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Artful: An essay wrapped in a story and vice versa

Ali Smith: Her fictional dead lover’s notes on narrative work as springboards for Smith’s lectures.


Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton
231 pages

Because words are slippery, and only approximate (they lie, at least a little), an anxiety about them has always existed. This anxiety has alighted, especially, upon fiction, since it pretends at life. Thirteenth-century theologian Thomas of Chobham, for example, warned his readers not to give goods to minstrels. He worried that some of their tales and spectacles – those not church-sanctioned (true!) – might lead listeners into morally uncharted territory.

Three hundred years later, anxieties continue. The scandal around James Frey's A Million Little Pieces was not just that he'd lied, but that he'd revealed how elastic, not to mention embarrassing, belief can be. Readers find a kind of truth both in fiction and non-fiction when they understand how to believe each. But readers like to know how to read before they read. Because Frey's work resonated with readers, and caught them out in a hoax, it blurred what we thought words are supposed to do.

But perhaps every writer is like iron filings to the magnet of anxiety. Which brings me to Ali Smith's new amalgam, perfectly titled Artful, that is simultaneously fiction and non- fiction, an essay wrapped in a story and vice versa.

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The text of Artful is transcribed from a series of four lectures Smith gave at Oxford, in 2012. In these talks, Smith presents a tree expert as a certain "I" (as narrator) whose sorrow brings back from the dead her lover – a professor whose conference notes have been left unfinished.

During Smith's lecture, the reveal that the "I" was not Smith, but a first-person narrator, must have been lovely to experience.

That the audience would have to evaluate and shift the way they were believing (that is, from the idea that Smith was lecturing to the realization that she was reading them a story) was necessary to Smith's plan. She wanted to begin undoing how belief works, in order to direct the gaze toward the dance between life (real) and art (artifice).

The thematic premise of this lecture-novel is the coming-to-terms with death. We come to know the arborist, her imagined lover, their relationship, the way the furniture sits in their living room, some of the difficulties they've faced together. The dead lover who haunts the arborist speaks a kind of nonsense that turns out to be Greek. The arborist tries to decipher. Artful maintains this thinnest of plots by having it hold such enormity of idea, with Smith's ranging intellectual interests including artists from Charles Dickens to Bertolt Brecht, Werner Herzog to Katherine Mansfield.

The fictional dead lover's notes also work as springboards for Smith's own lectures. They elucidate themes pertinent to narrative: form, time, transformation, exchange. But Artful does this work too, so that we are dropped out of time, so that form and meaning nod to one another, so that we are transformed, and so that we come to know how narrative barters with the dead. (Stories always reckon other stories. Because writers acknowledge literary inheritances, every story holds the ghost of an earlier story within it.)

A ghost gives voice to Smith via the narrator – the book is wryly ghostwritten. Spectrality is central to Artful. The reader begins to sense that it is not the lecture supporting a fiction, but the other way around. The tree expert and the ghost of the professor are analogues for what is actual, and solid (life), and what is ethereal and abstract (art).

The experience of reading a book by a possibly deranged, brilliant, well-read, deeply introspective narrator, channeled by Ali Smith, is unsettling in the best possible way. The lecturers (Ali Smith, the "I," and the dead lover) require the reader to look within, to think, but also to seek outwardly, so that it may be prudent to have a Google search engine at hand. You'll want to check out the popular Greek actress Aliki Vougiouklaki on Youtube, for example, to better understand Ali(ki) Smith's obsession with translation, to know that words are translations of thoughts, translated (it's all Greek to me).

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The borderline between fiction and non-fiction, of course, has long been a site of interest to writers. Think of Daniel DeFoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, which chronicles the London plague of 1665. The "novel" was presented as "Observations or Memorials" written by an eyewitness "Citizen." That Defoe was five years old in 1665, and because the "Citizen" is discovered to have died toward the end of the journal, the instability of this text has been confounding scholars ever since.

Or read Sheila Heti's recent novel How Should a Person Be?, a novel-documentary in which the characters are given the names of Heti's friends, and real conversations among them seem to have been transcribed.

Through this playfulness, Heti mines both a current cultural fascination with faux reality (think Survivor) and the reader's (voyeuristic) frisson of not knowing what is fact and what is fiction.

Ultimately, the way to read Artful, and maybe every book after it, is to suspend belief as a reliable system, or else to begin to believe in only this: story. Believe in story's uncanny ability to infiltrate. Believe in human interaction, and the plunge of vulnerability it requires. Believe in nothing (ghosts!), and by that act, believe in the possibility of everything, and everything as a possibility. Artful revels in how language is spectral, how it is the abstraction, the ghost of the thing it tells about. This is especially smart, because language will always have a hard time with realism, not being real itself. In other words, Artful is artful.

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's fiction has been published in Granta magazine and the Walrus. Her novel All the Broken Things will be published in early 2014.

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