Ali Smith is a writer who tends to polarise opinion. Her last novel, The Accidental, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005, but I didn’t meet anyone else who liked it. I wasn’t sure I did myself to begin with, and part of my liking for it is probably a defensive reaction against violent criticism of what is, at the very least, an interesting and ambitious work that deserves credit for that. Her earlier novel Hotel World was no more conventional, a collection of stream-of-consciousness voices which angered one Amazon reader for not being a sufficiently accurate representation of life in a hotel; which is a little like the Victoria Wood character who didn’t like Fawlty Towers because it was supposed to be set in Torquay, but “could have been anywhere, frankly.”
For her next trick then, Smith has written Girl Meets Boy, a novella in the Canongate Myths series. The story she has chosen to update (or “remix” according to the blurb) is the story of Iphis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I haven’t read Ovid since school and I don’t think I got as far as Iphis in Ted Hughes’ celebrated interpretation of the tales, so fortunately Smith gives us a primer midway through, though a sneak preview – if that’s the word for a story written two thousand years ago – is available here.
It’s about what tabloids would once have called gender-bending, and so the title not only recalls classic love stories, but has another primary meaning in the character of Robin, who is neither and both: girl-meets-boy. The story is narrated by two sisters, Anthea and Imogen (‘Midge’). Anthea falls in love with Robin who is protesting against Pure, the water company she works for.
My head, something happened to its insides. It was as if a storm at sea happened, but only for a moment, and only on the inside of my head. My ribcage, something definitely happened there. It was as if it unknotted itself from itself, like the hull of a ship hitting rock, giving way, and the ship that I was opened wide inside me and in came the ocean.
He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.
But he really looked like a girl.
She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.
This leads Midge to worry, in a parenthetic stream of consciousness, that “(Oh my God my sister is a GAY.) (I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset.)” She has to field awkward questions from her unreconstructed friends, Norman and Dominic, two-dimensional homophobic lads. Not that this sets them apart from other elements of the book. Politically Smith seems to feel that every reader has the right not to be confused by shades of grey, and so we have the capitalist-bastard water company executive –
Small body of irate ethnics in one of our Indian sub-interests factioning against our planned filter-dam two-thirds completed and soon to power four Pure labs in the area. They say: our dam blocks their access to fresh water and ruins their crops. We say: they’re ethnic troublemakers who are trying to involve us in a despicable religious war. Use the word terrorism if necessary. Got it?
– and Robin herself is an anarchic ‘breath of fresh air’/’pain in the arse’ akin to Amber from The Accidental, addressing well-worn issues through spray-painting statistics about male-female inequality in public places. All this reminded me of the critic who accused Martin Amis of dealing in “banalities delivered with tremendous force,” which attack Amis sought to de-barb by adopting it as his own credo (“that’s fine by me”). Smith’s issues are not subtle, and little is left under the surface, but there is something nonetheless loving about the way she presents it.
She is at her best when returning from the political to the personal, and the descriptions of love and sex in Girl Meets Boy are poetic and invigorating, and the opening pages of the final section, incorporating literary nods and winks (“Ness I said Ness I will Ness”), humorous contemporary references (“A male-voice choir from the Inverness Police Force sang a beautiful arrangement of songs from Gilbert and Sullivan. Then the Inverness Constabulary female-voice choir sang an equally beautiful choral arrangement of Don’t Cha (Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me)”), and a litany of free-association –
…we got married. I mean we here came the bride. I mean we walked down the aisle. I mean we step we gailied, on we went, we Mendelssohned, we epithalamioned, we raised high the roofbeams, carpenters, for there was no other bride, o bridegroom, like her. We crowned each other with the garlands of flowers. We stamped on the wine-glasses wrapped in the linen. We jumped the broomsticks. We lit the candles. We crossed the sticks.
– that is sure to become a source for readings at weddings and partnership ceremonies in years to come.
Smith also wastes no opportunities to reflect her themes of sexuality and equality, and the motifs of the original myth, everywhere she can in her story, so the whole has a pleasing completeness to it. She even finds time to bring back the topic of myths themselves and the “responsibility” of creating a myth. It’s a story which revels in being light-hearted and serious-minded at the same time, and for the most part manages to pull it off by force of charm alone.