I recall many years ago reading an article by Martin Amis in which he posed the question: when will someone blow the whistle on John Fowles? Now I happen to quite like some of Fowles’ novels, especially The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but I want to ask the same question about Ali Smith, whose latest offering Autumn (shortlisted for the Booker Prize but losing out to the quite brilliant and mesmerising Lincoln in the Bardo) I’ve just finished.
Autumn is the third Ali Smith novel I’ve forced myself to read – a couple of others I’ve abandoned halfway through and flung across the room in sheer frustration and exasperation — bewildered by her success. Do people really enjoy this stuff? Why? Autumn for example is no more than a series of random meditations (or, let’s be honest, random jottings) on a variety of unrelated subjects that seem to have caught her attention in the last year or so, So we have short chapters about: the Brexit referendum (but nothing interesting to say about it), the Christine Keeler scandal of 1963 (ditto), an obscure female painter from the same period, the antiques show Bargain Hunt (here rechristened The Golden Gavel), various other books (A Tale of Two Cities, Brave New World, The Tempest) and so on. These are strung together on a thin necklace of a narrative about an art history scholar, her mother and their ancient next-door neighbour. What’s the point of any of this?
I imagine Smith’s thinking went something like the following: I’ll cobble together all these disparate random elements and hope they add up to a novel in the end. If they don’t, well, it doesn’t really matter because I’ll write them all in a quirky (for which read silly) style, so people will think I’m being bold and experimental. And I’ll call the book Autumn – though it has precious little to do with autumn other than the odd reference to Keats and a few descriptions of falling leaves – because that way I can make it part of a notional sequence and get three more books out of it. I find myself wanting to ask, like Amis, not just who will blow the whistle on Smith (a regular presence on the Booker shortlist) but how do her books even come to be published at all? If a novice writer sent this stuff to a publisher, it wouldn’t get beyond the slush pile.
The Guardian called Autumn ‘a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities.’ The New York Times calls it ‘the first great Brexit novel’ and ‘this beautiful, subtle work’ while conceding that ‘Sometimes it’s hard to grasp all the nuance, to corral all the unruly strands into a coherence, especially in Smith’s most Woolfian stream-of-consciousness moments.’ Among all the admiring reviews on Goodreads I found only one that came close to replicating my own experience of the book. ‘I don’t know,’ the reviewer writes. ‘I don’t know what to write about Autumn. I don’t even know what I’ve read. What was I supposed to get from this book, what was the purpose? Was it a Brexit novel? I don’t think so… As you can see, I cannot write a coherent review because I did not think the book was coherent either. I cannot say I enjoyed the experience.’ Hear hear to that.
For the record, here’s a short extract from the book’s opening chapter, which should give an idea of the sort of stupid, pointless, drunken style the book’s written in: It is perhaps rather fine, after all, being dead. Highly underrated in the modern western world. Someone should tell them. Someone should let them know. Someone should be sent, scramble back to, wherever it is. Recollect her. Affect her. Neglect her. Lie detector. Film projector. Director. Collector. Objector.