The phrase “in other words” occurs just once in Ali Smith’s new novel, when a post office clerk tells the heroine, Elisabeth Demand, that mocking the criteria for passport photographs will not help her application: “In other words. Will get you. Nowhere.” But the phrase could easily recur, serving this bridge or segue role, on every page, in every paragraph. Elisabeth, a 32-year-old art history lecturer, adores rhymes and synonyms and fun-house puns as much as her ancient pal Daniel Gluck – and the narrator adores them even more. It’s a tiny leap from marriage to mortgage, sick to sic, annus to anus. A description of words as organisms gives way to oregano-isms and, in turn, to “Herbal and verbal”. That there are always more words – if not proximate, then reachable through some kind of associative logic or allusive magic – is the novel’s guiding creative principle, and the engine of its message that everything flows, categories collapse, and the world obeys a cycle of coming and going, ruin and rebirth.
Faced with this regime of puckish didacticism, the reader could be left feeling enlightened as well as tickled, or badgered and patronised. It depends how you respond to the claim to revelation in a paradoxical expression such as “old news”, in the notion that time travel doesn’t belong to science fiction because, as Gluck instructs Elisabeth, “We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.”
As a novel of ideas, Autumn – the first in Smith’s planned seasonal quartet – reads at times like a ludic sermon to the converted. Certainly its political dimension is not in the business of changing minds. The novel ping-pongs around the 25-year history of Elisabeth’s friendship with Gluck: they meet as next-door neighbours, when Elisabeth is eight years old, and he soon becomes a father stand-in and mentor, the burden of his guidance concerning the comforts of nature and pleasures of the imagination. But the novel’s main setting is the extremely recent past: Elisabeth needs a new passport, Gluck is 101 and more or less comatose, and Britain has just voted to leave the European Union. Though it’s understandable that the concept of a referendum might not appeal to the author of How to Be Both, Smith seems never to have suffered the terrible conflictedness of her fellow Ovid-lover Boris Johnson. It is impossible to picture a rival draft of Autumn written along opposite lines. The rhetoric is far too strident. Elisabeth, on hearing the anti-immigration invective on a discussion programme, wonders if “she’d be able to listen to Radio 4 in any innocence ever again. Her ears had undergone a sea-change. Or the world had.”
But intolerance is not reserved for the intolerant. Smith pits the art-loving, song-singing, word-toying, world-hugging antics of Elisabeth and Gluck not only against the Ukip mindset, but against anyone who doesn’t match their standards. Watching the reality-TV show The Golden Gavel, on which her mother is a guest, Elisabeth takes pleasure in a shot of the surrounding landscape, and recognises that “cow parsley has a language of its own, one that nobody on the programme or making the programme knows or notices is being spoken”. Later she takes issue with the phrase “unlawfully trespassing”: language can do anything, go anywhere, but tautology remains a sin. And when she discovers the work of Pauline Boty, the painter, collagist and occasional actress who died of cancer aged 28, it’s an enthusiasm she shares with Gluck but few others: “no one in the art world”, and not her male art history tutor, who says that “there had never been such a thing as a female British Pop Artist, not one of any worth”.
Autumn makes reference to Ovid, Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens and Aldous Huxley, but the writer whose work it most recalls is Jonathan Coe. Both Smith and Coe abandoned university careers, both borrow wildly from art and literature of all kinds: they are the only novelists I can think of happy to take epigraphs from articles that appeared in the Guardian. Coe was born almost exactly a year before Smith. He used that headstart last November when he published Number 11 – a novel like Autumn in a number of respects. Both tell the story of a girl from a single-parent family, acquainted with natural beauty as a child, who moves to London to teach. And both erect postwar British politics and culture in contrast to our modern ailments: academic jargon, reality TV, Tory mendacity, cuts in public spending and the Iraq War.
Like Coe – whose number 11 is a bus route, a well-known address and the deepest storey in a basement dig-down, as well as the novel’s position in his oeuvre – Smith uses the title to unify her numerous concerns. And as in Coe’s case, Smith’s desire to amuse and impress is coupled with a desire for instruction that is undermined by impatience, immaturity, a love of the quick return and a reliance on satirical fruit not so much low-hanging as fallen and rotting.
But the Coe comparison also serves to emphasise the richness of what Smith has attempted. Both Number 11 and Autumn are elegies, but only Smith presents mourning as a perennial human state and not just a reaction to the decline of the old liberal-left consensus. And her formal and verbal itchiness reflects a desire to get right inside states such as excitement or curiosity, to show how thought and feeling overlap or coalesce – an effort akin to Gluck’s talk of “picturing the view from the inside of the eye, but precisely when the migraine is happening to it!”. Then there are those moments in which Smith manages to resist her own energy and fluency, as on the book’s penultimate page, when she spurns metaphor in favour of a confrontation with quiddity: “The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like – no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass.”
Ali Smith appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 27 November. For more details visit: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage