Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Girl Meets Boy (Ali Smith)

--The blurb--
"Girl meets boy. It's a story as old as time. But what happens when an old story meets a brand new set of circumstances? Ali Smith's re-mix of Ovid's most joyful metamorphosis is a story about the kind of fluidity that can't be bottled and sold. It is about girls and boys, girls and girls, love and transformation, a story of puns and doubles, reversals and revelations. Funny and fresh, poetic and political, Girl meets boy is a myth of metamorphosis for the modern world."

--The review--
Gender and sexuality are topics that are of perennial significance across the history of literature, with everyone from the Ancient Greeks to Caryl Churchill joining in. The Ancient Greeks, though (since I've picked on them, I might as well carry on), often only referred to the inversion of gender and sexuality in vague, metaphorical terms, with anything more overt, such as cross-dressing, being a specific means to an end (in Aristophanes' Women at the Thesmophoria, for instance, the men dress up, but only to get into a women-only event in order to eavesdrop on the female gossip). Shakespeare continues to use this device mainly only for direct trickery and deception (think of Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice to name just two plays where he does this). Modern literature, though, is perhaps getting less comic in its treatment of gender, sexuality, and role reversals thereof: Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine is funny, but tragic in equal measure, and novels such as Charlie Anders' Choir Boy involve deeper contemplation of sexual identity than the superficial level of mere comedic trickery.

Ali Smith's latest attempt, Girl Meets Boy, also asks more serious questions about what we were and are, and if it really matters, updating the myth of Iphis with startling clarity. The novella's first line is arresting, and the first chapter abounds with contemporary references to television shows, which would normally irritate me, but in this case does not, possibly due to its more natural and relevant (rather than contrived and irrelevant) state. The story has momentum and the settings are realistic as well as being blackly funny. The person who changes everything in the story, Robin, is daring, adventurous, and yet altogether human (though admittedly there is something ethereal or otherworldly about the character too).

Smith is adept with words and is able to keep the reader's attention by being concise, thought-provoking and occasionally witty, bringing the narrative to a satisfying close. The quality of her work not only allows her to secure a place as one of the rising stars of contemporary literature, but this in tandem with her participation in the Canongate Myths series also means that her work is emblematic of the rejuvenation of classical legends in modern times, along with equally staunchly feminist authors such as Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson (who are, perhaps unfairly, rather better known). She achieves her aims while successfully utilising the "write what you know" principle, but not in the lacklustre way of, for example, Alan Hollinghurst. Smith, in conjunction with her contemporaries, uses her work to show us that the way we talk about ourselves and our identities is something that matters, and with Smith and other authors only being at the genesis of explicit discussion of gender and sexuality (Winterson's groundbreaking Oranges are not the Only Fruit was only published in 1985, Churchill arguably being the trailblazer in 1979), we are perhaps at the beginning of a highly significant phase in literary genres.

Other works by Ali Smith
Like (1997)
Hotel World (2001)
The Accidental (2005)

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