Artful

Artful by Ali Smith
222 pages
Published by The Penguin Press, 2012
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I plan to read this one at least once or twice more.


Reviewed by Indiana

Some authors have a “thing.” Ali Smith’s “thing” seems to be ghosts, or rather characters that the reader question whether or not they’re real or made up by the other characters in the story. It sounds a bit ridiculous and a bit meta to be wondering whether or not a fictional character is real, but that’s the general sense of an Ali Smith book, which I’ve come to love.

In Artful, Smith weaves essays, poetry, literary criticism together to create a new sort of fiction. The narrator, whose name doesn’t seem to pop up often, has recently lost her significant other and finds his lectures that he was to give to his college classes. Within the lectures, we get some literary criticism and art criticism, none of which is dull. I promise.

But the significant other somehow comes back to life through the narrator’s reading of the lectures. Well, he’s back to life in the mind of the narrator any way. He follows her around and speaks in a language she can’t understand and steals things from the house when he leaves. It’s at once hilarious and unnerving.

Disturbed and unsure of what she’s been seeing (and whether or not she’s been hallucinating), the narrator takes a few days off from her job as a dendrologist (or a tree scientist), to go on vacation, read the lectures, and finish Oliver Twist, which she has been trying to do since before the S.O. passed away.

Within the lectures, there are beautiful lines of poetry I wasn’t familiar with, literary criticism that was completely understandable (“You can’t step into the same story twice—or maybe it’s that stories, books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, any maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and goings.”)

But they also give the reader an intimate look into the mind and life of the significant other. It seems like a strange way to connect with someone or to bring two characters closer together, but it hammers home the point that literature is important and is not bound by the strict ticking of some universally-obeyed clock.

The ending once again reminded me of this thought. It felt like a well-woven and satisfying ending, where not all the questions are answered but just enough of them are given.

I can understand why some readers have a hard time liking Smith. I find that if I don’t read her books in one or two sittings, then I get a bit scrambled. She knows the rules of classic literature (of all types) and really enjoys breaking them, making up her own words and making strange references.

However, I love her work and think she’s underrated for the brilliance that I often find when opening up one of her books.

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