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19 August 2020

Ali Smith’s Summer highlights the risks and rewards of this experimental quartet

Perhaps it's best to think of Summer as something other than a novel or, at least, a distinct subgenre of the novel. Fast fiction? 

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

Early on in Ali Smith’s Summer, teenage Sacha is sitting on Brighton seafront when a text from a friend forces her to think about this thing called coronavirus that’s been swirling around the internet. She contemplates the images of the virus itself (“little planets covered in trumpets”) and the racist rumours that it came from Chinese people eating yellow snakes. A seagull catches her eye. Its yellow beak reminds her of the masks that Venetians wore during the plague. The little cotton face coverings people wear today, Sacha reflects, are like “nothing at all, dead leaves, blowaway litter, compared to the real masks, the ones on the faces of the planets’ liars”. She means politicians. A page later, she thinks: “Everything is mask… Everything needs to be unmasked, right now.”

Smith is intensely interested in that “right now”. Just as Autumn, the first part of her seasonal quartet, was hailed as the “first Brexit novel” on its publication four months after the referendum, so Summer – which opens in spring 2020 – is among the first Covid-19 novels. “Why [don’t we] allow the novel more to be what it says it is, novel?” she once asked. Since 2016, the Scottish author has attempted the book equivalent of going “live” on Instagram, writing four volumes that are about as up-to-the-minute as it is possible to be within the constraints of mainstream publishing.

Autumn (2016), Winter (2017) and Spring (2019) have reflected on and mythologised this turbulent time in our political history, relishing spontaneity, serendipity and playfulness even as they despair at where we are heading. In Summer, Smith brings the seasonal quartet to a close with a recapitulation of its main themes: Brexit, the migrant crisis, the rise of nationalism, the collapse of the postwar liberal consensus, climate change, time, nature, rebirth, art. In each novel, she has reflected on a  20th-century female artist (Pauline Boty, Barbara Hepworth, Tacita Dean and now the Italian film-maker Lorenza Mazzetti) while simultaneously drawing on a late-Shakespearean antecedent (The Tempest, Cymbeline, Pericles and, this time, A Winter’s Tale), reflecting her belief in a deep-seated human hunger for reconciliation stories.

As if that weren’t enough, each book is generously twinned with a story by Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, The Story of Richard Doubledick, David Copperfield), whose own rapid-response fiction tried to channel the collective consciousness of his time – though you could say Smith is trying to capture Britain’s collective unconsciousness. She is  essentially a modernist, clearly influenced by Virginia Woolf’s interior narration.

The movement in the opening example – from text message to diffuse impressions of the global crisis to seagull to 14th-century Venice to cursing those damn politicians – is typical, an arrangement of images that “cocktail together to produce their own new thing or narrative”, as Smith once put it. In the midst of that, Sacha faces a very “right now” sort of dilemma: what kind of emoji do you send to a friend who has been the victim of racism? “There are probably loads of racist emojis, and nothing obvious to send somebody who’s been racistly done over.”

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But the intrusion of coronavirus into Summer – as well as the passing allusions to George Floyd’s murder – highlight the risks as well as the rewards of the enterprise. The seasons turn, the cycle completes, but real-world events don’t necessarily provide resolution, nor the sense of hope and redemption that the big-hearted Smith seeks to express in her novels.

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Perhaps it’s best to think of Summer as something other than a novel or, at least, a distinct subgenre of the novel. Fast fiction? Just as the crossover success of How to Be Both (which won the Costa Prize, the Women’s Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize) opened doors for experimental novelists such as Max Porter and Evie Wyld, other writers have drawn on her innovations. Autumn and Winter laid the path for Olivia Laing’s news-meltdown novella, Crudo (2018), and Kamila Shamsie, too, has praised Smith’s sense of urgency: “Let’s not have this idea that as novelists we should take ten years to digest what’s going on and that it’s for the non-fiction writers and poets to write it in the moment,” she told me last year. Erica Wagner has argued in these pages that Smith is the closest thing we have to a “national novelist”. But you might wonder whether for a writer “national novelist” isn’t more of a burden than an honour, rather in the manner of “voice of a generation” or “poet laureate”.

Plenty of people loved Autumn and  Winter. I felt the surrealism and social criticism sat awkwardly and none of the characters or relationships rang true. Too often the narratives were in service of Smith’s word doodles (“radish… radio… random”) while the meditations on art and lectures on Tory cuts frequently made me feel like I was reading “The Guardian: A Novel”. And I like the Guardian.

But with last year’s Spring, it seemed that Smith was settling into her form. After a longer gap between books, she had toned down the quipping and produced a novel that was more disciplined, focused and menacing. It had been worth weathering Autumn and Winter for the green shoots of Spring. Would Summer be glorious or  a washout?

The book opens with a characteristic mood-of-the-nation overture. The authorial voice tells us that “it got fashionable around then to act like you didn’t care” – about Windrush, about the proroguing of parliament, about climate change and about Tories lying, since they had only recently been voted back in with a majority. “Everybody said: so?” Smith writes, before noting that, actually, plenty of people did protest – but to no effect. It’s a warning about the consequences of “the political cultivation of indifference”. The passage homes in on the work of Mazzetti, a young Italian film-maker arriving in postwar London, and acts as a subtle framing device to a story about how our government blithely ignored warnings from other countries about coronavirus.

The central characters are the Greenlaw family: 16-year-old Sacha, her 13-year-old brother Robert and their mother Grace, a former actress, who live in Brighton next door to their father Jeff and his new girlfriend. Grace voted Leave; Jeff chose Remain; they separated after the referendum, which “sliced right through the everyday to a bitterness nobody knew what to do with”. Grace hopes “responsible young people” will sort things out, but there’s as much of a schism between her clever children.  Sacha worries about the environment and the homeless. Robert is a Dominic  Cummings fanboy, mere steps away from becoming an incel on a Reddit board.

After he superglues an egg-timer to  Sacha’s hand (“from now on u always have time on ur hands”) two passers-by come to her aid. They are none other than Art and Charlotte, characters from Winter, now working on a blog called Art in Winter. As the novel shifts back in time to a British internment camp for “enemy aliens” in the 1940s, more characters from earlier books emerge and the larger architecture of the quartet becomes apparent, with sculptures and violins, handed down or lost and found, connecting the generations.

In Smith’s fiction, unlikely unions often blossom over the sharing of books, art, film and stories. In her early career, Smith wrote plays that were taken to the Edinburgh Fringe and the connection to the theatre runs deep. There’s a madcap anything-could-happen quality that’s reminiscent of improvised drama, where a key rule is never to block an idea (others include: “make statements” and “there are no mistakes”). Summer is not the first book in the quartet to feature an implausible road-trip caper. In Spring, strangers tear off together on trains and in coffee trucks; this time, the Greenlaw family drive off to Suffolk with Art and Charlotte, who they have only just met. You can almost see the actors quickly arranging some chairs into the shape of a car. Smith has never worked in a realist mode but her avoidance of character development in favour of coincidence feels frustratingly childlike. There’s something too predictable about the way children in her books function as precocious truth tellers. That the Cummings-worshipping Robert is redeemed by a bit of star-gazing seems as naive as his mother believing the younger generation will ride to the world’s rescue: it’s magical thinking. But the nostalgia also feels too convenient.

Throughout this quartet, beauty and meaning often exist in the past – whether that’s a hankering for the pop art of the Sixties, the political radicalism of the Seventies and Eighties, or the postwar welfare state. Again, SA4A, the sinister tentacular security firm that does the government’s dirty work, is a destroyer of the multicultural Britain Smith mourns. In Autumn, one character throws an antique at the firm’s barbed wire fence “bombarding that fence with people’s history and with the artefacts of less cruel and more philanthropic times”.

Smith is much stronger on the absurdities of the digital age. There’s a funny moment when Sacha pinches a Hannah Arendt quote for a school essay on forgiveness. Grace tells her she will need to find the original source. But Sacha insists the Brainyquote website is a primary source. I couldn’t help wishing Smith had focused her energies more in this direction. As it is, her books feel more like products of the internet than critiques of it: unfathomably broad but madly distracting.

Given that it begins with a warning about indifference, Summer lacks the moral weight that you would expect from the concluding volume of such an ambitious quartet. The prose dashes from image to image, anecdote to anecdote, amassing references and – by extension – possible meanings. It’s also occasionally sloppy. Boris Johnson’s article on Muslim women looking like letter boxes didn’t run in the Evening Standard but the Telegraph; he was not paid £275,000 for it, that was his annual fee. There are enough ways to damn the Prime Minister without the need for embellishment. Summer includes many attacks on the Tories, but the fact that some of Smith’s examples are real, some fudged and some exaggerated is confusing and weakens her case.

There’s an equally telling moment near the end, when Charlotte is harangued for writing about art instead of “the health workers and the everydayers, the deliverers, the postmen and women, the people working the factories, the supermarkets, the ones holding all our lives in their hands”. Charlotte wearily replies, “Uh-huh”, explaining she’s feeling too disconnected from everything. It’s a valid answer – perhaps one that reflects Smith’s own feelings. But the fact that she has spent four novels writing about middle-class characters who work in the arts undermines the case for her as national novelist. One of the few exceptions is Brit in Spring, a working-class woman in her twenties who’s losing her soul working in an immigration removal centre. The portrayal isn’t always convincing, but Brit’s internal conflict feels like a real predicament and provides much-needed narrative tension.

Will these books become future classics? Possibly, though less for their literary merit and more as social documents. For there is something about the antic spirit of these novels that mimics the unruliness of our age. They proceed by sound-bites, half-funny puns and nostalgic anecdotes about Britain’s past greatness, as if to deflect from the fact there really is no plan. One can’t help wondering if this project has all been an impish game. 

Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 400pp, £16.99