“There’s more to see, if you look…”: “How to be both” by Ali Smith

IMG_4040A book that requires no introduction, Ali Smith’s six novel How to be both might well be described as the book of 2014 having scooped both the Goldsmith Prize and the Costa Prize while only narrowly missing out on the Man Booker. The novel has been frequently labelled an experimental work of fiction for its original structure which is made up of two narratives which are offered to readers in a random order depending on which edition your pick up. The first narrative provides an account of artist Francescho del Cossa and his journey through Renaissance Italy while the other is told from the perspective of 16-year-old English student George who is trying to come to terms with the recent passing of her mother. Each narrative reverberates off the other to abound with intertextual references that cleverly build up textured layers of meaning that give the reader plenty to mull over. Despite the two central characters seemingly being worlds apart in terms of time, culture and occupation, and regardless of the order in which you read the narratives, the two wonderful female protagonists illuminate common central themes and motifs that resonate between both stories and offer poignant universal truths about art itself.

My edition of How to be both begins with Francescho del Cossa ‘being pulled by [his] mouth on a hood… upwards past the maggots and worms and the bones and the rockwork’ until he finds as a ghost in London’s National Gallery confronted by a painting he soon identifies as one he himself composed many centuries ago. After adjusting to his surrounds, del Cossa soon details the processes of his composition of this work before then reflecting on the work of his contemporaries which deck the surrounding walls. In doing so, the reader is organically transported from 21st century London back to the artist’s world in Renaissance Italy where we find what is essentially a biography of del Cossa but which relies much more heavily on narrative and key events than on chronology. Ali Smith imaginatively recreates the historic Francesco del Cossa as a female, one who was seduced to stop waddling around swathed in her mother’s clothes in exchange for her father’s promise that he would support Francescho in her quest to become an artist after she shows extraordinary natural talent—but only if she agrees to ‘become’ a boy. We are given the inside story on Francescho’s artistic development which takes us from humble beginnings and happiness in the family home all the way to demanding more money from powerful patrons due to a belief in his own superior artistic talents. En route we are greeted with Francescho’s accounts of frequenting local brothels where he is able to hone his craft by sketching prostitutes for payment while also undergoing a sexual awakening thanks to a ‘black-haired and dark-skinned’ girl named Isotta who ‘made [Francescho] feel something 1000 times stronger than any fear, and … [I] comprehended that this girl was now all delight’ (p.85).

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George, the protagonist of the second narrative (or first, depending on your copy) shares many similarities with Francescho: for one, both characters are females dressed up under masculine names or identities, they both share meticulous, naturally inquisitive personalities, have lost their mothers at an early age and develop meaningful and sensual relationships with enigmatic and stimulating women. George’s story centres on two main strands: the first revolves around her relationship with her deceased mother, a relationship which is ironically strengthened as time passes and George comes to learn about her mother through an exploration of her own memories and consequently discovering her mother’s interests and passions; the second strand outlines George’s newly-found friendship with H, a strong-willed, independent and debonair classmate who intrigues George and with whom she engages in very rich, subtle and nuanced conversations, especially towards the end of the novel, the dialogue of which I felt to be some of the strongest writing in a superb work.

How to be both is undoubtedly an excellent book; it is intricately crafted, intelligent, meditative and thought provoking. Yet I can’t help but feel that the book has been dealt a disservice by those who have focused too heavily on the supposedly original and experimental form and structure of the novel. Yes, the book’s structure is clever and creates two finely balanced and juxtaposing texts, yet I just didn’t find it to be as original or experimental as the hype suggests. Do good short story writers not use multiple different yet inter-related narratives to explore central themes, ideas and motifs which bind a collection as a whole? In a single novel too, I can think, off the top of my head, of a writer such as David Mitchell who, in novels like The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas, creates several narratives which are interconnected and illuminate the work as a whole. People might argue that writers like Mitchell allow their several narratives to converge by the novel’s end to give a sense of roundness and completion, yet I felt this same roundness was also true of How to be both. Although in this novel the two different narratives at first glance seem polarised and far removed from one another, they are also carefully enmeshed, sewn together gorgeously by Smith using both language and narrative, and in the end I almost felt as though the two narratives mirror each other in many ways, despite their explicit differences.

I took the most pleasure from How to be both in the novel’s discussion of one of the central themes, the role of art, how we relate to art, the value of it and the power of art to transport, inform and challenge its audiences. Since I read the story of Francescho first, when his work was being discussed by George and her mother in the second narrative I inevitably had a much larger context to the meticulous details of the composition of Francescho’s work, the stories behind the intricate details of his paintings, an idea of the efforts he went to to form different colours, as well as the personal struggle Francescho del Cossa had to go through to even reach the point where he could paint frescos on the walls of grand patrons. George, her interest piqued by her mother, is able to dissect and become engrossed in del Cossa’s art, and in one of my favourite passages of the book Ali Smith beautifully describes exactly how George becomes fixated on and begins to extract the different elements of one of his frescos:

‘The painting is in a room of other pictures by painters from around the same time. At first all these pictures by other people look more interesting than this one, which just looks like another religious picture (first reason not to look) of a rather severe-faced monk (second reason not to look) who’s ready and waiting with his finger up, holding a book up and open in his other hand, with which, both finger and book, it looks like he’ll probably admonish anyone who does not stop and look at him (third reason not to look).

But then you notice that he’s not looking at you. He’s looking past and above you, or into the far distance, like there’s something happening beyond you and he can see what it is.

Then there’s the stone road off to the side of him which seems to be changing from road into a waterfall as you look, the paving stones literally morphing, stone to water.

That lets you start to see that the picture is full of things you’d not expect…’ (pp.340-1)

At the novel’s beginning when Francescho is dragged to the National Gallery, his first observation is to notice ‘A boy in front of a painting’. This ‘boy’ we later discover to be George passing her beady eye over Francescho’s painting, delving into the picture’s details, paying it the attention it so clearly deserves while crowds of people stream past, many of whom can’t even be bothered to pass an eye over the work as they queue up to see whatever is the most famous work in that gallery. How to be both provides a stark reminder, in an age of constant busyness, in a society where I can pick up such an astonishing book for almost the same price as a pint of lager at my local bookshop, that every piece of art has a fascinating, personal story behind it waiting to be explored, that every piece of art is worthy of much more attention than we so often give, and crucially to spend more time with the art that we love in order to engage thoughtfully with older cultures as well as to cultivate our present selves.

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Book Review: “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn

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“‘I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique’” p.319.

Re-published by Abacus twenty five years after its original release, this brand edition of the American cult classic Geek Love features a handsome new cover boasting endorsements from Kurt Cobain to Douglas Coupland, Audrey Niffenegger to Jeff Buckley, with Terry Gilliam calling it ‘the most romantic novel about love and family I have read’. Impressive stuff. The story itself revolves around the Binewskis, a family of carnival performers who travel around the United States flaunting their full array of talents to ever-increasing crowds of spectators. Yet the Binewskis are far from being your typical American family, and this is no typical gang of carnies; each child, and performer, is a labour of love on the part of Crystal Lil and Alonysius, the matriarch and patriarch of the family who together decide to thwart the declining carnival business they have inherited from Al’s parents by producing their very own panoply of disparate and eccentric performers. Experimenting heavily with all sorts of drugs and chemicals while pregnant, Lil gives birth to a colourful cast of characters that become Geek Love: Arturo, known as Arty or later Aqua Boy, a megalomaniac with flippers instead of limbs; gifted musicians and conjoined twins Electra and Iphigenia; Fortunato, known in the family as Chick, the youngest born who appears to be a ‘norm’ but is discovered to hold potent telekinetic powers; and finally our narrator Olympia, a bald, hunchedbacked albino dwarf who becomes the mouthpiece for her family both at the carnival—where she is trained up by her father as an orator—and in the form of the book itself.

 

Geek Love is a complex novel that resists definition. It is family history, yes, but told from the perspective of Oly, the book also acts as a love letter to her only daughter, Miranda, who Olympia is forced to abandon due to her normalcy. It is also a study about family and familial love, a biting social satire and a celebration of diversity. From the off it is all go, a rollicking read that charts the peaks and troughs of the Binewski’s endlessly entertaining escapades across the US. From the novel’s vibrant cast of characters, it is Arturo the Aqua Boy who emerges as the principal character. Throughout the children’s youth, it is Arty who yearns for power among his siblings and in the family at large, and it is something he achieves through his dedication to his act. As the novel proceeds, Arty germinates a powerful and disturbing cult, called ‘Arturism’, founded

“‘on the greed and spite of a transcendental maggot … who used his own genetic defects and the weakness of the unemployed and illiterate to create an insanely self-destructive following that fed his maniacal ego’”(p.268) (Arty is so thrilled by this term that he goes on to use the term ‘Transcendental Maggot’ as another of his nicknames—a great example of the novel’s type of humour).

In a perverse form of imitation, Arty requests that his followers demonstrate their dedication to his cause by having their limbs decapitated until they reach the demigod-like limbless status himself. Yet it is not only ‘the unemployed and illiterate’ who are drawn to his cult; graduates from Yale and Harvard soon rock up hoping to spend their summers away from college adulating the renowned Aqua Boy, many of whom jeopardise their studies in order to remain in his cult.

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As the moon of Arturism rises, however, that of the Binewski family is steadily on the decline. Crystal Lil and Al, once the masterminds and puppeteers of their carnival, quickly lose control of their grand project as Arty takes over the reins. What is once a happy, self-sufficient, interdependent family body becomes fragmented and disintegrated thanks to Arturo’s megalomaniacal wants and needs. The narrative gathers pace steadily until it becomes an uncontrollable, tumultuous ball of mess that crashes tragically towards the end where we are met by nostalgic, regretful and touching passages from Olympia who addresses her daughter with complete transparency in the hope that Miranda might be able to comprehend her mother’s decision to orphan her when still a baby.

 

The above barely touches on the central events of Geek Love and there is a whole whirlwind of other events and narratives going on around this. One of the most significant narratives is that surrounding a character named Miss Lick. The novel begins from its end point, with Miranda by now a fully grown woman doing what she can in the world to get by. Olympia is living in the same building as Miranda and decides to follow her daughter, who is still unware that Olympia is her mother, one evening to discover what she does to earn her living. Oly is led to kind of fetishist strip club, where Miranda’s only peculiar feature of having a small tail is a central selling point in her performance. Yet Miss Lick wants to draw Miranda away from this; as Olympia notes, “Miss Lick’s purpose is to liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers… Miss Lick has great faith in the truth of this theory. She herself is an example of what can be accomplished by one unencumbered by natural beauty. So am I” (p.230). In the first instance, it is interesting that Dunn has Miranda unknowingly continue her family’s tradition; she is selling her unique physiognomy to consumers for a monetary gain, essentially the same thing her mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents did for the most part of their lives. Miss Lick not only seeks to help Miranda come away from this type of business, to use her natural beauty and intelligence to gain a way in the world, but Miss Lick also helps Olympia in her later life. She teaches her to swim, for example, and Oly actually comes to realise that ‘she is the only friend I’ve ever had’ (p.467). Miss Lick is a feminist hero of sorts, the only character who provides any sort of resolution at the end of this completely bonkers novel.

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In addition to gender and gender roles, Geek Love explores an impressive number of complex themes. Family is obviously a central one, and although the Binewski family seem so fundamentally different to your own in terms of who they are, what they look like and how they think, their sheer dedication to their family body is something that many families can relate to. So there are passages, such as the one below, where even criticising or talking ill of the family can result in violent outbursts:

“ ‘Mama, Elly isn’t there anymore. Iphy’s changed. Everything’s changed. The whole berry business, cooking big meals that nobody comes for, birthday cakes for Arty. It’s dumb mama. Stop pretending. There isn’t any family anymore, Mama.’

Then she cracked me with the big spoon. It smacked wet and hard across my ear, and the purple-black juice sprayed across the table. She stared at me, terrified, her mouth and eyes gaping with fear. I stared gaping at her. I broke and ran.” p.397

Power in relationships is another central theme, and one which focalises largely on Arturo.  With the benefit of hindsight, Olympia is later able to impart a more objective view on Arturo’s megalomania:

“General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile. I myself have held most of the opinions of this spectrum at one time or another. Watching Arty pine for Iphy, however, I have come to see him as just a regular Joe—jealous, bitter, possessive, competitive, in a constant frenzy to disguise his lack of self-esteem, drowning in deadly love, and utterly unable to prevent himself from gorging on the coals of hell in his search for revenge” (p.390).

As a woman who is largely repressed by Arturo for large parts of this novel, it is illuminating that Dunn allows Olympia the space to reflect in retrospect on her relationship with her brother and actually have her reprimanding herself and Arty. The more I think about it, the more fascinating gender in this novel appears to me, and I think it would make an incredibly rich text to explore in the classroom. Wacky, bonkers, touching, emotive, laugh-out-loud funny and at times incredibly sad, Geek Love hit all the notes for me and this is an elegant edition that I will be thoroughly recommending to friends.

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Geek Love is available to buy from Abacus here. Thanks to Poppy for the review copy, and thank you for reading!