AT THE END of Matthew Goulish’s The Brightest Thing in the World: 3 Essays from the Institute of Failure, the author quotes the second-to-last entry in the journal of the 30-year-old naturalist W.N.P Barbellion, written as he lay dying of disseminated sclerosis in June of 1919:
Rupert Brooke said the brightest thing in the world was a leaf with the sun shining on it. God pity his ignorance! The brightest thing in the world is a Ctenophor in a glass jar standing in the sun.
I have no way of knowing if the Scottish-born novelist and short story writer Ali Smith has read The Brightest Thing in the World, or if she is aware of the existence of W.N.P. Barbellion, born 72 years ahead of her on a point at the opposite end of the British Isle’s North-South axis. But reading her latest book, Artful, the image of that Ctenophor — a creature retrieved from the memory of a dead man — sticks in the mind. For one thing, Artful is one of those books that, as you open it, expands like jelly in a jar — moving like an accordion, or (to borrow an image from the French novelist Jules Renard) a caterpillar over a leaf. Smith, like Goulish and Barbellion, is also reaching for that thing that survives loss, the pliant, gleaming thing, the brightest in the world. It’s my suspicion that, somewhere in all of this, she may have found it.
With Artful, her tenth book, Smith is the latest to dip into the possibilities of a hybrid form that seems firmly enough established by now to demand a whimsical portmanteau — essiction? fictiossay? — but resists that sort of nomenclature, in part, maybe, because it's engaged not so much in stuffing the essay into fiction or vice versa as in enlarging the boundaries of each to encompass the other. Which, similar though it may sound, is not the same thing at all, and so perhaps “hybrid” is the wrong word to use. Leaving the Atocha Station, say: Ben Lerner’s art-historical, historical, and poetic musings took what might have been the province of the essay and allowed them instead to enlarge the novel’s ability to capture (as James Wood put it in his review) “the drift of thought.” Still, that was more comfortably a novel than The Rings of Saturn, whose coordinates run closer to the place where Smith has arrived. As, also, does The Brightest Thing, in which Goulish — using text (and image) to investigate the potential failure of text (among other failures) — resolves to “treat the page as specifically, as a form of direct address, as the lecture treated its moment” and so make each page an act in the service of creative thought. At stake is not the boundary of genre, in other words, but the possibility of the imagination to contain everything at once — from catalogs of ships, to disquisitions on whaling, to a poem, to photographs of a walking tour of Suffolk — and to allow each thing, the real and the unreal, to contribute to imagination’s ability to, as Smith puts it here, “know us inside and out.” Writing of this kind contains the magnificent suggestion that there are not two kinds of things in the world — that each is part of one system of thought. It reaches for whatever materials will best serve it, and in doing so, enlarges its scope beyond the present of the page. It insists on a reconsideration of the dominance of form....read more