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Girl Meets Boy The Myth of Iphis; Ali Smith; Canongate: 164 pp., $18

January 20, 2008|Jenifer Berman | Jenifer Berman works for the New Yorker and contributes to Bookforum and the New York Times Book Review.

"DO myths spring fully formed from the imagination and the needs of a society?" asks Anthea, one of the narrators of Ali Smith's wry and entertaining novella "Girl Meets Boy." Or "is advertising a new kind of myth-making?" This point of debate -- a sociological twist on nature versus nurture -- serves as the crux of Smith's take on Ovid's "Metamorphoses," the latest installment in Canongate's innovative "The Myths" series.

"The Myths" has featured Margaret Atwood on "The Odyssey," Victor Pelevin on Theseus and the Minotaur and Jeanette Winterson on Atlas and Heracles. Ovid's work fits right in, a lush collection of 250 stories that serves as source material for significant chapters in Western art and literature.

For "Girl Meets Boy," Smith lifts one small chapter from Ovid, modernizing the gender-bending story of Iphis and Ianthe, as seen through the eyes of two Scottish sisters, Imogen and Anthea Gunn. Both are apprentices at Pure, a fast-rising multinational ad agency intent on marketing the world's "perfect commodity": water.

"Water is history. Water is mystery. Water is nature. Water is life. Water is archaeology. Water is civilization. Water is where we live." So espouses Keith, the creative director of Pure.

Keith is the fast-talking, finger-snapping, yogi-sitting cliche abuser whose job it is to get his Palm Pilot-wielding workers all riled up. Imogen -- the older, neurotic and more eager-to-please of the sisters -- puts herself to the task. Anthea, younger and more free-spirited, skips out on Pure and into the arms of Iphisol, an androgynous art protester.

"She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life," says Anthea of Iphisol, a.k.a. Robin Goodman, a former classmate of Imogen's who scrawls provocative statements on public walls.

In meeting Robin, Anthea is the first character to begin her metamorphosis -- to graffiti artist, to lesbian, to woman in love. Imogen is a bit slower, but she eventually undertakes her own eye-opening act of refusal, going from rising marketing star to happily unemployed. In so doing, she finds love.

It's nice when a myth wraps up so well. Much like Shakespeare's "As You Like It" -- which is, in its own way, a retelling of Ovid -- "Girl Meets Boy" allows everyone to assume his or her true identity and find a partner in the final scene. Whether our global transformation and impending water crisis will work out so well remains to be seen.

And yet, in a world where advertising is unavoidable, Smith offers a well-timed reminder that consumer action -- yes, a box of cereal can save the puffins! -- is not the equivalent of social action. Wicked, political and provocative, "Girl Meets Boy" sets the record straight.

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