2017 Booker Review #1: ‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith

I could happily say that this is a lovely book and stop there. But I’ll try to elaborate.

‘Autumn’ traces a tender and beautiful friendship between Elisabeth Demand, a thirtysomething lecturer, and Daniel Gluck, a hundredandsomething hospital patient in ‘increased sleep.’ When Elisabeth was a child, Daniel was her neighbour; from their first encounter, they share a charming, childlike worldview which questions everything.

Smith’s story takes us back and forth across time and into and out of their dreams in brief chapters. As a result, we learn that Elisabeth’s repeated bafflement by bureaucratic procedure is the still-glowing flame of inquisitiveness planted in here by Daniel decades ago.

Actually, the po-faced descriptions of bureaucracy at its worst were some of my favourite sections. Here’s Elisabeth being berated by a lady at the Post Office for her passport photo:

‘I’m afraid these photographs don’t meet the necessary stipulation. If you go to Snappy Snaps rather than to a booth-
That’s exactly what the man I saw here last week said, Elisabeth says. What is it with this Post Office and its relationship with Snappy Snaps? Does someone’s brother work at Snappy Snaps?
So you were advised to go to Snappy Snaps already but you chose not to go, the woman says.
Elisabeth laughs. She can’t not; the woman looks so very stern about her not having gone to Snappy Snaps.’

One criticism I have is that I wished some of the many ‘scenes’ were a bit more sustained, especially the dialogues between Elisabeth and Daniel, and between her and her mother. Sometimes it read like a flurry of falling leaves. Which, I suppose, was intended.

It’s so, well…lovely to read about a cross-generational friendship entirely untainted by moral panic (think Harold and Maude in reverse, without the black comedy and sidecar). I loved how Smith captures the way in which our heroes’ heroes become ours, even more so (in this case, the underrated pop artist Pauline Boty, pictured above).

Smith has received high praise for her wordplay, most of it deserved. It strays into self-indulgence sometimes but her prose is fresh and free. I wish more contemporary novelists would aim high even if they fall short. Consider two short examples:

‘Daniel, as still as death in the bed. But still. He’s still here.’

‘The receptionist smiles a patient smile. (A smile especially for patients.)’

Words, with their multiple shades of meaning, soften and take the edges off of hard experience. What would otherwise have been routine observations of unpleasant facts are revealed to contain the seeds of their own undoing. Language is seen to invite playfulness and tolerance.

I wish I could leave it at that. However, ‘Autumn’ is being hailed as the first Brexit novel (although the tone is clearly against Brexit and against having the referendum). Yes, arguments about Brexit rear their head in a novel as glorious and gorgeous as this one.

Smith observes the hard end of a coarsening of public debate in post-referendum Britain, with most her ire targeted at lying politicians, anti-immigrant sentiment, and inequalities of wealth and income. Fortunately such matters are rarely foregrounded.

However, speaking as someone who feels increasingly robbed by the misappropriation of the word ‘democracy’ in recent times, this struck a chord:

‘It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with. It has become a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it ever actually becoming dialogue.’

And, whatever your politics, there is much to admire in the heat of her vitriol:

‘All across the country, people felt history at their shoulder. All across the country, people felt history meant nothing. All across the country, everything changed overnight. All across the country, the haves and the have nots stayed the same. All across the country, the usual tiny per cent of the people made their money out of the usual huge per cent of the people. All across the country, money money money money. All across the country, no money no money no money no money.’

Brexit aside, it’s lovely and you should read it. You could read it in a day. Go on.

No Blank Spaces
No Blank Spaces

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