Linda resolves to encourage him otherwise, keen to gain his attention at the expense of the class beauty, Lily. For her part, Lily eventually makes erroneous accusations against Grierson which everyone believes. The reader finds their instinctive sympathies sorely tested.

The problem with all this, as may be apparent, is that a lot of only tangentially connected events and characters are deployed throughout History of Wolves in an effort at thematic profundity … but never quite connect. The only thing that links Paul with Mr Grierson is Linda, and though Fridlund attempts, in some slightly vanilla sex scenes I think we are meant to find disturbing, to sketch the damage adult Linda exhibits as a result of all this bearing witness, it’s always a bit too obvious that we’re reading a novel, in which stuff like this must happen in order to make a point.

There’s a moment in Ali Smith’s Autumn in which one of the protagonists reflects that, were she appearing in a novel or a TV series, her next scene and its meaning would be predictable and conform to a set of tropes and conventions. There is a little of this in History of Wolves, even where it considers itself to be upending such cliches. This is a coming of age novel in which the protagonist does not learn – indeed, clings to the misconceptions and passions of her youth with little in the way of regret. Though Paul’s parents fail their child profoundly, and Linda is dragged into the wake of these events, she closes her narrative not with them but with Lily and Mr Grierson:

Even now, when those words move through my mind, like a curse or a wish, I become Lily. To happens just like that. I have to go through all t he preparations for it to work […] But by the time I […] see the look of recognition in [Mr Grierson’s] face […] I’m the one wanted more than anyone else. [p. 275]

Again, that slippage of role and persona – but, also again, that novelistic contrivance, just a little too transparent. Partly, this is a function of often beautiful writing which draws attention to itself – in particular, on the landscape and nascent sexualities – but more often it’s simply the over-insistence of many debut novels, cast into the unfairly harsh light of the Booker shortlist. “Maybe there is a way to climb above everything, some special ladder or insight, some optical vantage point that allows a clear, unobstructed view of things,” Linda ruminates whilst appearing in a novel [p. 150]. “You know what Jung would say?” her dysfunctional boyfriend asks her in the course of her arrested adulthood. “The archetypal Fool is Pet-ah Pan” [p. 171]. I think we get it.

In another such sleight of hand, the novel takes its title from a presentation Linda is asked by Mr Grierson to give at History Odyssey, an inter-school competition in which Linda takes as her topic the lupine record. “Wolves have nothing at all to do with humans,” she explains. “If they can help it, they avoid them” [p. 14]. Linda wins only the Originality Prize, a sort of wooden spoon, but her real tragedy is that she cannot avoid humans – “It was hard to explain how ingrained a habit it was to pretend I understood what was happening in other people’s lives before explanations were offered” [p. 118] – and that in this vexed confraternity she becomes entirely lost. Sadly, and despite the novel’s often deeply evocative scenes or moments, ultimately so too do her readers.


“Still In The Middle of Happening”: Ali Smith’s “Autumn”

Ali Smith has a right to feel aggrieved by the Booker Prize. Her 2014 novel, How to be Both, won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and was shortlisted for the Goldsmith – sign enough that it was a serious work of fiction, and in my estimation it could easily have been a Booker winner, too. It did not, however, make it past the shortlist, strong-armed out of the way by Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which some reviewers liked even less than I did. (“Do I love it?” I asked you back then, rhetorically. “I’m not sure I do. But will the judges? This one’s a dark horse.”)

Her shortlisting this year, then, may be seen as a chance to redress old injustices. Alas, Autumn is some way from being as good as How to be Both. That doesn’t preclude its winning – it would not be the first time that an inferior novel by a superior novelist won the prize. Nevertheless, and no matter how much Smith might deserve the recognition, the Booker should not not become a lifetime achievement award.

But how is Autumn minor Smith? Partly, perhaps, in conception: the novel was rushed out in the wake of last year’s EU referendum in the UK, and features the aftermath of that vote so fully that those who purchased the book on the day of its publication must at some points have been reading on its pages about the near future. As one might expect from a novel of such currency, occasionally it is a little bluntly close to the bone:

It is just over a week since the vote. The bunting in the village where Elisabeth’s mother now lives is up across the High Street for its summer festival, plastic reds and whites and blues against a sky that’s all threats, and though it’s not actually raining right now and the pavements are dry, the wind rattling the plastic triangles against themselves means it sounds all along the High Street like rain is hammering down.

The village is in a sullen state. Elisabeth passes a cottage not far from the bus stop whose front, from the door to across above the window, has been painted over with black paint and the words GO and HOME. [p. 53]

This is the stuff of a hundred op-eds churned out in the wake of the vote. It feels unusually obvious, curiously near-the-knuckle, for Smith, a writer usually characterised by how askance, rather than dead-on, her glance tends to be. When we read that “the power of the lie” is “always seductive to the powerless” [p. 114], it’s not that Smith is wildly off her mark, but that she’s placed it precisely where you’d expect; when “a bunch of thugs” stand in the street and chant, “First we’ll get the gyppos, then the gays” [p. 197], it’s not that Autumn doesn’t sound the sinister themes of our times – but that her readers could hardly have failed already to have heard them.

That said, this baldness isn’t the novel’s whole story. Autumn is the first volume in a seasonal quartet which Smith has been planning for years, and emerges as a meditation on identity. Understandably, having almost finished writing when Brexit came along, Smith felt she couldn’t publish such a novel without including the vote. That said, Brexit unbalances the novel, and cleaves apart its various moving parts, intricacy of the sort in which Smith specialises finding it difficult quickly to incorporate new elements.

Take her central characters, the fixed-term art history lecturer Elisabeth Demand and her centenarian friend, Daniel Gluck. The pair met years before the novel opens, when Daniel was neighbour to Elisabeth and her mother; we see many flashbacks to this and other periods as the novel builds a chronology from which its protagonists make sense of the depth of their connection, which the reader rather parses as elemental as much as anything else. The truth of Autumn, indeed, is that connections to the past are ephemeral, misleading: “memory and responsibility are strangers. They’re foreign to each other” [p. 160]. Autumn is that season which kills off what went before, resets the world around us so it may begin anew. “We have to forget,” Daniel says in his sickbed. “Or we’d never sleep ever again” [p. 210].

On the other hand, without memory how do we make connections? Even Elisabeth, Daniel’s great – indeed, last – friend, struggles to link up her atomised understandings of his life, to reconstruct a full person:

What did he do in his good long life? After the war, I mean.

Elisabeth realizes she has no idea.

He wrote songs, she says. And he helped out a lot with my childhood. [p. 170]

The inability to connect the legends of “the war” with the present, of course, also underpins the novel’s treatment of Brexit. But some of its other isolated points in time – the increasing focus on the feminist pop artist Pauline Boty, and on Catherine Keeler and the Profumo affair – feel less integrated with the whole, difficult to orient around the novel’s centre of gravity. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the inclusion of “the vote” has thrown the novel out of its putative equilibrium: it is such a vivid example of how identity and memory interact, often negatively, that the subtlety of its other, sometimes apparently truncated, sections simply pales in comparison.

This problem is mirrored, too, in the novel’s prose. In a revealing interview in the Guardian, Olivia Laing argues that “the and/and/and of life is what [Smith’s] fiction is so artful at revealing,” and she’s right. The ways in which Autumn strains to contain not just its themes but, most pressingly, their contemporaneity, however, push this approach to an explicit forefront, to the status too of method:

All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people felt they had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. [p. 59]

This stuff goes on for three pages and becomes a motif repeated elsewhere: “Time-lapse of a million billion flowers opening their heads, of a million billion flowers bowing, closing their heads again, of a million billion new flowers opening instead” [p. 123] … and so on. Autumn, as befits the opening instalment of a seasonally-themed series, believes in circularity – “Seems the self you get left with on the shore, in the end, is the self that you were when you went” [p. 4] – but its attempts to embody it in the wake of Brexit are just a little on-the-button. In the novel’s most memorable episode, Smith manages to marry theme, form and politics in the mode of farce: Elisabeth enters a special circle of hell – the Post Office – to apply for a passport, and is trapped in a Möbius strip of bureaucratic demands which never quite resolve (“He writes in a box next to the other Other: HEAD INCORRECT SIZE” [p. 25]). This episode, however, stands alone in its wit.

One of the novel’s many sharp edges, Boty’s collages, make sense as an example of the femininised mosaics of identity the novel erects in opposition to masculine lines of chronology. And yet, beyond the Post Office, nothing quite coheres – even in their juxtapositon, as in a collage. This failure to explain or build may be part of the point of a novel about circularity, and Autumn renders itself as a sort of Brexity self-negation, a book about the present which insists that “it’s deep in our animal nature … [not] to see what’s happening right in front of our eyes” [p. 175]. It is as such one to wrestle with, but perhaps not to garland.


“These Queer Enthusiasms”: Sarah Waters’s “The Paying Guests”

51sqHh5h3PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It is a Very Good Thing that Ali Smith last night won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: here is a British writer interested in serious innovation of form – something not always associated with the prose writers of these isles. That she does so demotically and entertainingly only makes her win all the more deserved. Smith re-energises the novel without making it inaccessible.

There is, of course, a pejorative usage of “accessible”: “a good read” is so often a euphemism for “a bit slight”. The only novel on the prize shortlist I’ve not yet read is Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, but others have already written “defences” of her more traditional style: “the question of whether Tyler’s work errs too heavily on the side of consolation has lingered, despite (or because of) her immense and loyal readership and high-profile fans such as Nick Hornby and John Updike.” In this context, it is interesting that the another of the shortlist’s more traditionalist authors, Sarah Waters, is conversely so widely fêted that the idea anyone might need to speak up on her behalf is absurd.

“Absolutely brilliant,” wrote Jacqueline Wilson of Waters’s novel, The Paying Guests. “Read it, Flaubert, Zola, and weep,” applauds Charlotte Mendelson. “A joy in every respect,” intones Lionel Shriver. And yet Waters writes old-fashioned novels in many ways, with beginnings and ends and gripping plots, which read quickly despite their often vaguely Victorian girth. The Paying Guests is set in 1922, precisely because, Waters has said, her previous novels have focused on squarely on either the nineteenth century or the 1940s. That is, Waters is a British writer producing novels in a third person limited voice and set in eras not entirely under-served in British culture.

So why is she, too, not tarred with the “accessible” brush? In large part, it’s because Waters’s project is far more subversive than her chosen form makes it appear (and this is part of the project): she queers these classic ages of British history, burrowing under her copious research to imagine the stories of marginalised groups, most particularly lesbian women. Even her novel The Little Stranger, which doesn’t feature an actual lesbian couple at all, is a novel about repression: its first-person narrator hides much from the reader, whilst Caroline, the young woman of the crumbling manor house with whom (which which?) he falls in love, is heavily implied to be closeted. That is, Waters writes terrific yarns which present familiar contexts in familar ways – and then peoples those settings with feelings, perspectives and experiences which are under-represented in the record and in fiction.

The Paying Guests, then, is told from the third-person-limited perspective of Frances, a twenty-five year-old woman eking out the disappointed, disappointing years following World War I in the suburban villa she shares with her mother. They are, like the rather grander country gentry of The Little Stranger thirty years later, struggling for money: her father dead, and economics changing, Frances persuades her mother to take in lodgers in order to supplement their meagre income. The couple who answer the advert, the Barbers, are from Peckham and Walworth rather than Champion Hill: vulgar and jejune to Frances and her mother’s eyes, they fill Mr Wray’s old room with dinky little Buddha statues, and share a little too much of themselves for the landladies, who tuck the weekly rent into their pockets “in a negligent sort of way – as if anyone […] could possibly be deceived into thinking that the money was a mere formality.” [p. 11]

Class and deceit come to be the guiding stars of the novel: throughout, Waters paints in understated but terrifically evocative ways the careful gradations of class struggling to reassert themselves in an England disrupted by war. Men resent the women who have taken their jobs; a clerk like Mr Barber looks down on mere manual workers, amongst whose numbers he would once have certainly sat; Mrs Barber’s clothes are a little too flighty; Mrs Wray’s friend from over the road clearly imagines herself one step above poor old struggling Frances. All of this is more or less unspoken, however, and the manner in which no one quite says what they mean comes to power not just the social whirl – from Walworth dances to Champion Hill soirées – which Waters depicts beautifully, but the scurrilous plot that bubbles underneath the surface.

That plot only really takes full hold of the novel in its final third, and yet the reader never feels played with. In part, this is down to, yes, readability: Waters writes so well that 600 pages simply speeds by. It’s also, however, because she peels back the novel’s layers at precisely the right pace. When we first meet Frances, she seems much older than she is, not a little stuck up and certainly rather grey. As we slowly learn that, during the war, she was a violent suffragette and had a romantic relationship with a fellow suburban bohemian, Christine, we are at first surprised; as her sexual repression becomes evident in her uncomfortable responses to Mr Barber’s proximity, we first think the novel might move one way; when her passion for Christine, and her misplaced fear of her mother become clear (when her new lady lodger cuts and crimps her hair in a contemporary style, Frances is shocked that her mother finds it smart), we are quickly plunged into a slow but compelling blossoming of a relationship with Lillian Barber herself.

Lillian is a good example of the novel’s strength in depth: she is in many ways unknowable. Apparently kind and straightforward, throughout the novel we with Frances worry that she may in fact not be all that she seems – that she may be manipulative or foolish, impetuous or selfish. Frances must learn to trust Lillian, as we must – as everyone who wishes to love must – and this process gives the novel a great deal of its shape prior to its final-third crisis. If anything, I rather preferred the involvingly plotless parts of the novel more: everything happens, and is then wrapped up, rather quickly, and the novel takes on the feeling of the 1920s melodramas which first inspired it. At one point, for example, the lawyer for a wrongly accused defendant announces to the court in which we know the true culprit sits, “the person or persons […] must certainly be looking at these proceedings with very mixed feelings indeed.” [p. 581]  Oh, the tension of irony!

What unites all this is a study of the effects of lies. “The rest of us become narrow and mean when we live falsely,” sighs Frances [p. 302], having spent years denying herself – indeed, hiding even the fact that she has maintained a loose friendship with Christine. Frances goes back and forth between having the courage of this conviction and fearing its logical conclusion, and this terribly human inconsistency is, like everything else in this humane and careful novel, delicately depicted. She and Lillian endlessly debate who is braver, but in point of fact they are brave in different ways: Frances can imagine different ways of living, and Lillian, who lacks that capacity for the bigger picture, nevertheless often takes the action which make them possible. What develops between them, then, is a thoroughly believable – because riven with tension – love affair.

Ultimately, superb characterisation of this sort is a laudably old-fashioned virtue for a novel to exhibit. The Paying Guests is rather unfashionable in this respect: compared with Outline it is fervently traditionalist. That, as I was reading the novel, I could see an argument for it pipping How To Be Both to the Baileys post, says many things – as does the universal acclaim for Waters’s skills as a writer and a storyteller. Hers are novels of huge warmth and heart, but also skill and cunning. Smith’s victory is excellent news for the health of the British novel – but that’s because Smith understands, like Waters (who will surely have her year), that accessibility isn’t a dirty word. Read The Paying Guests, and then read it again … and again.


“As Though Context Were Also A Kind of Imprisonment”: Rachel Cusk’s “Outline”

 I’ve already reviewed Ali Smith’s How To Be Both in the context of a different awards shortlist, but its place on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is just as deserved and its chances, it seems to me, are just as strong as for the Booker (which, er, it rather sadly did not win). Rachel Cusk’s Outline, however, gives it a run for its money: it is just as interested in form as Smith’s novel, and at least as supple in its prose. If its first person singular focus doesn’t quite break the perspectival glass ceiling in the way How To Be Both manages, Outline is perhaps more focused and arguably deeper – at least in so far as that can be taken to mean unfathomable.

This difficulty the reader might find in plumbing Outline‘s depths is appropriate for a novel which begins with the narrator taking a flight over water, and includes a lengthy outing on a boat (indeed, the UK paperback edition foregrounds this motif with a blue cover across which ripples proceed outwards from the title). There is an extent to which the word ‘Outline’ represents very well the paring away of context and characterisation from the narrator, a novelist in the aftermath of a marriage breakdown who flies to Greece to teach a creative writing course: Cusk is engaged in a quite radical novelistic project which seeks to render the narrator a cipher, an almost passionless listener who simply imparts the many stories told to her by her various interlocutors (the novel is more or less a series of conversations) without judgement, comment or conclusion. In a typical exchange, an old friend declaims over a lunch served by a waitress he insists on ogling:

And so I learned, he said, that it is impossible to improve things, and that good people are just as responsible for it as bad, and that improvement itself is perhaps a mere personal fantasy […] We are all addicted to it, he said, removing a single mussel from its shell with his trembling fingers and putting it in his mouth, the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality. It has even infected the novel,  though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again, so that we expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books; but this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of. [p. 99]

All of this, of course, is intensely metatextual: in not offering judgement, in providing this opinion unadorned, the reader might usually assume the writer was endorsing the point of view, or at least presenting it as a position to be seriously considered; but Outline is also a novel implicitly seeking to prove the narrator’s old friend wrong, and show how the novel might infect be inoculated against the unbeatable virus he describes; by the same token, the novel ends with the disengaged narrator improved, arriving at the classically novelistic epiphany that “if people were silent about the things that had happened to them, was something not being betrayed, even if only the version of themselves that had experienced them?” [p. 245]  That is, nothing in Outline is straight-forward or final. It is a tessellation of perspectives, none crowding out the others.

“Without structure,” muses another of the narrators companions, this one a man she meets on the aeroplane to Athens, “events are unreal.” [p. 24]  He is talking about the curious ways in which he finds each of his series of failed marriages evaporates when the habits that held them together – shared houses, regular conversations – are taken away. But it goes just as much for the ghost-like way in which the narrator drifts through the lives of others, reporting their words and imparting their lives but not becoming part of them and refusing to allow one to dominate her world.  Unlike many novelistic narrators, endlessly and unrealistically curious and prying, this one is tired of being intimately connected with others – she is exhausted by it. At one point, she sits on the edge of a boat and contemplates the sea. “The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity,” she muses of her mooted swim. “Yet this impulse, this desire to be free, was still compelling to me: I still, somehow, believed in it, despite having proved that everything about it was illusory.” [p. 74]  There’s despair in that.

Now, look. Cusk has her weaknesses, and they are well discussed; a sort of humourlessness, a tendency to over-dramatise. And you might argue that, in depicting someone looking at the Aegean and musing about the impossibility of disconnect, Cusk again falls into the trap she habitually sets herself. There’s a lot of that in Outline. But it’s a too-easy criticism of an intelligent writer (particularly an intelligent female writer) to say she lacks jokes. Even if, to reprise the comparison with Smith, How To Be Both manages to be both serious and playful, it is not to Outline‘s discredit that it chooses a different tone. Indeed, the at times exhausting effort of reading a novel in which the narrator does not care is part of its point: here is a novel, perhaps, about depression; and here, too, is also a novel, undoubtedly, about the novel. That is, it is serious becomes its questions are existential.

When the narrator first meets her students, she asks each of them to describe something they observed on the way to the class. This results in a series of personalised exchanges – all described in that same, detached way – which provide an awful lot of fictive matter, but which do not read like fiction:

“This morning” he said, “I was crossing the square opposite my apartment building, on my way to the metro, and I saw on one of the low concrete walls around the square a woman’s handbag. […] But I realised, while I was walking, that I should have taken the bag to a police station.” [p. 135]

That ellipsis of mine omits an entire page of further discourse, and yet the story remains the same: it’s a structure and a narrative, but one without consolation. In part, this is pure distilled Knausgaard (“there is no story of life” [p. 137]), and Cusk knows it. On another level, however, it is Cuskian, at least in so far as it speaks to Outline‘s central experiment: at the end of the class, one student stands up and complains. “She had been told that this was a class about learning to write, something that as far as she was aware involved using your imagination.” [p. 158] Like many of Cusk’s readers (and, you assume she hopes, you yourself), the narrator’s student feels she has been punked: by autobiography, by the absence of the traditional consolations of narrative, by the sheer po-facedness of the whole enterprise.  In fact, you might imagine a smile on Cusks’ face as she wrote this paragraph. You might imagine it’s a joke.

At the end of the novel, a tutor arriving just as the narrator is leaving describes her own failed relationship: “she had become, through him, someone else.” [p. 237] Perhaps tellingly, by this point the narrator has severed her developing ties with the man from the plane, who has so abandoned the idea of the lasting effects of relationships. In transparent, sometimes glacial, prose, Outline has contrived to go on a journey without appearing to move at all. What Outline does is demonstrate, through a narrator without a perspective, how points of view can shift almost totally and yet almost invisibly, and how they do so in interaction with others. Though it at times presents as an anti-novel, it is in fact a champion of the form, finding a startlingly new way to demonstrate its continuing power to depict and, yes, (over-) dramatise human interaction.


“I Am A Different Person”: Ali Smith’s “How To Be Both”

Smith-How to be bothjpg“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]