Ali Smith’s How to be Both is an artist’s palette of clever and intuitive intermingling of multiple subject matters, the synthesis of it so subtle, it can almost go unnoticed by an unsuspecting reader over the distraction of the more obvious philosophical cavorting all over the pages.
Everything Ali Smith does is deliberate and so is her choice to use a gender-neutral form of her name – a badge she heroically proffers her protagonists too. One thing is evident – Ali Smith has a point to make. Or points.
The motifs seem almost predictable at this point – gender exchangeability, sexual ambivalence, an attempt at portraying Germaine Greer’s (author of the Obstacle Race, 1979) stand on the misattribution of female works of art in history (to men). Apart from that, words and sentences are constructed in the least conventional manner; it is almost innovative, for you will recognize literary approaches from other authors (Tolstoy and Woolf come to mind) but what she achieves in bending of the readers’ grasp of temporal reality and duplexity of events and feelings in a largely stream-of-consciousness narrative weaving in and out of analepsis is praise-worthy. Evidently, she loves to play with her readers, trying to catch them out in their sub-conscious “follies,” like presuming that either of the protagonists are male whilst leaving them to wonder if they ARE indeed male which seems all too deliberate for me to have cared much for it. Or so I would have thought if that wasn’t the point of the book – allegorical non-abridgement of the titular concern – how to be both, male and female, happy and sad, real and fantasised, now and before.
But what is the book about you ask? The book is about art; it’s about death and grief and what is important in life with art at it’s heart – because how else do you begin answering these complex questions without the ambiguity and infiniteness of art? It is about George, a teenage girl who loses her mother, a woman with seemingly leftist philosophies and arty vagueness, about precocious young George before this loss and after. It is about the piece of art that George’s mother seemed to particularly love, a sentiment George scoffed at and openly mocked like she did for most things her mother had to say. It is about the painter of that piece of art about whom nothing is known; it is about Francesco who is man and girl and who loses her mother too. It is about the painter Francesco whose spirit is pulled from the 15th century to the 21st century to watch young George confront her mother’s death from a wall, definitely a wall – but a bad wall of a white-haired lady with an unelegant gait– and a good wall of paper and friendship.
“So would you recommend I read it?” My friend asks me and for the first time, I am hesitant to give a straight answer. This book seemed a lot like a personal experiment by Ali Smith, she sought to break rules and create an art that she can proudly call her own, making it as accessible as a reader would like it to be, as daunting or as straight-forward. It is a piece of art that some would choose to skip past, some to spend a few moments looking over and moving on to the next one and some to stand still before it and observe for an extended period in hopes of serendipitous discovery or out of sheer amazement. Finding myself between hungrily lapping up a few pages and irritatedly flipping through some others, I stand precariously between the second and third – precarious at least for the purpose of giving an accountable review of this book. Whatever your approach might be, know that this is a mood reading. Feel adventurous and got time to spare? Read it.