I am generally a complete sucker for retellings of myths and fairy tales. I like them even when they’re not very good — I love watching what bits people leave out, and what bits they add, and what they think is most important about a myth at any given time. I like swans, and inflexible rules, and the insanity of fairy tales (of course there is a talking sausage), and the didacticism of them, and the patterns of third daughters and soldiers home from the war. So does it make sense that I’ve only read three of the seventeen books in the Canongate myth series? It does not. I must, must, must remedy that.
Girl Meets Boy, by Ali Smith, is a loose retelling of Ovid’s myth of Iphis. I’ve read the Metamorphoses, but I didn’t remember this one. So Ligdus goes to his pregnant wife Telethusa in Crete, and he says, look, if it’s a boy that’s great, we’ll keep him, but if it’s a girl, I’ve got no use for a girl and we’ll have to kill her. I’m sorry but that’s the way of it. Telethusa goes to the temple in despair and prays, and Isis appears to her, with Anubis hanging around in the background, and says, Not to worry, whether you have a boy or a girl, just bring the baby up and everything will be all right. The baby is a girl, but Telethusa names it Iphis (a gender-neutral name) and brings her up as a boy, and Ligdus (not the most observant dad around) never suspects a thing. Eventually, he arranges a marriage between Iphis and their neighbor girl, Ianthe. Well, the thing is that Iphis and Ianthe are really, truly in love, but Iphis is smart enough to know that the marriage is not going to go well as things are. She goes to the temple and begs Isis for help, pointing out that she’d said everything would be all right. Isis, true to her word, makes Iphis into a boy, the marriage is completed, and everyone lives happily ever after. And all of us are left looking at Ovid’s cheerful dissection of social gender norms and what sexuality and marriage mean and what parental expectations have to do with it, and…
(Before I go on, can anyone tell me what in the world the Egyptian gods are doing in this story?)
Let me tell you about when I was a girl, my grandfather says. This is the first line of Girl Meets Boy, and with it, Ali Smith introduces her beautiful, fluid, triumphant story of what gender is and is not and can be if we will open our eyes. The novel revolves around two sisters, Imogen (Midge) and Anthea. Both work for Pure, a Scottish company that sells bottled water. (The water serves as a metaphor in the novel: like gender, like sexuality, it is fluid, it has to do with human rights and needs, it cannot ethically be bought and sold, its marketability depends on its purity.) Both sisters have an outer appearance of respectability, but both — for quite different reasons — are deeply unhappy with their lives.
Anthea is hovering on the very edge of self-understanding and rebellion, and when she meets activist Robin, “the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen,” she falls in love and everything changes. Imogen has farther to go: she is mired in ambition, marketspeak, self-loathing, and rigid rules about what she has to put up with in order to succeed. The way this short book works itself out is simple — it is, after all, framed on a myth — and exactly right.
Teresa and I read Smith’s There but for the not long ago, and I loved her curious, playful writing and the way she formed her narrative. Here, too, she uses all sorts of little gears and ticking devices and bits of things to help make her point. There’s one passionate sex scene that never mentions a single body part:
…I was scent that could see, I was eyes that could taste, I loved butter. I loved everything. Hold everything under my chin! I was all my open senses held together on the head of a pin, and was it an angel who knew how to use hands like that, as wings?
In this version, no one actually has to become a boy to be happy, because happiness is not dependent on gender: we can be one gender or both or no gender at all and everything in the world together, and no one really has to pay very close attention.
And that’s just one example. There’s a long passage, for instance, where a man tells a story about standing up for justice when he was a girl at the turn of a century he could never have seen. It’s a new way of looking at things — and that’s one thing myth can be, fundamentally. Smith talks about story in this story: does it have to be true in order to be true? The nature of myth is that it doesn’t. (Perhaps that’s what Isis and Anubis are doing there.) In this brief book, we learn something about saying what’s true outside the lines of what’s true, and standing up for it.