Being in the presence of creativity – real, playful, enchanting, shape-shifting, thought-changing creativity – is extraordinarily uplifting. It’s the experience that we’re always seeking for in the arts, but often it exists in watered-down form. Yet another story about a love affair that goes wrong, or a family with problems or a crime novel in which a depressed detective drinks his way through a case; such novels are read because they promise something we know all about already, encased in a pleasing form. That’s fine, that’s good, sometimes that’s just what readers want. But every now and then, a book leaps out at you that is profoundly creative, that manages to do something very fresh and innovative in a way that leaves you feeling charged full of hope. Because real creativity, the ability to take something old, worn, constricted and shake it out, fill it with light, make it new again, has that enviable power.
On the weekend, I read Ali Smith’s wonderfully creative novella, Girl Meets Boy, and was dazzled and charmed in equal measure. It’s part of the Canongate myth series, in which contemporary authors have been invited to rewrite myths – Margaret Atwood did The Penelopiad, Salley Vickers rewrote Oedipus in Where Three Roads Meet. Ali Smith takes the love story of Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and uses it as a springboard for a short, wise, beautifully structured story about love, social responsibility and change. It’s good material in the first place – as opposed to all the more gory and disastrous metamorphoses that Ovid recounts (the fact that Ted Hughes chose Ovid for a collection of poems should tell you something), the story of Iphis is an optimistic winner. Iphis is born a girl to a family who cannot afford one, and so her mother brings her up as a boy. She falls in love with her childhood friend, Ianthe and the pair are engaged to be married, only Iphis and her mother are inevitably concerned as to how this marriage might turn out. So the mother goes to the temple to pray to the goddess Isis, who promises to make things right, and Iphis is transformed, just in time, into a boy. The myth lies at the heart of Smith’s novel, nestled into its center and recounted in witty and amusing form. But the story she tells is far more playful in its gender bending and far more serious in its message about transformation.
Girl Meets Boy is the story of two sisters, Anthea, the younger, subversive, fearless one, and Midge (Imogen) the older, conventional, terrified one. We first meet them as children, being told parables and fantasies by their entertaining grandfather. But the grandparents buy themselves a boat and sail off around the world never to be seen again. Anthea and Midge grow up and return to live in their grandparent’s house in Scotland and to work together on the Pure creative team, for an unscrupulous firm who sell bottled water but who are stealthily planning world domination. Anthea lasts all of a day or so there; before one excruciating executive meeting is over (hilariously satirized), she has experienced a coup de foudre and fallen in love with the young woman painting protest slogans over the company sign. This woman, Robin, is one of Ali Smith’s classic catalyst figures; preternaturally wise, almost other-worldly, and yet loving, warm, right-thinking, funny. She enters the sister’s lives and sets them on a path of transformation. The love scenes between Robin and Anthea are some of the loveliest and most moving I’ve read, and the sheer power of Smith’s writing seems to propel the narrative forward so that love becomes the driving force for the strange and wonderful events that happen subsequently.
Robin is also a powerful voice for justice and equality, and the novel manages to bring together in satisfying ways the love we feel for individuals and the ethical responsibility we have towards other people. Smith has two particular targets in her sight; homophobia and unscrupulous corporate dealings, and she manages to score direct hits to each with the lightest of all possible arrows. For instance, here’s the moment when the scales drop from Midge’s eyes about her boss, Keith, after she has been asked to write untruthful copy:
‘And I can’t make up rubbish and pretend it’s true. Those people in India. That water is their right.
Not so, my little Scotty dog, Keith says. According to the World Water Forum 2000, whose subject was water’s exact designation, water is not a human right. Water is a human need. And that means we can market it. We can sell a need. It’s our human right to.
Keith, that’s ridiculous, I say. Those words you just used are all in the wrong places.’
One of the reasons why I loved this novella so was the unbridled wittiness of the narrative. The sisters take it in turns to narrate and their voices move through a range of different tones; lyrical, satirical, anxiety-ridden, fantastic, explanatory, but always humour unites them all. Perhaps that’s the most creative aspect of this delightful book; the amazing trick of convergence it accomplishes between such disparate elements – myth-making and corporate shenanigans, the dourness of Inverness and the sunshiny places of love, the transformation of two dispossessed sisters and civil rights protests. The ability to bring these fragments of modern life together and illuminate what’s still right and wrong about our world makes me think of Eliot, but he was never quite so funny. Nor was he so joyful. There’s a particularly lovely ending to this story and whilst I may have shed a few tears, they were certainly happy ones. ‘It’s what we do with the myths we grow up with that counts,’ the wise Robin says, and in this tale, the myths are both personal and cultural, and the metamorphoses that Ali Smith urges are both individual and global. I can only think that somewhere, somehow, Ovid is applauding.
p.s. I am sure wordpress is about to screw up the formatting of the quote. It simply refuses to accept such a thing as an indent. Grrr. Silly wordpress. Many apologies, folks.