‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.’
Ali Smith has written the novel of 2016, a book which exhibits Smith’s usual linguistic playfulness coupled with a raw edge, forged in the fury to get down thoughts and sketches and feelings after the tumultuous EU referendum, an event which split the nation and seemed to bring together, centre-stage, everything which hovered just (deliberately) out of view, behind the façade within which we had been existing: the insecurity of our work, casual (and not so casual) racism, the fear of the outsider, the horror of social media, the privatisation of public spaces and the tawdry, terrible abuses which have come to light in the past few years.
Elizabeth is an art history lecturer who finds herself awake in this new, strange world. She is visiting her mother who is also struggling to make sense of what is happening:
‘I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular when they 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 the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on it’s way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. 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 any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful, I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.
I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.
I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.’
Elizabeth remembers studying Pauline Boty, a ‘pop’ artist who died young and whose star faded quickly afterwards. Boty was concerned with the here and now, the vitality of what was happening around her and in doing so painted a (now lost) portrait of Christine Keeler, one of the key players in that other political crisis which created a sea-change in British society, a sea-change which, according to historian Richard Davenport-Hines displayed the ‘sexual oppression, guilt and bullying, the whitewashing and blackballing, the lack of irony and the absurd confused anger’ of England at the time.
‘Wisdom. Justice. Compassion. Integrity.
It’s the word integrity, her mother said. It does it every time. I hear it and I see in my head the faces of the liars.
Elizabeth Grimaced. Every morning she wakes up feeling cheated of something. The next thing she thinks about, when she does, is the number of people waking up feeling cheated of something all over the country, no matter what they voted.’ (P197)
A further link to Boty is with Daniel, an elderly friend of Elizabeth’s, who remembers the times and his unrequited love for Boty and now resides in a care home.
Through these links and contrasts we see 2016 in stark relief, but Smith isn’t one for wallowing in either dogma or despair. Early in the novel Elizabeth discovers a huge fence erected near her mother’s village and it later transpires that this is the prison cordon for a refugee camp. The realisation is a call to arms – Elizabeth’s mother hurls a barometer (‘thing that measures pressure’) bought in an antiques shop at the fence and intends ‘that every day she’s going to get herself arrested…bombarding that fence with people’s histories and with the artefacts of less cruel and more philanthropic times.’
It is difficult to dissect this novel, so full of the passions and prejudices of 2016. It is sometimes confusing, splitting off in new directions, introducing new reflections – but in a curious way that makes it even more apt for this most confounding of years.
‘Autumn’ is a surprise novel from Smith. I have always thought of Smith as a nostalgic futurist, someone who uses elements from our past while maintaining an optimism and interest in the now and the future. What makes this book unique is the anger which lies at its heart.. ‘Autumn’ is a novel for now, a howl of anger and a call to arms for anyone who cares.
It will be interesting how the perception of this novel changes with time. It would also be interesting to se how it plays with those who still believe that the events of 2016 will make the world a better place. Is it too narrow, too specific to become a classic? Does it matter? For this time needs this novel and Smith has provided it. The novel of the year.