Sunday, August 06, 2017

Ali Smith & the Art of Novelizing Now

Ali Smith’s new novel Autumn has remained in my thoughts in the weeks since I finished it. I’ve been following Smith’s output since her 2012 book Artful, which is a vital and unclassifiable work of narrative, literary reflection, and aesthetic philosophy that I return to frequently. To read Smith is to read a reader as much as a writer — or to read the readerly imagination in action: her work demonstrates the symbiotic nature of literary appreciation (or better, osmosis), emulation, and outright invention. Her books are as transparently and blatantly inspired as they are infectiously inspiring. They make you want to read more, and with greater curiosity; they make you want to write more, and with greater freedom and immediacy.

Autumn,­ a fairly short novel printed in fairly large type, is pleasurable in no small part because of the swiftness with which the reader turns its pages. It’s a book I’m sure I will re-read soon, but as I continue to think about my first swift experience of Autumn, what fires my imagination is the work’s incredible promptness (“timeliness” would be too weak a descriptor). This must be Europe’s first “Brexit novel.” Although I’d hate to see it reduced to mere topicality (its themes and concerns, like in all of Smith’s work, are vast), the fact that Autumn handles — and handles with such emotional and existential deftness — an event so recent, is a kind of literary/artistic miracle. Here’s a book — a genuinely beautiful, mournful, philosophical, emotionally awake book — that responds with alert sensitivity to our now, and does so through a narrative set squarely in our now,  rather than by relying on a historical setting, political hindsight, a retrospective narrative framework, metaphor, or synecdoche. And yet also, much as in her other books, Smith’s literary allusiveness, her delightful readerly intelligence, is at work here in every part.

Autumn opens with the words: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.”  Later on, in a perfect distillation of this novel’s profound immediacy, Smith writes:

            “All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.
            All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roof, the traffic.
            All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt 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. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications. All across the country, people called each other cunts. All across the country, people felt unsafe. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked. All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick. All across the country, people felt history at their shoulder. All across the country, people felt history meant nothing. …”

This passage continues, and constitutes a 3-page stand-alone chapter. This is literature that is alive and resonant and reckoning with lived experience. Smith is documenting, inhabiting, reporting on, existentially novelizing a crucial present moment that will, as we all can sense so clearly, become a signal historical moment whose lasting consequences, though we can only predict them while in the thick of our now, will be plain to see from the future.

How astounding — astounding and instructive — to watch literature at work in this way.