Spring Cleaning, Ali Smith Style

The New York Times
By Rebecca Makkai

“There’s ways to survive these times,” a character says in Ali Smith’s new novel, “and I think one way is the shape the telling takes.” It’s a gorgeous, heartening sentiment, one I happen to believe. I’m not sure, though, that its author agrees.

Is it possible, in this vertiginous moment, for a novel to be both timely and deep? Timeliness, these days, requires a quick trigger finger; the world of rising fascism and viral falsehoods and ongoing environmental disaster won’t hold still long enough to be written about with more than visceral haste. The mercurial politicians who demand our stringent, focused repudiation tend to prompt, instead, knee-jerk responses — angry email threads, reactive essays. Inconveniently for the artist, literary depth requires time, distance, composure. The years of drafting and revision, the months awaiting publication: By the time a book appears, the conversation has moved on. (Anyone fancy some literature right now about Trump and Macron’s long, strange handshake last May?)

But the Scottish marvel Ali Smith breaks rules better than anyone. She can build entire narratives around dreams and hallucinations. She can start a new novel in the middle of another. She can let a single exclamation point stand as an entire paragraph. It wouldn’t surprise me if she can write hanging upside down like a bat. And she’s given us, with “Spring,” the third in a planned quartet named for the seasons, an addition to a work-in-progress both as raw as this morning’s Twitter rant and as lasting and important as — and I say this neither lightly nor randomly — “Ulysses.”

The travails of Europe and the globe were on the horizon when “Autumn” was published in 2017 and banging at the door the following year in “Winter.” But “Spring,” set largely in October of 2018 (yes, October as in last autumn; yes, of 2018, as in just a few months ago), is the angriest, the most cathartic and despairing, of the three. It’s consumed with Brexit and refugee detention and social media and Trump.

It’s also a psychological novel about a filmmaker, Richard Lease, who has lost his best friend, an older female screenwriter. Notably, all three books of the quartet so far hinge on male reverence for female artists — previously real ones, here both real (Tacita Dean) and fictional (Richard’s friend Paddy) — an admiration almost as shockingly refreshing on the page as when encountered in real life.

It’s also, starting 129 pages in, the more plot-driven story of Brit, who has lost her soul working in an Immigration Removal Center, and her impulsive journey to Scotland with a schoolgirl named Florence, who’s shown up at the I.R.C. one day, effortlessly breached security and shamed the director into having the bathrooms cleaned.

We get to see a lot of the I.R.C. before Brit and Florence hit the road, and the portrayal is crushing. Smith has always been sharp and brutal, and often funny, in her Kafkaesque moments — fruitless passport or loan applications, attempts to unsubscribe from emails — but when she skewers the inner workings of a bureaucracy that detains asylum seekers indefinitely, the tone rises correspondingly to the desperate laughter of gallows humor, the deadpan of the dead at heart. (“This isn’t a prison,” Brit corrects a Vietnamese refugee who came to Britain sealed in a hauling container, “it’s a purpose-built Immigration Removal Center with a prison design.” He then asks her what it’s like to breathe “real air.”)

Smith never physically describes the young Florence, a compelling and infuriating character. We know only that she’s 12 or 13 and alone; according to one of many rumors, her mother, a migrant, has been detained. Otherwise Florence remains a cipher both to Brit and to us, turning her societal invisibility into a kind of superpower. “Certain white people in particular can look right through young people and also black and mixed race people like we aren’t here,” Florence says. It’s a slippery sentence, one specifically constructed so that we could understand Florence to be a person of color, or might equally believe that she includes herself in this hypothesis only because she’s a child.

This shouldn’t work — what author gets away with a fundamentally foggy main character? — yet it does. Florence’s vagueness feels authentic and fundamental, self-protective, not as if Smith is using her as a symbol but (wonderfully) as if Florence is using us.

When Brit, Florence and Richard all end up in the same Scottish town, the two stories do merge in a satisfying way. (Logistically satisfying, that is; in Smith’s work, as in Joyce’s, human connection, while always the goal, is sometimes redemptive, sometimes ruinous.) Even so, “Spring” slants more postmodern than its two predecessors. This is largely thanks to interstitial bits framed as the collective voice of Twitter trolls, as the voice of social media executives, as a fairy tale. Late in “Spring,” Smith offers an excuse for those sections: They’ve been written in a notebook by the precocious Florence.

It’s a shift in the novel’s framing that doesn’t quite work, and not just because 12 seems too young to have written these passages. (One of Smith’s only persistent flaws is in getting the ages of children slightly wrong. In “Winter,” a man doesn’t remember the existence of an aunt he lived with on and off until he was 5. Perhaps 3, but not 5.) In handing authorship of these gorgeously rageful texts to a character, Smith has taken power from the narrator (a narrator with agency and personality, if not corporeality) and from the agglomerative force of the text itself. The overall work is still a marvelously manic patchwork, especially when we get a chapter from no character’s point of view on Tacita Dean’s attempt to catch a cloud, or ones on the months of March and April — or in the moments when Smith plays fast and loose with the timeline, skipping back and forth like a madwoman with a wonky telescope. And so my objection is minor; but something would have felt more honest in that fury emerging from the voice of the novel itself.

Or maybe I’m dead wrong. Maybe a 12-year-old girl wresting control of anger from the collective consciousness, making it personal, is precisely the point. Maybe Florence is catching clouds.

One of Smith’s great themes across the series is how people are thrust together and how they might live separate lives that miss one another by inches. The only narrative ties between the three extant books are tenuous human ones; “Winter” was linked to “Autumn” by one man, remembered by his erstwhile lover but not by the son he never knew. “Spring” links back to “Autumn” with the late revelation of another severed parental relationship.

Richard Lease’s latest film project is about the weeks Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke spent in the same small Swiss town in 1922 (the year “the world broke in two,” as Willa Cather once asserted), unaware of each other. “Real people,” Richard’s friend Paddy says, to encourage him, “in the same place by chance, and not knowing, not meeting. … That’s brilliant in itself.”

And here is Smith, in another year of global rending, showing us the fragile possibilities of connection. Mansfield and Rilke did sort of meet, we and Richard learn late, but only in writing, and only in the most gossamer way. Richard’s new screenwriter, meanwhile, forces the lives luridly together, placing the two in flagrante delicto in a swinging cable car.

That Smith manages to show things falling apart as well as some small center holding is to her great credit. At the same time, I’m not sure her message is optimistic. Our efforts, it seems, to put our faith in human interaction might be as silly as that screenwriter’s.

Smith’s seasonal quartet need not be read in order, but it’s increasingly clear that she is crescendoing — that to experience the books backward would be to read them against the way the world spins, against the way we, and she, are hurtling toward something horrific.

I doubt Smith herself knows all of what “Summer” will entail, as it will, by publication, have absorbed the blows of a changing world. But if there’s a precedent for hope, it’s in the ways her characters reach toward one another. If there’s a precedent for doom, it’s in the ways they fail.

In either case, these novels, in straddling immediacy and permanence, the personal as well as the scope of a world tilting toward disaster, are the ones we might well be looking back on years from now as the defining, if baffling, literature of an indefinable and baffling era.

And the shape the telling takes is, if not salvation, brilliance itself.

Ali Smith
Fiction
Spring