Autumn

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.

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13 Responses to Autumn

  1. Liz Mc2 says:

    I read the second half of it yesterday, after walking to the farmers market with my husband and daughter and enjoying some gorgeous veggies and then catching up on the news and despairing over the state of my native land. Maybe I loved it in part because its themes connected so much with the jumbled moods of my day. It illuminated something about how I’ve been feeling and reminded me of hope and defiance and love amid all the disasters.

    • Teresa says:

      I do wonder how I would have responded to this at a different time. I think I still would have enjoyed some of the bureaucracy scenes and other moments. It may not have made me cry under normal circumstances.

  2. Thanks for bringing to my attention a timely and topical book which yet sounds like it has staying power in it use of universal and eternal themes.

  3. I’m going to have to take a look at this one. Thanks for the review.

  4. mistimaan says:

    Very well written :)

  5. I read Smith’s recent short story collection and wasn’t as wowed as I thought I would be. Maybe I need to give her novel a try, though!

  6. I have a copy of fhis on my coffee table with the other Booker nominees waiting for me to finish Pride and Prejudice. I think I’ll move it to the top of the pile. I agree, with you that the list so far has provided some very good reading.

  7. I’m such a mess these days, Teresa. Part of me can’t believe there was a Nazi rally in Charlottesville, and part of me looks at the racism and awfulness that’s been part of this country like a poison since day one and I can’t believe it hasn’t been happening all along. It makes me so sad and angry.

    (I’m still probs not going to read Ali Smith though. I don’t think I would like her books. Also, I swear someone told me that Ali Smith was a dude, and I have been telling people that he’s a dude, but I just googled him and Ali Smith is totally a lady and I’m an idiot.)

    • Teresa says:

      I agree that this is probably not your kind of book.
      And I hear you on Charlottesville. My sister works at UVa, and I know someone who was part of the clergy counterprotest. It was hard to watch all of that happening. My emotions are all over. Sometimes I’m heartened by how many people seem to see what happened as absolutely unacceptable and a form of terrorism. And then I get upset at how many people in my family are posting over and over about how awful it is to take down statues without ever saying word one about the Actual Nazis.

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