Tag Archives: art history

How to be Both: Gimmick or Genius?


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.



Filed under Book Club, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Goldfinch: Literary and popular

eve_mason_tgf_123013At just under 800 pages Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch isn’t the kind of book you take lightly. That’s a joke of course, because the subject of the book is far from light itself: the maturation of a boy grappling with the loss of family/innocence, the role of art and beauty in making life worth living, the bonds and responsibilities of affiliative relationships (as opposed to ‘filial,’ or familial relationships, affiliative are those relationships with those we freely choose) and the consequences (or lack thereof) of making ‘bad’ and ‘good’ choices (and whether such choices are, in the end, ours to make).

It is a rich, complex, heady story with masterful plot sequencing and character development. It is a book that has been uniformly celebrated by literary critics  and masses of readers in an unusual congruence of what is both literary and popular as both groups connect with the complexity of the protagonist, Theo, who is simultaneously sympathetic for his orphan-hood and frustrating for his continued terrible decision making. The art heist elements lend a certain suspense, the post-event narration allows an editorializing on events as they unfold that does double duty as assurance to readers and warning that supposedly innocuous events are going to have dire consequences. The atmosphere of the novel – a combination of the dire with the luxurious – speaks to the experience of this contemporary reader: a constant striving coupled with a certainty that at no point will the material objects ever amount to real feelings of security, safety or happiness.

While this reader (I might be so bold to say I am both literary and popular – bam!) delighted in the writing and the genius of the plot and its thematic questions, I found Theo and his story somewhat uneven. I devoured the story in Theo’s years in New York, yet found his time with and post-Boris (his great friend) to be alternately plodding and disconnected. I read Boris’ unpredictability and intensity as in some ways a scapegoat for Theo’s choices and also as convenient ways to resolve apparent impediments in Theo’s life. Boris to the rescue! Boris as catalyst! While the relationship between the two character is far from pat – in fact the evolution of their friendship and relationship is fascinating – Boris’s function in the novel at times reads as too much plot incitement.

So too my sympathy for Theo waned as the narrative continued. A characterization meant to remind the reader that we are only so tolerant of those with addiction, mental illness, those overcome with grief and trauma, that we are willing – for a time – to be gracious and understanding and then we want people to “get over it” to “move on” to “pull themselves together.” The Goldfinch resists this impulse. Instead we are made to suffer along with Theo as he makes, remakes, and makes again the same mistakes and poor decisions – while knowing that he’s doing so. I suppose the frustration and annoyance is, then, that I somehow want my fictional characters to do what I cannot. I want them to be braver, stronger, better than I am. So it’s not a complaint so much as a warning that Theo is not a hero, even if he has heroic aspirations, he is instead utterly human and truthful about what that means: to do the wrong thing over and over and to still (somehow) hope and plan to be better.

I find myself struggling to come out with a definite conclusion/recommendation on the novel. I suppose I don’t have to do that with these posts. I can, instead, give you my impressions and leave it to you to decide. Much in the same way, I suppose (though without the genius of Tartt) as the novel does in asking the reader, in the end, to pass judgement on what makes for a good life, a life good enough, and a life that we somehow fall/stumble into without deciding only to realize – with horror, sadness or resignation – that the last page is fast approaching.



Filed under American literature, Fiction, Prize Winner