The first curveball in Ali Smith’s new novel is its title. When you pick up a book called Autumn, you know to some extent what you’re going to get: ripening apples, russet leaves, a mood of serene melancholy darkened by the knowledge of approaching winter but warmed by the memory of summer. The opening installment of a quartet inspired by the four seasons, Smith’s novel initially appears to deliver on this promise. Echoing Keats’s famous ode, the book is punctuated by placid country scenes of grain being harvested, birds flying south, days growing shorter and nights longer and colder. So familiar is this picture of autumnal transformation that readers are easily lulled into a false sense of comfort. But it slowly becomes clear that the novel’s true subject is something far more unsettling: the ways these seasonal rhythms are being irreversibly altered by human activity. Smith’s novel turns out not to be a paean to the season at all; it is about how soon we may no longer have something called “autumn.”
We tend to think of climate change as something that can only be represented on a large scale, and as a result, most attempts to fictionalize it borrow the form of the disaster novel, a genre with a rigid and limited set of narrative conventions. Perhaps the most spectacular example of this impulse is the 2004 blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow, which envisioned the destructive power of global warming as a hurricane, a tidal wave, and a subzero polar front simultaneously converging on lower Manhattan. But even the most sophisticated literary treatments of the subject—novels like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (set in a near future devastated by rising sea levels and mass extinction) or Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (set partly in New York during Hurricane Sandy)—fall back on depicting climate change through its most dramatic effects.
One drawback of this approach is that imagining climate change as a single apocalyptic event obscures what it really is: a war of attrition whose consequences have accumulated slowly enough to be almost imperceptible and through the repetition of millions of individual actions. Another is that portraying climate change as a natural disaster reinforces our habit of seeing it as a purely technical issue, something that can be managed by experts with the right tools, rather than as an existential question that concerns us all.
Smith’s sly and ambitious novel attempts to overturn this way of thinking about climate change by bringing its less obvious effects into view. The book is almost plotless; there are no extreme weather events or doomsday scenarios. Its material, instead, is the ordinary and the everyday. Rather than large-scale catastrophe, Smith is interested in the dissonant moments that break into the awareness of people whose lives are not immediately threatened by environmental disaster: plants flowering out of season, winter days that feel like spring, the steady creep of coastal erosion.
These small disturbances have now become a familiar feature of contemporary fiction. It’s hard to open a recent high-profile novel without finding mention of an October day with “nothing autumnal about it” (Garth Greenwell in What Belongs to You) or “Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year” (Zadie Smith in NW). But these observations don’t usually rise above an ominous background murmur; like a skipped heartbeat, they offer a brief suggestion that something is out of step, only to recede from awareness. Autumn, on the other hand, is constructed in a way to bring the significance of these momentary anomalies into the center of its narrative.