Ali Smith’s *How to be Both* has a bit of a gimmick. The book is divided into two, free-standing – if entirely inter-related – halves: “camera” and “eyes.” In half of the books printed and sold the section “camera” begins the book; in the other half of the books printed and sold the book begins with “eyes.” Whether you pick up a book that begins with “camera” or “eyes” is entirely chance (unless, I suppose, if you went looking for a particular starting point). One of the questions the book asks, then, is how the framing of a story – its order, narrator, what you already know about the story – changes its interpretation. It asks the question in its form – camera or eyes? – but then throughout as we explore how a teenage girl grapples with her mother’s death and asks similar questions about what she can know about her mother, what she can know about what her mother saw and did, based on the remaining frames and her memory. So, too, we explore it in the the story in the realm of art and art history, asking what we as viewers bring to an interpretation, whether our own biographies or our own sense of what the picture ought to mean based on where it is placed (a gallery or museum), what it stands next to, the notoriety of its painter, the legacy of the work.
While reading How to Be Both and knowing the split – the purposeful division and the call to think about how stories are framed in the very structure of the narrative – this reader couldn’t help but – and here’s the genius of the book (or the gimmick?) ask how my interpretation was inevitably being shaped, purposefully being manipulated by order. So of course I’m more attached to the first half of the book (I read it with “Eyes” beginning) because this is the story that came to me first, that I attached to first, that I connected with first (obviously primacy has some resonance for me). I can’t possibly know now – without magic, that is – how I’d react if I’d read “Camera” first – I certainly tried, knowing it was impossible, to hold these two ideas in balance at the same time. It is, then, a sort of formal-genius to use the form to so brilliantly work at the reader’s engagement with the content.
On the content – knowing I can’t really separate here (or ever) from the form – I’m less inclined to declare genius and more to say very good. There’s something playful in the absences of dialogue tags and curious disorientation as we’re dropped into the middle of an already unfurling (and recoiling, and reverberating) story, working as detectives to figure out who characters are, what the plot threads are, where we are in time and space (what genre we’re in, for that matter). It’s playful but also a lot of cognitive work to keep the layers and threads in order – or in purposeful disorder – as well as to be mulling the formal qualities and the readerly tensions. It’s like we have to be both immersed in the narrative and outside the text considering how our reading is shaping the meaning. We have to be both as readers reading about how to have two things that you can’t have at the same time happen at the same time. Not that play can’t be work (or vice versa), just an alert that you may want to read this one fully focused and not in short bursts – it’s not something that you can read two pages of, put down and come back without re-reading those two pages. So read it, but read it slowly and watch while you also experience the genius of form-content-reader-interpretation happen to you while you read about.