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Pay Attention

Lia Mills

How to be both, Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, 372pp, €14.99, ISBN: 978-0241146828

Reading Ali Smith can be a bit like jumping onto a moving train: it might take a page or two to find your feet. Her savvy, smart characters strike verbal sparks off each other. Time creases, folds back on itself. You’re on shifting ground. Suddenly you find the story’s centre of gravity, give yourself up to its rhythms and let it carry you away.

The version of How to be both that I read was like that. I say version because the structure of this novel differs depending on which edition you read. The novel has two parts, both called “One”. One part tells the story of George, a twenty-first century teenager living in Cambridge (England), whose mother has recently died. In the other, the consciousness of a fifteenth century Italian painter is drawn upwards and outwards from the underworld to observe George living through her grief – yes, George is a girl. Half the print run of the novel was issued with the fifteenth century story told first, leading into the present day. The other half was printed the other way around, opening in Cambridge in the present. So the novel has two possible starting points, two possible endings. Both versions cover the same ground but the order of telling/revelation is different. The echoes, parallels and reflections are the same but, in true through-the-looking-glass fashion, their polarity is reversed.

Ali Smith often tests and disrupts our notions of time, language, gender and social and narrative expectation. She plays with structure and multiple voices. There but for the (2011) is written in four parts, entitled “There”, “but”, “for” and “the”. Each section begins mid-sentence, the section title being the first word: “There was once ...”; “But would a man ...” and so on. The Accidental (2005) has three parts: “The beginning”, “The middle” and “The end”. Each of the main characters is given their own space, within each part, to tell their story.

These devices are a playful nod to the reader across the lines – they invite us to share the joke – but they don’t tease the way the splitting and splicing of the story does in How to be both. Its variable sequence doesn’t interfere with reading the novel – which has its own intense and uninterruptible pleasures – but questions linger afterwards: all those plants, the hints, the payoffs – would they work as well if I’d read the novel the other way around? My inner editor thinks that the version I read, opening in twenty-first century Cambridge, is stronger – but how do I know that’s not because that’s how the story first unfolded for me?

If I was being anal about it, I would say that the cleverness of this mind-bending structure undermines the title because, although both possibilities exist, the reader’s experience is singular. But Smith’s exploration of the possibilities is so exuberant, enjoyable and assured it would be ungenerous to be so picky. Besides, she’s done us all a favour by challenging a cherished convention of the novel as a form. It’s risky but refreshing, like cracking open a window that’s been painted shut for years. It’s no harm to shake things up, especially in a time of crisis for the novel, which is where everyone says we are.

Smith’s most recent book before this novel was Artful, a scholarly and entertaining meditation on literature based on four lectures delivered in Oxford in 2012. Artful blends reflections on a wide range of cultural sources with the voice of a fictional narrator grieving the death of a lover. The joke – this is Ali Smith, so there will be a joke – is that the bereaved “I” character is visited by the ghost of “you”, whose death interrupted the process of writing a series – this series – of lectures. The “I” in the book has plenty to say about the notes “you” left behind, blending fictional memories with argument and illumination – effectively completing the lectures – in an atmosphere of lively discussion. Many of the themes, elements and images here are taken up and given fictional form in How to be both.

Smith’s stories often feature wild-card characters whose unexpected and usually inexplicable actions disrupt the previously stable but often stagnant, unhappy worlds of the other characters. The arrival of such a character initiates the story (Amber in The Accidental, Miles in There but for the). This novel hinges on a disruptive impulse too but this time it’s a mother (Carol), at the heart of an engaged and lively family, who is the trickster and the world is changed by her departure. Carol initiates the skite that is the link between the novel’s two narratives. Struck by the power of an image in an art magazine, she takes her children out of school to go to Italy and look at Francesco del Cossa’s frescoes in the Salone dei Mesi (Room of the Months) at the Villa Ferrara. Six months later, when George’s story opens, Carol is dead. Her children’s intelligent, sheltered background has ripped like a canvas, tumbling them out into a cold reality. Their father is useless, going off to get drunk at every opportunity. This is barely an issue. Nathan is not a bad person. He’ll come back to responsible fatherhood when he can, but in the meantime he is largely absent and George and her little brother Henry have to get on with things on their own. Haunted by the memory of their Italian journey, George revisits it obsessively. Her mother is so present in the memory but so very absent in the present: how can she be both?

That journey is the novel’s link between present-day Cambridge and Renaissance Italy and between the characters, alive and dead. In an effort to hold on to her mother, George mitches from school to visit the National Gallery, where she spends hours looking at del Cossa’s painting of St Vincent Ferrer. She sees how other people swarm through and around the rooms of the gallery, their eyes flitting from this painting to that, hurrying on. She decides to track the numbers and the average length of time a person spends looking at, as opposed to skimming, this one painting, which is alive to her, and rich, and deep although “it’s not what you’d call an immediately prepossessing picture”. The depth and quality of her attention to the painting is a mechanism which releases the spirit of the artist from the clutches of time, space, death. George’s section of the novel ends with her attention to the painting. Francescho’s opens as he emerges in a birth-like journey from the underworld to observe and follow George in hers.

Francesco del Cossa was a real renaissance artist. Ali Smith has imagined a compelling and credible life based on the few known facts, with a twist. Smith’s character, Francescho (the spelling is different), is secretly a woman, whose original girl-name we are never told. The girl’s father recognises that she has a better chance of getting decent training as an artist and earning her living if she goes about the business as a boy. Francescho never questions or regrets the subterfuge because s/he is consumed by a passion for art and her sexual preference is for women. She pays the prostitutes she loves with drawings of themselves and they keep her secret. Francescho’s is (literally) the story of an emerging artist, the story of a particular art work, and a story of art. Smith gifts us with insights into the craft of painting, the making and use of colour, the background to the commission to paint the frescoes and the conditions under which the work was done.

When George looks at the frescoes in the Salone dei Mesi, we see them with twenty-first century eyes and learn what has happened to them since they were rediscovered underneath a layer of whitewash. The technique and craft behind the frescoes – described as a skin for the wall – are fertile ground for questions about art and time and how we perceive the world we live in. If Francescho’s story is primarily about how things are made, George’s story has far more to do with perception, looking and seeing. Her description of the frescoes, and later of del Cossa’s St Vincent, is rich, immediate and textured, even painterly. It invites the reader to slow down, to take in and savour what’s being revealed, detail by detail.

George’s relationship with her mother is sparky and clever: the dialogue Smith gives to parents and children can have the uncomfortable effect of making a reader acutely aware of her own inadequacies as a parent. Carol challenges George to stay awake in the world, to defend her arguments, reach further, think harder. George responds well. She rises to the level her mother demands and sometimes outsmarts her. “Good,” Carol says at one point in a conversation. “Go on.” She could be Ali Smith herself urging us to go on, to go deeper and further, to take this all the way – she’s seducing us, as the best writing does.

Sometimes their roles seem reversed: it’s the mother who teases with pesky questions and plays with ideas, while George persists in trying to pin her down to definitions. In this remembered scene they spar a little:

Past or present? George says. Male or female? It can’t be both. It must be one or the other.
Who says? Why must it? Her mother says. (...) Do either of those things matter?
I just don’t get why you won’t commit, ever, George says.

Carol tells George that the only reason we know Francesco del Cossa ever existed is that he wrote a letter asking for better pay and the letter survived: “he asked for more” – like Oliver Twist, as George points out. Smith’s character Francescho similarly refuses to settle for less as a girl in a man’s world, disguising herself to enter that world on equal terms. In the memory that keeps Carol present in the novel and in George’s mind, she urges her daughter to expect more from her own thinking and from her life, just as Smith does for the reader. Paying close attention yields more – from life as well as art.

The nature of Carol’s work is never fully specified, although we know it’s academic and interesting. She writes, she understands economics and finance, she knows a lot about art. She’s an original member of a guerrilla group which plants subverts online (subverts undermine advertising, either by mimicry or by dismantling an advertisement to throw an ironic light on the commercial drive behind it). Carol believes she is being monitored by state agencies because of this subversive activity. George believes it too. Her father dismisses the idea but George’s friend H (Helena) says it’s more likely that Carol was being “minotaured”. She’s not being dismissive. “It’s not like we live in a world where the police, say, would ever minotaur the people whose son’s murder they were supposed to be investigating, or the press would minotaur famous people or even dead people to make money out of them … It’s not like the government would minotaur us. I mean, not our government … they’d never do it to ordinary people, say through their emails or mobiles, or through the games they play on their mobiles. And it’s not like the shops we buy things from do it to us either, is it, every time we buy something. You’re insane.”

A preoccupation with surveillance is familiar territory to Smith’s readers. Here, it sheds a nicely ironic light on Francescho’s narrative. His position in relation to George mirrors that of a reader in relation to both of them. He reads her as we read both of them and in the end we are given back to ourselves slightly changed.

George’s patience in the gallery is rewarded when a mysterious friend of her mother’s appears, the only person apart from George to give the del Cossa St Vincent more than a cursory glance. George follows the woman home and watches her as obsessively as she previously studied the painting. Francescho draws his own conclusions about what she is doing. His anachronistic attempts to understand some of what he sees offer plenty of scope for wit ‑ and Ali Smith has wit to spare.

This is a twenty-first century story and Smith has no fear of technology so we also have Google translate, ipads, earbuds and playlists, video games and internet porn, photobombs, smartphones and a proliferation of competing static and kinetic images. Here’s an example: George watches a documentary about the Flying Scotsman, “a train from the past”, on TV but she missed the beginning, so she simultaneously watches catchup on her laptop. “On one screen the train has just broken the hundred-mile-an-hour record. On the other screen the train has just been superseded by cars. At the same time George is looking up photobombs on her phone.” This split in time and sequence of events echoes George’s stop-start-freeze-frame-rewind telling of her own story.

Time and its telling are a key problem and structuring element of fiction – and of language. In the world, in life, and in paintings, any number of things can happen simultaneously, but they can only be intelligibly written about, read or heard in sequence. In Artful, Smith complains: “the main problem with writing anything at all is that it’s inevitably always linear – one word after another”. Inevitably and always are not concepts we expect from this writer and she doesn’t waste much time with them. In the structure of How to be both she immediately sets about undermining her own statement, while George’s nerdy preoccupation with grammar, accuracy and shifts in tense destabilise – and emphasise – time and narrative sequence in the novel. This is just one example of the many elements of Artful that are picked up and carried on by How to be both. Another is the framing device of a tattered copy of Oliver Twist in Artful, its significance explicit in the title. There are many plays on the idea of the twist – including the actual dance – in How to be both. In both books, Smith makes a strong case for the slow appreciation of art. Here’s Francescho, on painting:

It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even an imagined or a gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.

For painter substitute writer and/or attentive reader. On one level this novel is about painting, but it’s equally about writing and/or reading. I could tear up this entire review and start again to say: this novel is about art and language, the making of art and the understanding of art, inseparable from the making and understanding of life and the world it’s lived in, with language a living current that flows between them. It’s about attention and engagement and how to stay awake in the world and in life, which will be over sooner than we think.

George watches porn on her phone – not out of prurience but as a witness to what is happening to the very young girl on her screen. She’s aware that the onscreen girl is a real person, that what happens to her is very real. “The film of the girl is forty-five minutes long, and she can’t usually bear to make herself watch more than five of those terrible minutes.” Her brain is changed by what she sees, so that the image of that girl haunts every film and TV show, every YouTube video, pop-up and advert on Facebook she sees, even under “the facts about the history of the suffragettes on the BBC site” she looks up for school.

She’s probably right about the rewiring of her brain. In a world of proliferating technologies and claims for our attention, ways of reading change and fracture. When we are constantly pulled towards competing onscreen headlines, sidebar images, ads that are not as random as they should be; when the shapes of text are plural and shifting so that the eye skitters along the surface; when info screens draw the eye up and down as well as side-to-side in search of the listing we want, changes are surely happening in every brain. With new pathways being forged, new ways of thinking are bound to follow.

Maybe this is all part of an inevitable social evolution, but it would be a shame to think that our ability to stay with a sentence from beginning to end, to develop a thought or work an idea through to the point of articulation is being undermined by the way language is changing. Yes, language is alive and needs to change, grow, develop – but what if it’s contracting? Ali Smith sets the pleasures of slow art, word play, critical thinking against this very tendency. A good novel like this one holds our attention. Like a magnet, it draws us in to the world behind the lines. When you put it aside, it stays with you, a fresh lens to your eye as you go about your daily business.

In the final lines of Artful, Smith’s narrator asks:

Who did I think I was talking to?
You.

Her last word reaches out to us from behind the text, making the page porous as skin, as the frescoes are a skin for the walls of the Villa Ferrara in How to be both. Stories are most permeable when they are opening or closing, or on the thresholds between sections along the way. Depending on the order in which they’re read, the break between parts in How to be both happens either when Francescho emerges from an underworld that is outside time or as he returns to it, a time that is both before and after. The membranous page, the reflective structure, suggest Alice and the Looking-Glass, of which Margaret Atwood (quoted in Artful) writes: “The act of writing takes place at the moment when Alice passes through the mirror. At this one instant, the glass barrier between the doubles dissolves, and Alice is neither here nor there, neither art nor life, neither the one thing nor the other, though at the same time she is all of these at once. At that moment time itself stops, and also stretches out, and both reader and writer have all the time in the world.”

A writer whose sense of narrative veers towards the discontinuous, Ali Smith often seem to pick up themes and images where previous work left off. They share ideas, but do different things with them. The links between Artful and How to be both are particularly strong: bereavement and a dusty ghost; discussions of art, time and form; a pastiche of quotes and cultural references; gender disruption; word play; the value of attention and close reading.

 A passing reference in Artful to the fact that Dickens wrote Oliver Twist serially, not always knowing which elements he would return to and develop as the novel progressed, raises the intriguing prospect that Smith is engaged in a similar venture. Don’t be surprised if, years and several books from now, it transpires that each of those books are instalments in some larger work that has yet to be fully imagined or defined and that Ali Smith is making it up as she goes along.

1/3/2015

Lia Mills writes novels, short stories, essays and the occasional blog (at http://libranwriter.wordpress.com ). Her latest novel, Fallen, is published by Penguin. She teaches aspects of writing, most recently at the Irish Writers’ Centre and at UCD

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