When trying to explain the deep appeal of Ali Smith, it’s easy to say good things, but specifics can be tough: it’s something about the vibe of the books, about the mood, the art. Thankfully, Daniel Gluck, one of Smith’s two leads in Autumn – the first in a projected “seasonal quartet” of novels – at one stage describes college as “an institute of education where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative, and because of these skills everything you think you know gets made into something new and strange”. This is as good a guide as any to the strange relational alchemy that occurs again and again in Smith’s own books, each of which is its own institute of education, albeit the kind eligible for the Booker Prize. (She’s been shortlisted three times; they never win).
When we meet Daniel Gluck, he has turned a hundred and is undergoing “an increased sleep period” at a nursing home. He is often visited by the book’s other hero, Elisabeth Demand, a 32-year-old London-based lecturer in art history “living the dream, her mother says, and she is, if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being expensive to do and that you’re still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago”. Although these scenes live in the present, Smith has an easy way of dipping into time and bringing back chunks of the past; in Autumn, these often turn on an underappreciated pop artist whom Gluck once knew, and whom Elisabeth has championed and studied. (This is a real artist, Pauline Boty.)
Here though, the time-shifting has a dangerous new edge, perhaps because it occurs against a dangerous-feeling present – alarming for its vividness. When Elisabeth walks through the village where her mother still lives, in a scene that takes place this autumn, meaning the year 2016, quaint cottages are painted with the words “GO” and “HOME” and people regard each other with new kinds of detachment and loftiness. Smith’s working in of Britain’s current mood, exemplified by the Brexit vote a few months before the book’s publication, provides a muted, depressed, just-stunned air. It does not affect the plot; it’s almost textural. But in an Ali Smith novel, the texture has claws. CR
Hamish Hamilton, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 22, 2016 as "Ali Smith, Autumn ". Subscribe here.