Friday, 17 April 2009

New Wine in Old Bottles

"I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the new wine makes the old bottles explode," wrote Angela Carter, which Ali Smith quotes in her introduction to Carter's Wise Children. This innovation of -and passion for- giving new readings to old texts is something Ali Smith does herself in Girl Meets Boy, a modern take on Ovid's telling of the Iphis tale -and joyful transformation- in his Metamorphoses. Ali Smith turns the myth, literary convention, gender and sexuality -myths or societal constructs?- on their head.

She frames her subversion in four chapters, alternately narrated by sisters Anthea and Imogen (Midge). For a short novella the character development in the sisters is startling and the subject matter expounds the concept of gender and sexuality as myths. Before the novella opens, Smith quotes from Judith Butler's groundbreaking text on gender theory, "Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity ... rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time."

Girl Meets Boy is part of the Canongate Myths Series, from which I have previously read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, another fine and fresh telling of a classic myth (that of Odysseus) but from the untold female persepective of his wife, Penelope. I had been meaning to read it for some time but reading Nymeth's enthusiastic review prompted me to do so now. The book was immensely readable, enjoyable and fits wonderfully well into my Once Upon a Time challenge and is one I am filing under mythology.

"[D]o myths spring fully formed from the imagination and the needs of a society ... as if they emerged from the imagination and the needs of a society, I said, as if they emerged from society's subconscious? Or are myths conscious creations by the various money-making forces? For istance, is advertising a new kind of myth-making? Do companies sell their water etc by telling us the right kind of persuasive myth? Is that why people who really don't need to buy something that's practically free still go out and buy bottles of it? Will they soon be thinking up a myth to sell us air? And do people, for instance, want to be thin because of a prevailing myth that thinness is more beautiful?"

By focusing upon corporate social responsibility -the Pure Highland Creative company Imogen and Anthea work for and their manufacture and marketing of Eau Caledonia- is an effective means of embodying the above quote within the narrative. It reminded me that Evian water is the word naive backwards. By the novella's end -and the events that lead up to it, which I won't disclose- Anthea and Imogen have their own brand of political activism, of feminism, and the fight for equal rights and gay rights.

Ali Smith has an interesting style, that isn't for everyone, but having read The Accidental and now this, I am definitely a fan; I am also pleased to be reading some Scottish Literature again as it has been a while. I love her interweaving of popular culture (Buffy features in Girl Meets Boy amidst other cultural references) and historical fact in a way that is casual, almost throwaway. Smith reminded me of Suffragism history lessons at school, where I learned about the Cat and Mouse Act (discussed but not named in the opening pages) where women protested in prison by starving themselves, were released and then watched until they ate again and were re-arrested... of Section 28 in the UK that disallowed "promotion of homosexuality" within schools and its repeal in Scotland in 2000 (and the resultant propaganda posters on buses) and the remainder of the UK in 2001 ... of knowing that Queen Victoria didn't illegalise lesbian sex because she said it didn't exist but not remembering how I came to know that in the first place ... These were all welcome recollections as they were things that should be at the forefront of my mind and not at the dusty back. It's a good writer who can draw out memories and repressed/suppressed emotion and ideology within their readers, as if they are sharing these memories with us; conversely, it a great achievement to be teaching these facts to a reader for the first time.


Jodie said...

Loved this one and I'm glad I tried it, despite having a bad time with 'The Accidental'. I'm just about to start Angela Carter so I really enjoyed the quote you started with.

Paperback Reader said...

I really enjoyed The Accidental but can see that it (and Ali Smith in general) isn't for everyone.

I am a HUGE Angela Carter fan, so I hope you enjoy reading her!

claire said...

I had mixed feelings about The Accidental. I enjoyed it but somehow was annoyed by it. It's one of those books I can't decide if I like or not. But I can see she writes well. What other books by her do you suggest?

Paperback Reader said...

So far I've only read this and The Accidental! I've been meaning to read Hotel World for a very long time.

Nymeth said...

Excellent review! I'm so glad you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Paperback Reader said...

Thank you, nymeth!