April 5, 2017
Autumn, by Ali Smith
I am baffled by Ali Smith’s new novel, Autumn, but not in a bad way. Not remotely. Whereas I found her previous book, the much acclaimed How To Be Both a bit much—it was long. It was also half-set in a world that’s not my own, which is one of my failures as a reader, that I am so much less engaged with literature that isn’t a reflection of my own circumstance. But Autumn is firmly set right now, give or take nine months or so. In the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder and the Brexit vote in June, and just this general sense of undoingness and that the world is not quite what we knew it to be. Which is what I count on literature for, to make the pieces into something that tells a story. This is why I’ve never thought that literature should be that axe to shatter the frozen ice inside me or whatever, but more like a paddle to steer us to shore.
Smith’s character picks up a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, it was the best of times, it was worst of times…: “The words had acted like a charm. They’d released it all, in seconds. They’d made everything happening stand just far enough away. / It was nothing less than magic./ Who needs a passport?/ Who am I? Where am I? What am I?/ I’m reading.”
This too: “…whoever makes up the story makes up the world.”