San Francisco, California

How to be both

Ali Smith’s potent and luminous novel How to be both has been sitting on my desk for several days as I wait to return to it and write something even remotely coherent. But I realize now that will be impossible: How to be both is the hand-waving, self-stuttering kind of book where I cannot possibly hold myself back. It’s buoyant and important in the way a good novel always is but for reasons I don’t want to spoil. Instead I want to gurgle and babble, I want to flail the book in the air around my friends nonsensically, I want to speak in tongues and let everyone know that this is a novel that will haunt them.

Here’s one of its many playful tricks: the story is split into two halves and with each copy of the book Ali Smith devilishly switches the order of them. For example, the friend that recommended this book to me began their copy with the ending of mine and so I now feel that we read two entirely separate novels.

Somehow it works, somehow even delightfully.

But which part of my copy should I extract for you? Which part describes the book in all its color? I won’t spoil the story at all but I’ll give you a sense of the playfulness in Smith’s writing. She is the sort of writer that requires you read and pay attention to the smallest of details. Not in a pedantic, classical way but in the sort that encourages the reader to sit up straight, to pay close attention, to hold on tight.

Smith writes:

It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even an imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and told you what it was like to be a coin…