At least since whoever wrote "The Arabian Nights" invented postmodernism, we have been visited by metafiction — literature folding in on itself to address its own fictionality. At its best we get "Don Quixote," "Tristram Shandy," Jorge Luis Borges' stories, Chuck Jones' "Duck Amuck." At its worst we get Paul Auster. Ali Smith's new collection, "Artful" &8212; the text of her Weidenfeld lectures, delivered at Oxford last February — isn't bad, but it's no "Duck Amuck."
The lectures turn out to be "discursive stories," as the jacket copy has it, narrated by a character who discovers her (or his; it's unclear) dead lover's notes for a series of lectures. The unnamed narrator is literally haunted by the dead lover, who says things like "What is it, again, time?" If this sort of recursive cleverness is your bag, your bag is this sort of recursive cleverness. If you're like me and wish that people would go back to giving lectures that resemble, like, lectures, you might find it all a bit stale.
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To judge from descriptions of her novels "Hotel World" (2001) and "The Accidental" (2005), which I haven't read, Smith has a thing for ghosts. The ghost in "Artful" first appears after the narrator has begun to reread "Oliver Twist," and the rambling excurses that follow artfully dodge the question of what sort of book it is we are reading. Story, essay, lecture, memoir — these days, with the advent of the "lyric essay," it's all a mush. There are authors who excel at this: Susan Mitchell's "Notes toward a History of Scaffolding" is a delightfully diced blend of genres, and Susan Howe and Anne Carson have been blurring the boundaries of essay, history and poem for years.
But as much as I admire Smith's voice and the lightness with which she wears her learning, "Artful" too often recalls the old beginning-poetry-workshop standby, the poem about not being able to write a poem. Smith hints as much when the narrator recalls her dead partner's "writing the last couple of those talks — well, when you were trying to, but were, you said, stuck, blocked."
This is unfair to the comic exuberance and insight of these whatever-they-are — the narrator's conversations with her therapist are a small triumph — but "Artful" would be easier to enjoy if it were less slapdash. Every lecture in the humanities is liberally sprinkled with quotations from literary and critical heavyweights, but here they seem less buttresses of thought or even displays of erudition than means of filling up blank paper. In the space of five early pages, Smith (or her dead proxy, in her notes) quotes José Saramago, Katherine Mansfield, Michelangelo, Eugenio Montale, "The Epic of Gilgamesh," Czesaw Miosz, Edwin Morgan, Matthew Reynolds and Rainer Maria Rilke. And she throws in Damien Hirst for good measure. She has some smart things to say about some of these quotations, but the main impression is that of a canonical pile-up. The lecture is ostensibly "On Time," so Smith (or her proxy) spews forth a free-associational stream of cool stuff that people have said about time:
And when I think of Forster's tapeworm, I can't help thinking of the Nicola Barker short story … as one of Mansfield's characters in her story … The wanderings of time in Mrs. Dalloway … Forster says … Saramago points out … Juan Pablo Villalobos's 2010 novel … the Roman historian Sallust could write … what J.G. Ballard suggests … when Forster writes about how Gertrude Stein … with Proust making the act of remembrance … with Joyce making an epic forever …
I suppose part of my frustration with "Artful" stems from my admiration of the work it most resembles, J.M. Coetzee's novel "Elizabeth Costello," which began as the Tanner Lectures given at Princeton. Coetzee reworked his original lectures in "Costello," while Smith tells us her lectures are published in "Artful" "pretty much as they were delivered." Still, Coetzee's lectures also take the form of stories in which a fictional proxy is delivering a lecture. The meta-lectures in "Costello" invited the charge that Coetzee was trying to evade responsibility for his character's extreme formulations. But in the novel, Coetzee demonstrates that the conventions of metafiction can be turned to explosive moral purpose in the production of rigorous, high-stakes art. "Costello" forces the reader to think about who and what she is.
"Artful" doesn't force the reader to do anything, although you wouldn't know it from the breathless reception the book has received. Booklist discerns "the thrill of perilous border crossings." The reviewer for The Independent on Sunday seems to have been inspired to go off his meds: "I think I am in love with Ali Smith." Maybe I'm missing something. These stories and notes are by turns plodding and jaunty, engaged and auto-piloted, amusing and harrowing — but they never feel necessary. Unlike Coetzee's novel, "Artful" never gives the impression that it had to be written, that it would have clawed its way out of Smith's brain even if she hadn't been invited to deliver the Weidenfeld lectures.
Michael Robbins is author of "Alien vs. Predator."
By Ali Smith, Penguin, 227 pages, $25.95Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times