Autumn: Not Transcendent, Not Inspiring, Not Worth The Read

Smith approaches prose in the same way a wood cutter might approach a log.

While I was getting ready to review Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016) I thought I should read a few online reviews. I was prepared for the usual Ali Smith fan-club slush about Autumn being a journey, one woman’s passage to self discovery, a celebration of nature even.

Most reviewers seem to have seen something in Autumn that has gone completely over my head. I’m tempted to suggest that because Smith’s work hints at greater meaning, these reviewers have mustered one out of thin air.

The story centers around the comatose nursing home resident Daniel Gluck and Elisabeth Demand, a woman who was Gluck’s neighbour years ago. Elisabeth reads to Gluck weekly, posing as his daughter for the beady-eyed nursing staff. Flashbacks are frequent, and show the friendship between Daniel and Elisabeth as the latter goes through her difficult teenage years. If the dialogue is anything to go by, the 32 year old Elisabeth seems not to have evolved from her teenage years: she is confrontational and uncompromising.

The dialogue and third person narrative style of Autumn keep the reader hovering just above surface level. Here is an exchange between Daniel and Elisabeth:

‘What are you reading?’ he’d say.

Elisabeth would hold it up.

Brave New World, she’d say.

Oh, that old thing, he’d say.

It’s new to me, she’d say.’

The New York Times writer Sarah Lyall hailed Autumn as the ‘First Great Brexit Novel.’ In reference to Elisabeth reading works like Brave New World and A Tale of Two Cities (readers open the first page of Autumn to the sentence: ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.’) Lyall writes that, ‘Smith teases out big ideas so slyly and and lightly that you can miss how she goes about it.’

Literary references aside, Smith’s approaches prose the same way a wood cutter might approach a log. No love is lost on the chapter beginnings. Two of my favourites are: ‘Time lapse of a million billion flowers opening their heads,’ and, ‘It was one of the days of a week in one of the seasons in one of the years.’

Perhaps it is disingenuous to show you these chapter beginnings on their own. I wouldn’t mind them so much if they weren’t so gimmicky. Smith’s prose screams gimmick. Thoughts like ‘It’s funny to be sitting on such an uncommunal communal chair’ fall flat.

Everything pointed to this book being about nature, the beauty of it and how it relates to human life. Girl Meets Boy (2007) was bearable because of how well Smith used naturalistic imagery. I was expecting something Forster-esque, Larkin-esque from Autumn, or at least something that mirrored the intricate naturalistic imagery in Girl Meets Boy, and instead I got: ‘Time lapse of a million billion flowers.’

I felt deflated reading Autumn. Worse than anything else is Smith’s half-hearted attempts to create meaning out of her half realised imagery. While unconscious, Daniel dreams that he is on a beach, and ventures into some nearby shrubbery for coverage. Smith had the perfect opportunity to create a link between nature and the fact that Daniel is said- later on- to be nearing the end of his life. Instead, the writing is so detached from reality that the reader has to work hard to make sense of it.

Another comparison to Girl Meets Boy: I can appreciate Smith’s 2007 novel because she tackles an admirable cause: Smith reimagines one of Ovid’s metamorphosis (the myth of Iphis) and in doing so examines the complicated gender politics in modern day lesbian relationship in Scotland. In Girl Meets Boy there is triumph for a group of people who are marginalised, belittled, and stigmatised. In Autumn there is a few half-hearted references to Brexit.

Lucy Scholes, writing for The Independent, labels Smith as one of the ‘country’s foremost chroniclers, her finger firmly on the social and political pulse.’ At the first hints of immigration and Brexit, I expected Autumn to progress in much the same way Girl Meets Boy did: I thought Smith was saving herself for the denouement of the story, where she would bring all the strands of the novel together and reveal some underlying political subtext.

It must have flown over my head.

 

 

‘Must Read’ Books I Hate and What To Read Instead

Alternatives to the ‘must reads’ books you can’t be bothered with

Whenever I go into Waterstones or WHSmith I remember the mile long list of books that I am expected to read (I’m looking at you, Goodreads), and I am filled with the worry that a better read person might ask me if I enjoyed Thomas Hardy’s depiction of injustice in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or Williams’ portrayal of the declining South in A Streetcar Named Desire.

For those of you who feel that the list of ‘must reads’ is just too long, I have chosen some time saving alternatives that are better than the cult classic.

Farenheit 451

Farenheit 4451

Farenheit 451 (1953) follows Montag as he begins to question why he burns books for the government, and wonders what can be gained from a world without accessible knowledge. As his loyalty to his profession deteriorates, Montag becomes enlightened and despises the consumerism he sees around him: he is distainful of his wife’s devotion to the television and her acceptance of whatever the state wants.

In the foreword to Farenheit 451 Bradbury writes that ‘When the first version of the novel was finished, I hardly knew what I had done.’ And I believe him.

The plot rattles from one point to another predictably. At first Montag believes it is ‘a pleasure to burn’ literature, because he enjoys watching the flames bite away at the pages. What follows is a plot twist that anyone could have seen coming: Montag realises that the act of burning books is a way for the state to control the population, to keep them docile, and to keep them ignorant.

I lost interest in Bradbury’s jumpy plot when Montag, now secure in his belief that burning books is an abomination, visits his comrade Faber. Faber greets Montag and introduces him to the ‘audio-capsule,’ the ‘green bullet’ that allows him to communicate with Montag while he is out in the world. Faber is too afraid to join the rebellion himself, and so he will guide Montag through the ear piece.

When Faber exclaims ‘I’ve had this little item ready for months!’ despite them having only met weeks ago, it all became a bit too much for me. Bradbury portrays a man who is torn apart by his desire for enlightenment in the totalitarian world by racing from one plot point to another, not fully developing any strands, and not tying any together.

What To Read Instead:

Morning, Summer Night: The Screaming Woman

Summer Morning Ray Bradbury

The Screaming Woman (1951) follows a young girl as she walks out of her back door only to discover a woman, buried alive and screaming, in the field behind her house. The young girl runs to her father for help. He makes her wait until he has finished his dinner, and then asks why she is so flustered. She tells him that there is a woman buried alive screaming in the back garden.

He says that he has never known a woman that wasn’t.

Bradbury’s short story is succinct and powerful: he explores social constructs far more subtly than he does with Farenheit 451, in which the protagonist’s journey from ignorance to knowledge is glaringly obvious. The Screaming Woman explores intersections between gender, familial relations, and age through Bradbury’s use of a young female protagonist who, dismissed by the masses, takes matters into her own hands.

A Clockwork Orange

A CLockwork Orange.jpg

Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962) follows the fifteen year old protagonist Alex as he leads a gang of criminals through  totalitarian, state ruled England. Burgess’ novel is rife with violence: Alex is imprisoned for the rape of a woman and experiences yet more violence at the hands of an experimental procedure called Ludovico’s technique. In this experiment Alex is injected with a serum which makes him violently ill, and he is then forced to watch dozens of clips of murders, rapes, and assaults. The aim of this experiment is to alter his reaction to violence: he feels nauseous whenever he thinks of committing a crime.

a clockwork orangeee

In a 2002 interview Burgess said ‘It is not the job of the artist to propound messages […] it is merely the task of the literary creator, like the musical creator, to produce shapes, structures.’

It is this focus on shapes, elusive and undefined in the mind of the reader, and the insistence on portraying the characters as card board cut outs, imitations of real people in real situations, that made me bored of A Clockwork Orange. Like Bradbury, Burgess presents his protagonist as a figure who serves to highlight the issues within their futuristic, totalitarian societies, rather than characters in their own right. The characters are barely able to react to the situations themselves before the God-like hand of Bradbury or Burgess swoops down to remind them that they serve the purpose of acting against the state, never relaxing for one moment under the dystopian, totalitarian rule.

What To Read Instead:

Nightmares and Dreamscapes: Suffer The Little Children

nightmares and dreamscapes

Stephen King’s short story Suffer The Little Children (1972) depicts the story of Mrs Sidley, an elderly pre-school teacher who begins to believe that the children she teaches are possessed by demons. Despite King’s story being supernatural in focus, the reader is drawn to the characterisation of Sidley, and the real life aspects of mental decline in old age.

King creates tension leading up to the violence denouement of Suffer The Little Children, and it is this careful use of striking scenes that makes this short story worth a read. The ending is all the more impactful because King has not sprinkled violence throughout. The stative line ‘She killed twelve of them and would have killed them all if Mrs Crossen hadn’t come down for a package of composition paper’ shocks the reader, in that it serves to emphasise the realistic aspects of King’s story.

 

 

 

 

 

Colonisation, Technological Advancement, and Marriage Across A Galaxy: A Review of ‘The Book of Strange New Things’

‘The Book Of Strange New Things’ is Dutch born writer Michael Faber’s 28th book, published in 2014.

 

‘when sophisticated technology fails, primitive technology steps in to do the job’

In the not-so-distant future mankind transcends the barrier of space and inhabits a foreign planet. Or foreign planet(s). Faber is ambiguous about the progress of technology in his futuristic novel. The reader is aware of the enterprising space company USIC, but not of its competitors, and not of any other habitable planets. Far from the conventional Sci-Fi novel, Faber’s ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ is grounded in the relationship between Peter and Bea, the former of whom is launched further than any Christian missionary has ever ventured before.

In his mission to bring the word of God to the strange inhabitants of Oasis, Peter struggles to maintain a relationship with his spouse Bea. As the British economy collapses (which is at first foreshadowed through Bea’s message that the local Tesco has run out of tiramisu), Faber projects Peter’s anxieties about their relationship through his increasing need to be far away from the USIC base and living among the Oasans.

Incidentally, while living with the Oasans Peter is unable to communicate with Bea: the small ‘Shoot’ system they used to send messages requires electricity. Throughout this novel Faber shows both the extreme need for, and a total disinterest in, technology. Unlike the brutish depiction of aliens from traditional Sci-Fi authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Faber’s Oasans are not intent on world domination. The Oasans have a primitive view of the world, which they refer to as ‘here,’ having not contemplated the name of their planet. Faber’s presentation of the obsequious Oasans raises the idea that he is criticizing British colonisation: in this case the inhabitants are in the early stages of civilisation, and crucially, Peter notes, have not even created the wheel.

Peter finds himself experiencing a crisis of faith as the most likeable alien (Jesus Lover Five) falls ill, and Bea’s safety becomes dubious in the abruptly changing climate of Britain. The beginning of the novel marks a progression in British technological achievement, whereas the ending questions whether or not man should use technology to inhabit other planets, and in doing so, become alien themselves.

In a desperate attempt to reconnect with Bea, Peter informs the USIC of his intentions to return home. However, this too is dubious. Faber reveals precious few facts about the USIC: they have a rigorous interviewing process, and they refuse to send any of Peter’s messages that hold negative connotations about the USIC. Faber foregrounds the struggle between technology and man as the ending to ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ reads as the beginning of an apocalyptic novel. Interestingly, the prospect of Bea and Peter being forever separated is far more devastating than the collapse of the British Empire.