Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis
The latest edition in The Myths series, Ali Smith's Girl Meets Boy is a thought-provoking read if a bit philosophically light. The novel is set in contemporary Scotland and concerns two characters' interactions. Life-changing events stimulate a conversation about sexism both in the developed and the developing world. The story is organized into five chapters that vacillate from one first-person narrator to the other. Turning from the uptight Imogen to the free-spirited Anthea, the tale unfolds partly as an unspoken dialogue between these two sisters.
Problems arise for this short novel when it attempts to take on the whole of modern sexism. Equating first-world injustices like wage inequality with the horrors of sex-based abortion seems arrogant. The author's aim is obviously to lead the reader toward an understanding that sexism is still prevalent and that we may be unaware of how it subtly operates in our society. This is in addition to attempting to make us aware of the overt brutality with which it operates in other societies. The connection between the two worlds, however, is executed too blithely, with Anthea and her lover Robin's graffiti tags as the glue. Given the gravity of what's at stake in reality, the result is insubstantial.
To exacerbate matters, Imogen's male coworkers at corporate Pure (the water company where she's employed) are the source of so much hyperbolic misogyny one begins to wonder if its actually 1914. Surely they have sexual harassment lawsuits in Scotland. Perhaps assertions like, ".that's why Queen Victoria didn't make rugmunch illegal," from the story's men are meant to feed into the plot's mythic elements. Perhaps men in Scotland are just ignorant fatheads who expound on their archaic views of lesbianism in the presence of women colleagues. Neither supposition seems fitting.
Another area where this ambitious book is lacking occurs at a pivotal plot point. The structure's dependence on Imogen's epiphany is paramount. But her epiphany's basis and motivation are a stretch. One memory of a kindness paid turns her personality completely on its head with little prelude or indication that this was possible. The effect feels underdeveloped and thrown together, as if loose ends were being tied up without detailed attention.
Despite its dull political teeth and this plotting issue, Girl Meets Boy does a beautiful job of infusing meaningful myth and poetic prose into realism, leading to genuinely charming and humorous moments. Unlike A. S. Byatt whose lapses into extended poesy seem self-indulgent at times, Smith's judicious words are necessary and highly evocative of the characters' feelings. This type of poetic writing accomplishes what more straightforward prose couldn't.
Smith also exhibits an adept yet subtle understanding of contemporary feminist ideologies and interweaves them with historic myth. This is notably carried off without a Caryl Churchill-like venture into the absurd. These types of comparisons allow the reader to see that the book contains layers of artistic allusion, but its firm footing in realism lends the story the weight its lacks in other areas.
The novel's spoonful-of-sugar approach to real political and sociological problems is what makes it feel light but also what saves it in the end. There are many who are unaware of present-day injustices and the abuse women suffer because of their gender. On this level, this work of fiction can be seen as informative and valuable not merely entertaining, minimizing its flaws.
Additional praise can be found in the novel's use of corporate culture to show how modern myths in advertising and PR can be toxic, causing us to forget who we are and what's morally right. There's nothing as enjoyable as mocking corporate culture and using the elicited laughter as a weapon to reveal how evil giant entities can be. Smith achieves this while she simultaneously shows us through other myths and memories how revolutionary thinking belongs to no one generation or gender.