Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)
Reviewed by Brenna McPeek
Ali Smith’s multi-faceted novel Autumn tries to do many things—things that, when listed out, seemingly couldn’t (and maybe shouldn’t) all fit into one novel. The novel, the first in a seasonally inspired series of four, takes on the perplexity of post-Brexit England, constructs a refreshing intellectual relationship between a young girl and her elderly neighbor, and poetically ponders the complexities of death, nature and memory. And those are just the major plot players. In Autumn, Smith embarks on a path that proves challenging—as paths dealing with today’s muddled political landscape unequivocally are—and her results are often staggering. But some choices she makes fall short, or maybe don’t go as far as they need to –they result in the reader wondering, for example, why we just spent fifteen or so pages on an infuriating trip to the Post Office for a passport. Smith gives us a lot to chew on, but while many aspects of the novel go down smoothly, others get stuck in your mental molars only to be found weeks later, just as bothersome as they were when you first tried to digest them.
Autumn tells the story of Elisabeth, a young academic, and Daniel, her elderly neighbor from childhood. The novel’s chronology jumps around, giving the reader insight into Daniel and Elisabeth’s unusual friendship during Elisabeth’s childhood, as well as their separate lives decades later. In the present narrative, which takes place in England in 2016, Daniel is in a coma and contemplating life and death in a poetic, out-of-body purgatory-like state. Elisabeth is struggling with his condition, while also navigating England’s political and cultural landscape after the Brexit vote. She rarely gives blatant commentary on the state of her world (though other characters and the authorial voice itself, do), and this is one of the ways in which the novel succeeds. For the most part, Autumn is nuanced with its topicality. The reader sees the ugliness of a country undergoing an identity crisis through descriptions of Elisabeth’s mother’s neighborhood, such as the new and imposing fence, a “mass of chainlink metal,” recently constructed. Or through Elisabeth’s often disturbing observations of society, like the people she sees yell at a visiting Spanish couple, “This isn’t Europe…Go back to Europe.” Or, perhaps most successfully, through conversation with her mother, a woman who throughout the novel struggles to accept this new version of England, yet ultimately discovers her true self in that struggle. One might initially want to write Elisabeth’s mother off as a stereotypical older woman who hates change, misses the past and is tired of the present (“I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t.”). But she eventually becomes one of the most (if not the most) complex and entertaining characters in the novel. By its end, she changes radically in a manner that I found myself wishing would translate to the novel’s protagonist.
Smith constructs Elisabeth’s character through episodes from her adolescence and from her adult life post-Brexit. The novel’s haphazard chronology is refreshing, but leaves us with what feels like two different Elisabeths—the Elisabeth that quietly navigates the new world in the present and the young Elisabeth that is discovering herself through her neighbor Daniel in the past. In Elisabeth’s adult narrative, Daniel is in a coma, so we see the crux of their relationship in the conversations that occur between the two throughout Elisabeth’s childhood. It is in these scenes of dialogue where the novel really comes alive. Elisabeth and Daniel’s discussions range from the interpersonal consequences of lying (“the power of the lie…always seductive to the powerless”), to the free will of characters in storytelling (“always give them a choice…always give them a home”). It is enlivening to see two intellectual minds debate their musings on life, love and art—especially when this age-old Socratic tradition is made fresh by the unlikely pairing of an old man and a young girl. As much as readers might relate to the topical havoc of the modern world, it is these nostalgia-fueled scenes of debate between Elisabeth and Daniel that rise to the surface of this heady novel. Elisabeth’s character comes to life in these scenes, in ways it does not in the novel’s present narrative, where she is relegated to the dull (albeit utilitarian) role of the observer. At times, it is difficult to stick with her diluted, jaded older self, especially after coming off the intellectual high from a scene with her colorful, younger counterpart.
For these reasons, Autumn’s transient structure is both compelling and distancing, all at once. Smith tells her story in found bits and pieces and while (after some practice) it is not difficult to find yourself in place and time with each new chapter, it does prevent full submergence in the novel. Smith utilizes so many different styles that switching between sections can be jarring. In the scenes of Daniel meditating on memory, nature and life, Smith’s language is effortlessly poetic in its rhythm and sparsity: “Daniel Gluck looks from the death to the life, then back to the death again.” Her passion for art is obvious in the debates between Daniel and young Elisabeth—particularly when the novel incorporates the artist Christine Keeler into the book’s second half. Smith’s interest in Keeler feels so relevant, so raw, that one might wish Keeler’s life had been more heavily incorporated into the novel. But despite these successes, Smith’s satire could use some fine-tuning. Smith makes Elisabeth’s struggle to obtain a new passport a reoccurring stint in the novel and, without fail, it becomes more frustrating each time we return to it. We wait with Elisabeth for her turn, we sit through her entire(ly) frustrating conversation with a Post Office employee, only to have her application turned away because of cloyingly unrealistic objections to her passport photo. Smith clearly intends for this scene (and the nearly identical one that follows it later in the novel) to be absurdist, satirical, but reading it feels like enduring a very real trip to the post office. The eventual payoff of this bit is barely worth the effort of reading its parts. Elisabeth eventually receives her passport; which feels as if it happens for this sole purpose: “Her mother points to the words European Union at the top of the cover of the passport and makes a sad face.” Because, Brexit. On the other hand, when Smith discusses Brexit without irony, she guts the reader with the simple sad reality of it all. There is a particularly beautiful narrative interlude in which Smith discusses the result of Brexit: “All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people thought it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.” In statements like these, the aftermath is raw—a country’s polarized confusion without any pretty poetry to disguise it. It calls to mind Dickins’ classic opening of A Tale of Two Cities, and succeeds, as other great novels about political impact do, by taking the reader away from the narrative and giving them a glimpse of greater reality that exists beyond the fiction. Smith interrupts narrative to deliver these insightful prose poems and they gnaw at the reader with their earnestness.
Smith writes so lyrically and passionately about art and culture, but when it comes to injecting her scenes with cultural critique, her turn to farce stands at odds with the otherwise raw and meditative nature of Autumn. The world’s current identity crisis can be easily made farcical, but Smith is most successful when she pushes past that temptation to shine light on small moments of humanity. A debate between a young girl and an old man on memory and forgetting (“We have to forget. Or we’d never sleep again.”). An aging woman’s small rebellions as a reaction to a world she doesn’t agree with. Pushing past the murky, tumultuous present to ask the unexpected, yet forever important question, “What are you reading?” At the root of all the confusion in the world is this humanity. And despite its Brexit impetus, humanity is the heart of Autumn. In the novels to follow, we can only hope for Smith to give us more of these unassuming, unexpected glimpses of it.
Buy this book: Indiebound