I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did this out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.
I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.
I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.
I picked up this book after hours of watching news of violence coming out of Charlottesville. I was feeling numb to it all, and this passage above caused me to burst into tears. Then that little joke at the end made me smile. But, really, isn’t pusillanimosity the perfect word for what happened this weekend?
Such is the genius of Ali Smith, that her novel set largely around the time of the 2016 Brexit vote in England could extend beyond that to take in feelings of distress as experienced all over the world.
Although the book does concern itself with politics and how those politics touch individuals and how those individuals respond, that’s not it’s only focus, perhaps not even its primary one. I think what its really about is how we see each other and how we want to be seen. It’s about the stories we tell about our lives and others and how it all fits together.
The book’s main character is a 32-year-old woman named Elisabeth. When Elisabeth was a child, she became friends with an elderly neighbor named Daniel. Daniel introduced Elisabeth to what her mother called “arty art,” and he encouraged her to think. And Elisabeth came to love him. Now, Daniel, at age 101, is dying, and Elisabeth visits him regularly to read to him.
As Daniel lies in his hospital bed, he dreams of youth and life, sometimes of being in a young body, sometimes of becoming one with nature. His dreams include images from stories he shared with Elisabeth. The dreams don’t always make sense, because they’re dreams.
The whole book has a sort of dreamlike quality, with the story drifting around in time, one idea or image leading to another. Not every bit of it worked for me, and sometimes the drifting around was too much, but that’s my love of story speaking. My love of language, however, was fully sated by this book. It’s a book of thoughts and images, and these Ali Smith handles exceptionally well. I loved it.
Once again, this year’s Booker longlist proves to be far and away better than last year’s.