When I was twenty-two, I moved from the Toronto suburb where I had grown up to the city of London. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t immediately bee offered a job upon graduation, couldn’t imagine telling people that I had my degree but was still a waitress and had to find something concrete I could say I was doing. So, London. They spoke English, I could legally work there, and to everyone else it would look like an adventure.
I quickly found a job as a temp and when I went in every morning my boss Ben would say “are you alright?”
To my North American ears and twenty-two year old emotions it seemed like he could tell something was wrong so I would respond honestly.
“Quite homesick actually. I can’t afford the Internet at my flat yet and I don’t know anyone here so I haven’t spoken to another human since leaving work Friday.”
“I’m just so lonely and feel very disconnected from everyone I know.”
“A bit sad today. It’s my graduation day and I’m missing it and to be honest I’ve been wondering if this whole thing is a mistake.”
It was a year later, back in Toronto, when I learned that “are you alright” is just the young Londoner’s version of “how’s it going?” Ben hadn’t been asking me if anything was wrong and he definitely had not been looking for an honest response about my loneliness. The guy was just being polite on the way to his desk and probably thought I was a nut. Because it is nuts, honesty. No one ever really wants to know the thing you’re thinking.
Ali Smith’s 2014 novel How to be Both is remarkable for a lot of reasons, not in the least for how often characters tell the truth in a story that is in large part about deceit. How to be Both employs a double structure, it is two stories and their order of presentation may vary depending on your copy of the book. There is the story of the teenaged George, who has recently lost her mother. George tends to her grieving brother and hard-drinking father and befriends H, with whom she explores questions about her late mother. Then there is (or previously there is, depending on your copy) Francesco, a little girl who becomes a little boy so she might train as a painter. With this new identity Francesco explores the value of love and art.
As both stories explore identity, Smith explores truth. Francesco was a real painter of frescoes in fifteenth century Italy but it is never clear how much of his story is a product of Francesco’s daydreams, George’s musings, or Smith’s imagination. Both narratives slip backwards and forwards within their timelines so the reader never quite knows when they are. George is with her mother viewing a fresco, arguing about whether to Google a fact and suddenly we learn we are i a memory and George’s mother died three months ago. It is this sense of deceit that makes the truth-telling, especially in George’s narrative, so appetizing.
When George is reading her mother’s obituary she reads that is says in the first paragraph “renaissance woman,” and then it says more about her work and then it mentions her research interests and then it says more about her activist activities and then it says that she suffered a tragic allergic reaction and then it says who she was survived by and here George pauses to tell us That Means Dead. Actually, George considers, it all means dead.
Directness of thought is rewarded. George is seeing a child psychologist, Mrs. Rock, and becomes interested in what Mrs. Rock is saying only when she departs from her script and starts saying what she really thinks. But the honesty that is most rewarded is Francesco’s. George’s mother presents the honesty as a moral quandary. Francesco was commissioned to paint part of a fresco. All of the men painting are being paid the same rate but Francesco believes his section is the most beautiful so he should be paid the most. He writes a letter to the Marquis telling him so, asking for more money. For George’s mother this represents a moral quandary as it is a betrayal of the other painters. For George, it is an act of honesty and the only reason anyone has ever heard of the painter Francesco del Cossa.
Indeed, Francesco’s works were unattributed, forgotten to history, until the letter was discovered and the painter could be named. The letter was an act of honesty and though it didn’t succeed in winning Francesco greater payment for his fresco, it is the sole reason for his legacy as a painter.
Smith is saying that Francesco is both a man and a woman, a betrayer and a truth-teller and it is only because he is one that he can be remembered as the other. If Francesco had been born a boy he would have been a brick-maker like his brothers. He was a memorable man because he was a woman first. If Francesco hadn’t written that letter to the Marquis, insisting how much better he was than the other painters, his talent would have been forgotten. It was the act of telling, not the act of doing, that secured his legacy.
I’m mortified every time I think back on my morning responses to my boss Ben. The way to behave in that situation is to fade in to the background and answer that yes, you’re alright. Perhaps though, I should embrace my cultural naiveté and revel in the fact that in an office by Holborn station in London a group of my fellow coworkers might still talk about that strange, sad Canadian who always seemed to say exactly what she was thinking. After all, if I had understood the cultural rules better, I’m sure to have been completely forgotten.