“Things That Happen In the World”: Ali Smith, Autumn


What pictures? Pictures of what? her mother said.

Things. Things that happen in the world, Elizabeth said. A sunflower. A man with a machine gun like out of a gangster film. A factory. A Russian-looking politician. An owl, an exploding airship —

Ali Smith’s Autumn seemed incoherent to me, though artfully so. It is composed of many pieces, some of which fit together in the orderly way we expect of a novel, with interconnected characters moving forwards (and sometimes backwards) through a shared plot, but other sections don’t belong to that plot, or they are related to it tangentially or associatively; instead of completing the picture, they add color or shape or contrast or interest of their own.

There’s a lot of attention to collages within the more conventional narrative parts of the novel, and it occurred to me after a while that Autumn was designed to be collage-like itself. After hearing her friend Daniel describe a work that we later learn is by the British Pop artist Pauline Boty, the novel’s main character Elisabeth, then a child, comments, “I like the idea of the blue and pink together”:

Pink lace. Deep blue pigment, Daniel said.

I like that maybe you could touch the pink, if it was made of lace, I mean, and it would feel different from the blue.

Oh, that’s good, Daniel said. That’s very good.

“Today I myself particularly like the ship,” Daniel adds; “The galleon with the sails up.” Juxtaposition brings out texture; our own interest and attention vary and need different provocations at different times. These both seem like ideas that illuminate the process of Autumn itself.

autumn-2-coverWhat did “I myself particularly like” in Autumn? I liked the meticulous descriptions of the landscape as it changes with the season:

October’s a blink of the eye. The apples weighing down the tree a minute ago are gone and the tree’s leaves are yellow and thinning. A frost has snapped millions of trees all across the country into brightness. The ones that aren’t evergreen are a combination of beautiful and tawdry, red orange gold the leaves, then brown, and down.

I liked Elisabeth’s unruly mother, especially her timely and heartfelt outburst:

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. . . . I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to or not.

I liked the riff on “things from the past” accumulating and spilling out across the nation. I liked learning about Pauline Boty. I liked Elisabeth and Daniel a lot. I liked the nods to Dickens, beginning with the opening line (“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times”). I liked reading the more fantastical, dream-like bits–but those are also the parts that most frustrated my desire to make collective sense of what I was reading.

offillI liked all of these parts and more about the novel, and yet while I could find a lot more examples to quote with pleasure or admiration, I don’t know quite how to talk about or conceptualize the novel as a whole, and that leaves me somewhat frustrated with it overall. I trusted Smith’s bricolage more than that of some other more fragmented novels I’ve read in recent years (Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculation, for instance, or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, neither of which I actually enjoyed much at all). I think that’s because there’s a stronger narrative thread running through Autumn, and it gives a deeper grounding in its central characters while still (especially in Daniel’s case) leaving them somewhat opaque or enigmatic. There was enough in Autumn for a reader like me to enjoy in my usual way, though Smith clearly wants to do something more, or something other, than that.

I’ve been thinking lately (not without some anxiety, to be honest) that my reading taste and habits are hopelessly conventional, mainstream, middlebrow–choose your poisonous label! I don’t seek out experimental fiction or make my critical home in some interesting and underpopulated niche, whether literature in translation or obscure mid-century novelists of the NYRB Classics kind. This is a disadvantage for someone trying to define a critical voice or personality: what (I wonder in my bleaker moments) if I don’t really have such a thing? But then I remind myself that it’s OK just to read as well as you can, and that besides, I can’t become a reader I’m not (though of course it’s good to question and challenge my own taste). It’s a bit disconcerting to think that Autumn, which is hardly a fringe work, is very nearly outside my comfort zone. For all the things I liked about it, I admit I do not feel inspired to follow up with Winter.