Your grandfather likes to think that all the stories in the world are his to tell, she says.
Just the important ones, our grandfather says. Just the ones that need telling. Some stories always need telling more than others.
Some time ago, we held a round-table email discussion about Girl meets boy, the excellent latest release from one of Alexandria's favourite authors, Ali Smith. Girl meets boy is another entry in Canongate' multi-author 'Myths' series, which Vicky has been following eagerly (she discussed Margaret Atwood's contribution on this blog last year). As we've come to expect, Smith tackles the series brief in style, exploring gender, sexuality, radical activism and social change through a modern-day reworking of the story of Iphis and Ianthe.
Iphis was a Cretan girl, who was raised as a boy due to some serious marital miscommunication (Daddy, naturally, really wanted a boy). Iphis did fine until one day she fell in love with a girl, Ianthe. Luckily, a helpful goddess turned Iphis into a real boy so that s/he might marry Ianthe. Happily ever after? By the standards of the day.
Smith, too, provides a happily ever after, of a rather different nature (clue: this story's Iphis isn't magically transformed into a boy for the sake of the wedding pics; another clue: the final section opens with, "Reader, I married him/her."). But she is also interested in how the fight for an 'unconventional' happily ever after might change the world at the same time. Girl meets boy is set in Inverness and London, and centres on two sisters - unfocused, forthright Anthea and shrill, fragile Midge - and the conflict and reconciliation between them when Anthea falls for a genderqueer woman, Robin. "She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life", Anthea reflects at one point.
She was as brave and handsome and rough as a girl. She was as pretty and delicate and dainty as a boy. She turned boys' heads like a girl. She turned girls' heads like a boy. [...] She was so boyish it was girlish, so girlish it was boyish, she made me want to rove the world writing our names on every tree.
The participants in the round table were Vicky, Jo, and I (Nic) from Eve's Alexandria, together with Niall from Torque Control. With one thing and another I've had the messages sitting in my inbox for months. Finally this weekend I got round to supplementing it with some quotes from the book, and turning it into a post: enjoy!
[NB Square brackets indicate anything I've added to others' comments to clarify what is being responded to, since there was a certain amount of cross-over and back and forth within the emails. I've also chopped up some of the responses to slot them in with the points they are replying to.]
Ah, I love Iphis, Robin said. I love her. Look at her. Dressed as a boy to save her life. Standing in a field, shouting at the way things are. She'd do anything for love. She'd risk everything she is.
Let me begin by saying: I loved it. But then I love everything Ali Smith does, and sometimes I think it's because she is just my kind of writer, always taking things in directions that please me. I'm not sure though that it really did enough to explore the myth at hand - like Atwood and Winterson (very much like Winterson) I sometimes felt it was more about parallels than something fresh. And is saying, 'Look, the myth has a similar resonance for us today as it did then' by rewriting it, exciting enough, or ambitious enough to warrant a novel? The Myth series is going to get old, pretty quickly if that is all there is at the bottom of it. Then again, I think Smith does express the ubiquity of myth, the melting-pot-ness of it, very well, and I liked that she created a myth of her own at the beginning, with the suffrage narrative, and so moved it beyond a purely lesbian/gender narrative, and beyond the core myth at hand.
I disagree, I think that playing around with the resonance of the myth today is fresh in itself. In a way it's a strange idea to RE-write myth - what does that mean? Does it have the underlying assumption that the myth has to be unpicked and done all over again better? This is what I felt when reading Atwood's Penelopiad - it was so full of fury towards the original story that the myth may as well have been run over by a steam-roller. Smith told her story, and used the myth to energise and enrichen it. It wasn't so much re-writing the myth as writing with it, and that makes much more sense to me.
Loved, loved, loved the juxtaposition of the two myth retellings at the centre of the book. More specifically, I loved the irreverent, discursive style of the second, which not only contains lots of fun, geeky asides of the type I could imagine any of us making if we were telling the story (the part about Atlantis and pumice stone...!), but also works as a lovely shorthand, in-character way to pack a lot of deeper issues into just a few pages: reading myth today, finding its encoded meanings, exploring what is relevant and what is absent and what can be subverted, and (close to my own heart...) what a myth tells us about the society(/ies) that produced and valued it. Plus, y'know, they continue to be enormous fun as stories.
I agree with Vicky that it doesn't engage as directly and completely with the myth as it might - although on at least one level it does so fundamentally, since the overt and deliberate refusal to re-gender the love story into a heteronormative one is a direct subversion of and challenge to the assumptions of the original. But I do think that Anthea, Robin and the myth operate more as catalysts and touchstones for Smith's real story, which is the enlightenment of Midge and, by implication, the possibilities of social change more broadly; they aren't really the focus.
That aside, I think the book does a lot with Myth as a concept. There are personal myths, for example - the stories we're brought up with, the ones that shape our values and affect how we present ourselves to the world:
Nobody grows up mythless, Robin said. It's what we do with the myths we grow up with that matters.
I thought about our mother. I thought about what she'd said, that she had to be free of what people expected of her, otherwise she'd simply have died. I thought about our father, out in the garden in the first days after she left, hanging out the washing. I thought about Midge, seven years old, running downstairs to take over, to do it instead of him, because the neighbours were laughing to see a man at the washing line. Good girl, our father had said.
(And that's the first time I've ever noticed how infuriatingly gendered is even such an apparently harmless and universal term of praise/approbation!)
There are also social/cultural myths (both reinforcing and challenging received ideas; the Burning Lily story, but also all the various assumptions of binary gender, some of which amount to urban myth), and newly-created myths (I owe to Niall the observation that advertising is presented as modern myth-making). Myth as propaganda for, and expression of, one outlook or another; myth also as a way of introducing the unfamiliar (difficult ideas, and/or change) via the familiar (a love story, a coming-out story).
And, of course, there is her prose, which is better as far as rhyme and metre goes than any contemporary poetry I know. Her free association passages (I'm thinking particularly of the bit of part 3 where Robin and Anthea have sex) are difficult to resist and at first I wasn't sure whether it wasn't just the rush that made me giddy with admiration, but when I parsed it down it works just as well. She just makes words so damn sexy! Perhaps her free fall prose would be best described as erotic? Not just the sex scenes, but all of it... the final passages too?
Is the prose erotic? I think I'd go with giddy and exuberant rather than (necessarily) erotic, but yes - it's heady stuff.
I loved it too, specifically the exuberance of it - the way Smith managed to capture the pure joy of the myth itself, and really place that joy - the joy of transformation - in the twenty-first century. I really would go with erotic to describe the prose - it didn't seem giddy to me, maybe because the richness of her imagery seems to me grounded in the amazing-delicious rhythm of the sentences. :-)
This is one of the things I love about anything Ali Smith writes, the now-ness of it, particularly as brought out in the language she uses, and I agree that Girl Meets Boy is no exception.
Lots of great stuff about sex and gender - playing with boundaries - highlighting without belabouring the fact so many people's discomfort with same-sex love stems from a perception that it involves (is produced by) 'unnatural' gender behaviour, and that if only people corrected themselves along binary lines they'd be sexually 'normal' again. Also the hollowness of Midge's assumptions - based on received prejudices and the media representations of lesbians (mention is made of Judi Dench's character in Notes on a Scandal) - that Anthea is doomed by her orientation to live a loveless life, even as she remembers Anthea and Robin "laughing with outrageous happiness".
Midge, though. How old is she meant to be, again? Because she comes across as having the wit and emotional maturity of a sixteen year old. This was fine for her homophobia chapter, which I found hilarious (if perhaps a little overplayed given the speed and completeness of her later conversion to the side of Sensibly Subversive) - I loved her inner monologue intruding despite her best efforts:
(My sister is a gay.)
(I am not upset.) (I am fine.)
(It'd be okay, I mean I wouldn't mind so much, if it was someone else's sister.)
(It is okay. Lots of people are it. Just none that I have known personally, that's all.)
But it played oddly in the context of her high-flying(?) career; I found myself unable to credit how anyone so dim and craven could ever have got or kept a job that apparently relies on talking bollocks faster and more forcefully than anyone else in the room. (Unless we're supposed to assume that she only has the position she does because her boss is a lech? Certainly she's not mortgage-paying, since her house is inherited, so perhaps she hasn't been working at Pure very long?)
I felt for her during the trip to London, though, even if her boss was on the fairly extreme side of caricature.
[Re. is it Anthea and Robin's story or not?]
That's interesting; it didn't occur to me at all. I thought it was about Andrea and Robin - or more - hmm. I want to be psychoanalytically cliched now and say I read Andrea and Midge as two parts the same person. I don't think each of them individually were particularly developed - I agree that Midge seemed oddly immature - although I could certainly imagine her as a young graduate quickly being promoted, with business sense but no emotional maturity. But to me they seemed to tell the same story of rebellion - (as proclaimed by Midge's motorbike) from different levels. Andrea from the idealistic, dream level - what you would do if you could do anything - perhaps from the mythical level - and Midge from the day to day drudgery of it. Midge was emmeshed in society - and Andrea free of it, outside of it - but I could read them as two different tellings of the same journey. Hmm in which case you would have to read Midge as also possibly homosexual - but I think that her running/panicked homophobic monologue - the confusion with her name - the remembered scene in the classroom - all make this possible. :-)
I wasn't convinced by the grandfather's story of Burning Lily [the sufragette] though. I just didn't see enough of this grandfather to believe that he'd tell gender switching stories about his childhood. Somehow it seemed too forced a gender challenge to me - unlike everyone else in the book, I didn't believe in his transformation - what did you all think?
On the grandfather: yes, probably, although he's mostly a device - and another roundabout reteller of myths. I loved this:
On her twenty-first birthday, the day that the beautiful (though not near as beautiful as your grandmother, obviously) the day that the beautiful Burning Lily became a fully fledged grown-up - which is what's supposed to happen on the day you're twenty-one - she looked in the mirror and said to herself, I've had enough of this. I'm going to change things. So she went straight out and broke a window as a birthday present to herself.
I was wondering how people took to the polemic in the penultimate section? Is a myth the right place for statistics? Oooh but that makes me think (in a non-sequitur kind of way) of how the novel works on two levels, like myth and life itself. With the myth being used as a tool to illuminate and interpret the story, but the story underneath is not a retelling of the myth... it is just a story, in its own skin. Hmmmmm. So... it isn't necessarily parallelism at all. The myth and story are different. They're too seperate things, working in tandem (and sometimes) opposition like theory vs. practise? The myth is the gloss, not the text?
See above, re. myth as propaganda. Lies, damned lies, and statistics - or rather, their use and abuse, especially in media representations of market and scientific research - are one of prerequisites of modern myths, aren't they? Maybe they're our version of Delphic prophecy - it's all about how someone in authority interprets them for you. ;-)
Yes I liked it. It has to be a risk, filling the final part of your book with angry statistics, but it seemed to resonate with the myth itself - because isn't Iphis's story about the interaction between fact and fiction, and whether the two can work together? Continuing with a comparison, as feminist literature I found it a much more wonderful read than Atwood's - whereas Atwood's message was - it seemed to me clumsily - 'this is what wasn't spoken in the myth, the REAL story' Smith was using the myth alchemically to narrate the possibility of transformation - and then putting in front of reader the real materials to be transformed - but with lightness and humour so even filling pages with statistics seemed part of the poetry.
Before I say my piece and make you all hate me (I liked it, but I had reservations), I want to throw this quote out there:
And also, don't forget, the story of Iphis was being made up by a man. Well, I say man, but Ovid's very fluid, as writers go, much more than most. He knows, more than most, that the imagination doesn't have a gender.
This read to me as an idea that Ali Smith wants us to take seriously. I'd be interested to know how far you all agree with it, in two ways:
(1) Is Ovid indeed very fluid, as writers go?
(2) Is it true that the imagination doesn't have a gender? Is it even possible? If it is, exactly what does it mean?
[I obviously forgot to respond to this at the time, so, quickly: I've never really thought of this before, but I suppose there is a certain fluidity to Ovid's writing, particularly for his deeply misogynistic time. I was very struck, when reading his Heroides - a marvellous collection of poems, each one told in the voice of a different, and differently-wronged, woman from Greek mythology - by his ability and willingness to get inside the heads of his female narrators/monologuers. Sympathetic and righteously angry - you have to love it! On the other hand, this is the author of the Ars Amatoria etc., which, though hilarious and wonderful in their own way, take a rather cynical/more typically Roman view of women...]
I'm not so sure about Ovid's fluidity - I haven't read enough of him to qualify an answer - but I think it's true - or rather, I'd like to think it's true that imagination doesn't have a gender. Surely imagination by definition is the ability to step out of the boundaries (gendered or otherwise) of identity and speak from within another plane. I think that the voice that speaks the imagination is likely to be gendered - i.e. - the art will often be heavy with the gender of the artist - but this doesn't have to be the case and perhaps Smith is saying - in the ideal artist shouldn't be.
Phew it's a little early in the morning for such topics.
Firstly, I don't know Ovid at all, except by reputation, and so it is impossible to say whether Robin's analysis is right or wrong, or whether Smith means us to know one way or another. On the second point I partly agree with Jo, but with a caveat.
I'd like to think so too [that imagination doesn't have a gender], but I'm not sure I can entirely conceive of it. Imagination is not an element, like oxygen, and it has no independent, objective life beyond the individual until it is turned into something else - a novel, a painting, a symphony. It is a quality of a personality, and it seems impossible to me that it shouldn't be flavoured by the identity of the person from which it stems. That identity is inevitably 'gendered', even if that 'genderedness' is characterised by fluidity. I would agree that imagination is beyond biological sex - beyond simply 'male' or 'female'- but since gender is an all encompassing spectrum I can't see it existing beyond that.
I think we're meant to take Robin's word for it, because Robin is presented throughout the book as someone who knows what she's talking about -- almost an ideal for Anthea to aspire to.
I agree though that Smith is saying the artist should be beyond categories, like 'boy' and 'girl', or beyond boundaries between masculine and feminine. It is these constructed denominators that Robin and Anthea confuse in their graffitti, when they sign themselves off randomly one or the other, so claiming both and rejecting both at once. But I think this is different from being beyond gender.
I agree with this; my reservation about the book is that I don't really think Smith succeeds in moving beyond categories herself, or perhaps that she's not actually that interested in doing so. Two thoughts:
(1) I am uncomfortable with the portrayal of Midge, particularly early on. It's not just that I don't find her particularly convincing as a career professional, though I don't, it's that I don't ever feel that Smith wanted to make her convincing. In her first chapter, Midge's discomfort is played for laughs, it's not a serious part of her personality worthy of examination in the way that, say, Anthea's feelings for Robin are. There's something almost contemptuous about that, to my mind. I'd like to have seen more compassion for the character; as it is it's almost as though she only exists to be the character who is transformed (redeemed), not as a person we should ever expect to really understand or sympathise with.
(2) It is a discomfortingly sexist book. The majority of the men are irredemable because of their manly ways, and the two men that are acceptable are (a) barely on-screen and (b) explicitly defined as acceptable because of the ways in which they are feminine. Midge is attracted to the feminine aspects of Paul; grandfather tells stories about his time as a girl, and in pictures of him are described in terms of typically feminine traits. (It's possible to see Ovid being almost excused from maleness is a part of the same pattern.)
Meanwhile, all the female characters are basically sound people (Midge does get transformed, after all, and not in a way that makes her any more masculine), Robin's adoption of some typically masculine traits is presented as a good thing to the extent that it allows Anthea to recognise her sexuality, and there is no suggestion anywhere that pure femininity is Bad-with-a-capital-B in the way that pure masculinity is portrayed as being.
I'm not criticising the book because it is sexist per se. It makes it a little harder for me to get sucked in, because within the parameters of the world Smith has created I literally don't exist, but I think I understand what she's doing and why (and not every book has to have a space for every person, after all). Specifically: the original myth is hostile to female-ness, so one of the ways in which she's responding to it is by creating a story that is hostile to male-ness. She's not being mean about it, if that makes any sense. In the original story, two women living happily ever after is unthinkable, and has to be prevented by magical intervention; here, the final chapter repudiates the idea that a fantastical resolution is needed or even desirable. Anthea and Robin can live happily ever after together because, well, why shouldn't they?
What I do think this does, though, is undermine the argument that Girl Meets Boy is about fluidity of gender in any adventurous sense; it's more a straightforward inversion of the original myth than
perhaps it at first appears. Yes, there are characters who cross between masculine and feminine, but the virtues of doing so flow entirely in one direction.
Yes, I was discomforted by this too. It is not that the novel explicitly hates men, although the men in it are pretty hateful, but that it offers no likeable male characters. As you say, both Paul and grandfather are both defined by their femininity and, to an extent, by their rejection of the male category. It is difficult to locate masculinity in the novel at all. I don't think there is a model for femininity either, but at least, as you say, it isn't thoroughly denigrated. I wondered at first if Midge's bulemia might reveal itself as a symptom of tortured femininity, of the desire to be petite and beautiful and to emulate models that destroys confidence and self-esteem. But in the end I don't think this happens. Rather, it is more about her will to self-control and to subsume her (very normal) desires in favour of (a rather twisted) 'normality'.
Taking a different view down the same sightline, I thought the novel was also rather 'heterophobic'. That is, it privileged relationships between same-sex couples, or between couples where at least one partner had a fluid gender identity(the grandparents; Midge/Paul). Heterosexuality got very short shrift indeed - Midge's Pure colleagues (I haven't got the book with me, so I can't remember their names. The ones from the pub; Norman possibly?) spoke in a sexual patois that was both disgusting and degrading, and her boss Keith was no better. I also thought there was a correlation was being drawn between individuals who are exploitative and manipulative (i.e. the Creatives from Pure), the ethos of the greedy modern world and heterosexuality. Almost like heterosexuality = a form of consumer slavery; a perpetuator of inequality. At the same time the homosexual or transsexual relationships were figured as radical, loving and cohesive, and associated with conscience and civil action.
Now for a bit on aspects I liked. As Nic implied, I thought the ways in which the book plays with the idea of myth, brings out the element of advocacy about it by refiguring it as advertising or propaganda, were one of the best things about it. For me the single most affecting moment was when Midge goes to bail Robin and Anthea out, and starts berating them -- "Do you really think this will change anything?" to which Anthea simply says, "yes", and Midge says, "OK then". It's very nicely done, and is part of why I'm confident Smith is making her book deliberately sexist -- it's because Girl Meets Boy is itself a kind of advocacy, a kind of advert, just as much as the original myth ever was.
(And the slogans were marvellous; I'll be disappointed if I ever go to Inverness and they're not there!)