ARTFUL by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton), 237 pages, $30 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Ali Smith's recent fiction has smashed literary conventions, and she blows up more of our expectations with this brilliant... set of lectures? Fiction? Essay?
It doesn't matter, really. Artful is packed with insight and occasionally drenched in emotion. To lectures on four themes that she did actually give - on time, form, edge and "offer and reflection" - she's added the fiction that they were written by her dead lover, who has now returned as a ghost.
Referencing hundreds of works by artists ranging from Michelangelo through the moderns and from British silent films to the criticism of Margaret Atwood, Artful revels at once in ideas and in wordplay. Smith probes the elusiveness of meaning, the uselessness of linear narrative and the dicey issue of authorship. Whose essays are these anyway?
But if this book is the product of deep reading, you don't have to be as erudite as Smith to enjoy it. A section on the paradox of offering - who gives without wanting something back, even if it's only credit for giving? - is powerful and typical of the book's accessibility.
Smith is no snob. She's the kind of thinker who spends as much time analyzing Lionel Bart's lyrics for the musical adaptation Oliver! as she does rereading Oliver Twist. And she's a sucker for a pun. Wordplay is definitely a Smith specialty.
Underneath the cheeky intellect is a feeling narrator mourning the loss of her lover. If I have a small cavil with the work, it's that there isn't enough of the ghost, who wanders the house stealing things and speaking in gibberish.
But wherever Smith's mind goes, you'll want to follow.