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. So Artful might better be described as an event, or, even better than that, a relationship.
Artful is a collection of essays in a novelist’s scaffold, and Smith uses the language of fiction, more or less, in order to engage fiction in a discussion of its own possibilities: “There’ll always be a dialogue,” she writes, “an argument, between aesthetic form and reality.” But this dialogue, in turn, “allows us not just to imagine an unreal different world but also a real different world, to match reality with possibility.” In this respect perhaps it would be remiss not to mention (and Smith does) Virginia Woolf, who in A Room of One’s Own and other essays also plundered the imaginative as a way of explaining the realities of literature and the literary life. And like A Room of One’s Own (and like the essays in Goulish’s Brightest Thing) the bulk of Artful was first delivered as lectures. It’s wonderful to imagine how it may have sounded to hear Smith recite, from a podium at Oxbridge, lines like “Let’s not just say. I actually am,” as though performing an elegy, or — in that related if not identical action — telling a story before bed. Artful is full of these kinds of pleats: joints between the spoken and read, possible and impossible, between literary and physical form. In it, as Roland Barthes (through his translator Richard Miller) insists, “words glisten, they are distracting, incongruous apparitions.” Full of apparitions of all kinds, Artful is an erotic text in Barthesian terms, a text of sadness and bliss. And in Smith’s work too, as Goulish writes, “We see naturalism achieve quiet transformation.”
Nominally, the book is a portrayal of grief, recounting the fate of mourning once the act has extended past the “twelvemonth and a day” of song and conjured the ghost (blank-eyed and confused) of the mourned. Specifically, Smith’s narrator, sitting down to read Oliver Twist, finds herself haunted by her revivified partner of unspecified gender: “You were covered in dust and what looked like bits of rubble […] your skin was smudged.” As she deals with the presence of this ghost — referred to, in a gesture both intimate and inclusive, only as you — the narrator finds and reads a stack of drafts for talks that her lover had been working on shortly before he or she died. As the talks and the story and the narrator’s thoughts about both of them unfurl all at once, a conversation is made possible about the ways in which loss — in its union of time, form (or formlessness), and the ways it engages with giving — may be necessary to the formation of story, or, even more broadly, to art. “Time will tell,” Smith writes, and in her limber hands that old saw is broken open, and for the first time in years maybe, has something to tell indeed.
Smith’s title, of course, is a nod toward the Artful Dodger, the Dickensian rascal whose jack-be-nimble antics have left their fingerprints throughout her book, with its textual metamorphoses and bookshelves-worth of sources. The dead visitor, for instance, proves remarkably light-fingered, pilfering coffee mugs and TV remotes to stash in the pockets of its coat. Appropriately, perhaps, for in life this person was a writer (Smith’s narrator, for her part, is an arborist), and the essays the narrator discovers are a real magpie’s nest of reference, running the gamut from the musical Oliver! to Czeslaw Milosz and Michelangelo to the properties of city trees and certain birds. Like the Dodger too (“Why a beak’s a madgst’rate; and when you walk by a beak’s order, it’s not straight forerd, but always agoing up, and niver acoming down agin. Was you never on the mill?”), the dead visitor speaks another language. This turns out to be Modern Greek, but may as well be gobbledygook: words, like everything else and especially, are more than what they are. But the Dodger of Oliver is a good deal more menacing than the Dodger of Oliver!, a fact Smith (or at least her narrator’s absent-present love) points out, and the dead presence, though welcome in a sense, proves not to be a pleasant guest: soon, the neighbors begin leaving notes about odors and backed-up drains.
One of the marvelous things about this book is its reconciliation of the serious — both in the form of this crumbling, smelly guest and in its ardent advocacy of art — and light. Smith, whose love of words and skill at wordplay has already been made apparent in her stories and novels, performs dodge after dodge after dodge: “It was regardless. It had no eyes for anything but itself.” Her words are quickened in two senses — as in the quickening of something to life (in this case, the word “regardless”), and the agility of movement within the word from one idea to the next — Hermes (or the Artful) as both messenger and midwife. I seem to remember someone writing of Goulish’s book that he used words as “muscles,” though I can’t find the reference now, and the same could be said of Smith’s — all her words are verbs, ways of doing, small, kinetic works of art. (Barbellion: “You must imagine a tiny soap bubble about the size of a filbert with four series of plates of combs arranged regularly on the soap bubble from its north to its south pole, and flashing spasmodically in unison as they beat the water.”) And, as in any great art “tragedy and comedy coexist, fight it out,” as the author of Smith’s “found” talks writes, “resolve in forms of uncanny rebirth, findings of those who were lost and restorings of the dead to life, usually via a display of working artifice.” From artifice though we are led to cleverness, to the comic, where irreverence springs from love, in this case of language (“NB too,” she notes, “to tell is also a verb that means to count, particularly to count coins.”) and also of another person, as in romantic love. Smith’s laughter, like Chaplin’s, is both generous and transformative: language’s elasticity, like love, becomes a kind of gift, making, as Barthes might put it, the text into “an object of pleasure like the others.”
Of course words, and especially names, are also a means of survival, which is interesting, as neither of Smith’s central characters, dead or alive, is given a name. Instead she and her book seem at least partially concerned — as Goulish was — with something like the “poet’s vital quest for a word that will ‘last.’” (N.B. again: “vital,” and the several things it means, and also “last” which ends this sentence as well as the quest; a person could give chase all day to Smith’s sentences without once catching hold of them.) The literal haunting in Smith’s book evokes the fact of an art supplied by absence: that is, that something conjured or “made up” (again, in both senses) by the writer is expanded and “made up” again by the reader’s desire for it to mean. “It’s the combination of what we’ve got and what we haven’t, that makes the human, makes the art, makes this transformation possible.” In this way, any writing at all summons something like a ghost — the presence, as dull or vivid or friendly or terrible as the words the writer’s used, conjured by the fact that, in the end (and as in the physical essays in Smith’s story) there’s nothing there but the words themselves.
Form, the physical dimension of this shadowy thing brought to life by the electricity of linguistic play, is “also a matter of breaking rules, of dialogue […] Through such dialogue and argument, form, the shaper and moulder, acts like that other thing called mould, endlessly breeding forms from forms.” The slippage between “mould” and “mould” (though on this side of the Atlantic we cock our heads at that “u”) leads to another slippage, that of “form” and “form” where prominent in Smith’s dialogue of forms is the form of the deceased (“the essence of form itself — it can generate dimensionality out of nothing, out of repetition, out of fusion, even out of its own barrenness […] not that the shapeless doesn’t have form too, it does, because nothing doesn’t.” ) who’s both a thief and the giver of gifts. The book’s last section explores this second (or third, or umpteenth — it’s hard to say where the numbers begin or end here, and the more times you read the book the more the equations stack up) dialogue between giving and taking, the trick being that the one requires the other and that art requires both. Empathy is, as Smith shows, a kind of thievery — the stealing of other’s responses makes art itself a pickpocket.
Part of the problem, or the beauty of it really, is that art — and artfulness — requires forms that don’t stay fixed (Smith offers, as a cautionary tale, Flaubert’s famous simile of the cracked kettle and dancing bears). So what Smith has done with Artful is to invent a new form apart from form, to build a kind of Frankenstein’s monster inside the act of art. “In the aesthetic act something comes to life,” she writes, and then continues, spooling and unspooling her words: “That’s a good phrase for it, comes to life, suggesting both something separate, apart from life, extra, from elsewhere, and something not alive in the act of being invested with life.” That the same could be said for the union of two people in love, as her characters are, is part of the “double-take” Smith, ever playful, arranges. In retaining only the most blurred and genderless ghost of form, the book brings to life the pansexual erotics of the text the way Barthes envisioned it — omnivorousness as a form of generosity, of accepting (and excepting — because acceptance leads, for the giver, to loss) whatever it is offered. Like love, art can and does unhome us. And yet, one might ask, borrowing from Goulish-of-the-delightful-name: What exhalation escapes our vanquished human form? What angel of the light finally ascends? Artful’s answer is just this: a jellyfish born in language; the untrappable, glistening “you.”