A stranger coming to town is one of the oldest plots around, but the strangers in Ali Smith’s fiction tend to be very strange indeed. Smith was first shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for her debut novel, 2001’s Hotel World, which opens with the ghost of a chambermaid who plunged to her death down a dumbwaiter shaft. Smith was shortlisted a second time for 2005’s The Accidental, in which a woman emerges to upend the sensibilities of a middle-class family — or is she just a projection of the family that’s upended itself? Her 2011 novel, There but for the, turns on a dinner guest who refuses to leave the host’s home, drawing a media circus in his wake.  

None of this reads as weirdness for its own sake. Smith revels in oddities and has cultivated a cracked, off-kilter style to match, but the gamesmanship that marks her fiction burrows into humanity without cynical plasticity. Asked to deliver a series of lectures on art last year at Oxford University, she’s clearly felt little need to change course. Unlike the sober, foursquare musings on creativity that tend to result when an author is given a podium, Artful resembles much of Smith’s fiction — willfully fragmented and with a carefully engineered mood of uncertainty. “Here’s to the place where reality and the imagination meet,” she writes, though this book does little more than loosely sketch out what that place might look like.

Artful‘s four chapters — “On time,” “On form,” “On edge,” and “On offer and on reflection” — are each anchored by a rudimentary plot. The nameless narrator’s partner has died, but the partner (the genders here are undefined) has returned, in ghostly fashion, to labor on these very lectures. In the same way your eyes have to adjust to a dimly lit room, there’s a blurry feel to this setup that takes some getting used to: Our hero is allegedly in mourning but idly ponders Dickens, and the lover’s resurrection hardly registers as even a surprise. “You’re later than a rabbit in Alice,” is one of the first things the narrator says. Drop literary references first, ask questions later.

But this chilliness, too, is to a purpose. A dead author turns out to be a useful place to start because, as Smith points out, the fear of death is one of art’s chief motivations. “Walter Benjamin says that’s where the storyteller’s authority comes from, death,” she writes. Smith takes this highly metaphorical setup and layers even more metaphor upon it: The dead writer is prone to petty thievery (what true artist isn’t?); the narrator works a job detecting root problems in trees and plays an arcade game where she tries to get “HOME” but forever winds up “LOST.”

So to be an artist is to be alive and to be alive is to be in a wilderness. Each chapter is, in a way, about this getting lost. For Smith, “form” is the imperfect shape an artist gives her emotions. “Edge” is the anxiety wrapped up in the art-making process, and the liminal, between-two-worlds characters that evoke that anxiety; the book’s title at least partly refers to the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist, a book the narrator keeps returning to. “Offer and reflection” are the tradeoffs an artist makes with the audience to make that anxiety comprehensible.  Smith treats these ideas loosely: she’s a flâneur, jumping from point to point and poem to poem, and she consistently emphasizes the unfinished nature of this work. One section is titled — take a deep breath — “Haven’t found a song title for this section yet/something about linearity — maybe Time After Time or Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime (By the Korgis — check lyrics).”

But riffs like that are themselves artistic contrivances, and this is a better organized, more thought-through series of lectures than Smith wants to immediately let on. Smith’s fiction sometimes feels like the work of a modernist airdropped into the twenty-first century, and it’s telling that many of the exemplars of her literary concerns hail from that age: Woolf, Dalí, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, e. e. cummings, and more. To that end, Artful‘s abstractions and stream-of-consciousness mood has a familiar tint. “Art itself is a broken thing if it’s anything, and…the art of remaking, or imagining, or imaginative involvement, is what makes the difference.” With so much literary fiction today snapping to a familiar mold, Smith’s insistence on art’s messiness feels at once nostalgic and refreshing.

Not that Artful‘s messes are entirely persuasive. “You know I can’t do argument,” the dead author insists, and if Smith wants to be a flâneur, she could occasionally stop behaving like she’s doing it on a moped whose brakes have gone out — she swerves from Dickens to Colette to Shakespeare to the Greek B-movie actress on the book’s cover to Borges to Margaret Atwood. What gets over bypasses the supposedly un-doable argument in favor of a plea for art’s naked, life-and-death importance. The artist, Smith writes, occupies “the complex cultural place where kindness, thievery, bartering, and gift-giving all meet, make their exchanges, and by exchange reveal real worth.” Artful comes well supplied with passion though it’s swapped in a goodly amount of disorganization, too. In Smith’s hands, that feels like a fair trade.