Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

A few years ago my friend Corey Reilly introduced me to a new series of short novels written by prominent authors that attempt to explore classic myths in new ways: the Canongate Myth Series. Jamie Byng, the owner of the British publishing firm, envisioned what has been called ‘one of the most ambitious acts of mass storytelling in recent years.’ His plan is for the series to reach one hundred entries, but seeing as how only nine have been released in over three years, I’ll have kids in college before I read the last of them.

Though my opinions of the stories have been mixed, I generally have enjoyed what I’ve read. David Grossman’s reimagining of the myth of Samson was especially engaging, as was Russian author Victor Pelevin’s take on the Minotaur of Crete in The Helmet of Horror. But as one might expect, I am more partial to novels based upon a myth with which I have some familiarity; Alexander McCall Smith’s Dream Angus failed to really resonate with me because I’d never heard of the basis for the story.

Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy is a reimagining of the tale of Iphis, which is originally told in one of the later books in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. It makes me feel less well read to have such a gaping unfamiliarity with a prominent work like this, but I don’t know all that much about Ovid at all. But this didn’t keep me from enjoying the book at all; I found that like the best entries in this series, it managed to be quite stirring.

The story is narrated by two sisters, Anthea and Imogen (called Midge). Anthea falls in love with Robin, who is protesting against Pure, the water company that both sisters work at. Overcome upon seeing Robin, Anthea says to herself, ‘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’d ever seen in my life.’

This leads Midge to worry about her sister, not to mention fret about her own comfort with the lesbian relationship. Her stream of consciousness is transmitted parenthetically, an interesting device that separates it from her narration, and much more original and demonstrative than italics. I do wonder though how the story would have been different had Robin been referred to as a transgendered female rather than a masculine-looking lesbian. It seems that would have fit in with the myth of Iphis more easily.

Unfortunately, Smith has few if any of her characters embrace any sort of grey in the spectrum of morality. Midge hangs out with two male coworkers who are homophobic louts. The sisters’ boss at Pure tries to bed Midge so that she an take a high paying job with the company, telling her:
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?
Meanwhile, Robin and Anthea spray paint tired feminist slogans about the oppressive hegemony of men all over the town.

Smith isn’t bashful about continuingly reflecting her themes of gender and equality everywhere she can, nor does she hesitate to use motifs of the original myth again and again. But rather than being bothersome, it gives the novel as a whole a real sense of completeness, especially with the resolution. Girl Meets Boy manages to be light-hearted and serious at the same time, pulled off by Smith’s charming prose.

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