How to Be Both
(Pantheon)We were quite intrigued by Smith's previous novel, There but for the . . . which came out in the spring of 2012. We wrote,
I think we can safely call Ali Smith, in vernacular of the times, a crack-up. After all, who would feature as the hero of a book a man who goes for dinner in a house where he knows practically no one and, in the middle of the meal, heads upstairs, locks himself in the guest room, and doesn't come out for weeks.
Smith captured the reader using the funny, irreverent Brooke, all of ten years old, who would not stop her philosophy, and thoughts, and puns and jokes. She is addicted to frogs, even the Saint of Frogs,
the martyr St. Alfege who got stuck off in a prison filled with frogs. When asked what the frogs are saying, she replies, "They are talking in their own frog language, about the weather, and how difficult it is to have frog-spawn, and what an interesting experience it is to grow legs when you start off without any, and how nice and damp it is in the cell and how glad they are that they're there, although they are sorry for him, because he is clapped in irons and not a frog like them, and they answer his philosophical questions with their croaking."
In this newest novel, the irreverence is represented by George --- a sixteen-year-old genius, living in Cambridge --- who is forever correcting her therapist's language, argues with her about minotaurs and mazes, muses on the difference between "maze" and "amaze," and is familiar with the concept of DNA as outlined by Crick and Wilson (she even mentions Rosalind Franklin, the woman who laid the groundwork for X-Ray refraction).
In How to Be Both, George pits her elegant child's wit against not only her psychologist, Mrs. Rock, but against her mother, a most memorable and funny ex-hippy, who can argue with her daughter about minotaurs, and adjectives, and adverbs (George is a stickler for proper English) but as well, fight with her over lyrics of the Pet Shop Boys, They were never being boring, she sings. They dressed up in thoughts, and thoughts make amends. "Thoughts make amends. It ought to be a figure of speech. If I had a shield, that's what I would want it to say in Latin on it, that's my motto."
§ § §
Though this newest title is quite a bit different than the earlier one, it does underscore Smith's habit of naming her books with half-eaten phrases. There but for the . . . The what? And what does How to be both mean, exactly? All I could think of was that old koan that my older sisters used to present me with. Their question was, "What's the difference between a duck?" I --- ten-year-old literal-minded me --- would say, "What's the difference between a duck and what?" One of them would repeat, "What's the difference between a duck?" and I would say, "I give up," and she'd say, "One leg is the same." Give that to a student at the Parinirvana Stupa.
For the first 180 pages, of How to Be Both. we are back in 15th Century Italy with a relatively obscure artist by the name of Francescho del Cossso. Don't try to look him up on Google. You'll find "The page 'Francescho del Cosso' does not exist. You can ask for it to be created." Great. Not only do we have a book devoted to an artist from 500 years ago who may or may not have ever happened, we are offered a chance to create him, to fill the blank that has always been there . . . at least until Ali Smith appeared on the scene. (Some reviewers have claimed that del Cosso does exist, but Google hasn't discovered him yet. So he doesn't exist, right?)
He is George's mother's favorite artist, so much so that she arranges for the three of them --- mother, daughter, and brother Henry (age eight) --- to fly to Italy to see one of his huge frescos, "half the room is covered in it."
"The other half is faded picture, or no picture. What there is, though, is so full of life happening that it's actually like life." But who knows?
As you can now have gathered, How to Be Both is an odd duck. In fact, duck does appear here, presumably with both legs intact, in Cosso's fresco,
There's a man with his fist around the neck of a duck. The duck looks really surprised, like it's saying what the f-. Above the duck's head there's another bird just sitting there completely free. It's sitting next to the man and it's watching him throttling the duck as if it is quite interested in what's happening.
You get the picture? Maybe it's trompe l'oeil. We are given the story of an unknown artist from five centuries ago, one who so entrances a woman in Cambridge n 1990 that she flies her children all the way to Italy to see one of his works.
But George, and her mother, father, brother (and shrink) only turn up on page 189 of How to Be Both. At least in my edition. Evidently half of the copies printed and distributed started out with Georgia's saga, not with some dotty 15th Century painter disguised as a man who may or may not exist. An artist who is not even sure he (or she) is dead, one who vaguely senses the George of the future.
§ § §
"I've never seen anything like it," George's mother says of the fresco.
It's so warm it's almost friendly. A friendly work of art. I've never thought such a thing in my life. And look at it. It's never sentimental. It's generous, but it's sardonic too. And whenever it's sardonic, a moment later it's generous again.
George is sad, and we're sad too. Because her funny mother, the one who can commune with her daughter (and the reader) as if we're old friends, is gone. Before she dies --- an antibiotic reaction, very sudden --- George twits her about her terrible taste in music when she was young. The family listens to an old 45 called "Tell Laura I Love Her" in which a guy, a stock-car racer, gets into a wreck and it bursts into flames and
as they pull him dying from the twisted remains of it he tells them to tell Laura he loves her and not to cry because his love for her will never die.
"She and her mother and father all crying with laughter on the rug." George wonders, "Why did you even keep this record?"
I didn't know till today but obviously I was keeping it precisely so that you, me, and your father would all end up listening to it today her mother says and they all fall about laughing again.
§ § §
I have to confess I'm at sixes and sevens with How to Be Both. The first half with Francescho del Cosso never manages to get off the ground, and reviewers are split (as the book is split) into exactly what is going on. A reviewer for ALA Booklist wrote last November that the artist Cosso is actually a girl in disguise. There are hints sprinkled everywhere if you are willing to look for them (I didn't. I missed it. As did Heller McAlpin reviewing for NPR; no hint of it one way or another in The New Yorker's "Briefly Noted" section).
My thought is that if you are going to turn Francescho into a Francescha, maybe you should come right out and say it on the page, Here's a woman in 15th Century Italy who disguised herself so she could do the unthinkable in that age. That is, be a painter who was female.
On top of that, I'm not so sure these two parts fit, and I am not so sure the author fits them, either. In my edition, part II is clearly labeled ONE, and you can work all day trying to figure out how the two meld. Francescho not only doesn't remember dying (he's floating around in a space which he calls "Purgatorio"), he goes off into thought spaces which completely baffle. His last words twist across the last page, and if you got the right edition, would be the last page of the book:the seed still broken
the star still unburnt
the curve of the eyebone
of the not yet born
hello all the new bones
hello all the old
hello all the everything
bothMy feeling is that we have here a talented writer playing with the reader, seeing how far out she can go to get us into her game. Since Smith is not James Joyce (not yet), I'm going to offer the idea that it was a gamble that just didn't work.
There are moments, though. Just a bit before Carol dies, she and George are having a disagreement about the exact wording of one of the songs by the Pet Shop Boys so they say they'll listen to it later. On the spot, they make a bet about the exact wording. "I'll bet you fifty pounds I'm right," George says.
"You're on," her mother says.
Then she says, "Prepare yourself for a substantial loss."--- Rachael Saunders, M. A.