Ali Smith’s Novel of Disintegration

Omens of Disaster

Ali Smith’s new novel examines the ecological and political disintegration at the center of our world.


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.

Since the publication of her first novel, Like, in 1997, Smith has been widely praised for her experiments with literary form. Though always strikingly intelligent, her books can sometimes feel scattered—clever puzzles weighed down by a profusion of associations and language games. Some of these tendencies are present in Autumn, which is both wide-ranging and intricately con­structed, and many of its preoccupations—right-wing nationalism, the 21st-century security state, 1960s feminism, Pop Art, Romantic poetry, literary modernism—seem far removed from the subject of ecological devastation that gives the book its intensity. But while Smith’s love of complexity hasn’t always worked in her favor, here she’s found a subject that merits the full measure of her stylistic ingenuity. Autumn is one of the first novels to take climate change seriously as a problem of form. It is also one that insists we take it seriously as a political and cultural challenge that requires us all, as both individuals and collectives, to answer it. How, Smith asks, have the stories we’ve told ourselves about the natural world dictated our relationship to it? How has our changing climate begun to call these stories into question? And how, in the end, can we imagine a world without these stories that would still be worth living in?

Autumn begins with a pair of apparently disjointed scenes. In the first, an old man wakes up naked on a rocky shore. Seeing a group of girls dancing in a ring on the shore, he runs to take shelter in a grove of trees and covers himself with leaves. In the second, a young woman sits at the main post office of a provincial English town, waiting to submit her application for a new passport. But the old man—we learn that his name is Daniel—is not on a beach at all; he is lying in a nursing home in the period of extended sleep that signals approaching death; the beach, trees, and girls are a dream. The young woman at the post office, Elisabeth, is his former neighbor. Although not related to Daniel by blood, she is effectively his daughter, having adopted him as a surrogate father after her parents divorced. Now in her early 30s, Elisabeth has been coming to sit by Daniel’s bed every week, holding one-sided conversations about the books she’s reading and waiting for him to wake up.

The novel alternates between these two perspectives, from Daniel’s visions to Elisabeth’s prosaic reality. Daniel, it emerges, is 101; he was born during World War I and remembers the 1930s more vividly than the recent past. Given their extreme difference in age, and the contrasts between the two worlds they live in, he and Elisabeth seem at first less like fully developed characters than allegorical figures of harvest and springtime. Daniel, we understand, has reached the autumn of his years; he has lived out his allotted term and is ready to cede his place to Elisabeth’s generation. At 32, Elisabeth is no longer exactly young, but she still has the unformed quality of an ingenue, overcome by the world and uncertain about the course of her life, and her weekly visits to Daniel’s bedside seem motivated less by filial piety than a desire for direction and guidance. The book compares her and Daniel to Miranda and Prospero in The Tempest; and, like Miranda, Elisabeth is still waiting for her future to unfold for her.

Each chapter opens with Daniel a little bit closer to death and closes with an idyllic harvest scene charting the small signs of seasonal change. The suggestion is of a natural progression of the stages of human life governed by the rhythms of the agricultural calendar, from planting to harvest, spring to fall, youth to old age, life to death. As Daniel’s metabolism shuts down and his breathing becomes irregular, he dreams he is turning into a tree, his body returning to the earth, dissolving until there is nothing left but “a torn leaf scrap on the surface of a running brook, green veins and leaf-stuff, water and current.”

This is a lovely picture of the natural world as a site of perpetual regeneration, an endlessly forgiving resting place outside history and beyond all change. But this pastoral vision is deliberately misleading; Smith hopes to contrast it with the political and ecological degeneration happening outside Daniel’s body. Autumn, after all, is not only about climate change; it is set amid the chaos of Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union last summer.

Daniel, lying half-conscious in the nursing home, registers these external upheavals as a remote disturbance to his own natural decline. In a muffled echo of the news playing on every radio in the country, he dreams of the bodies of drowned refugees washing up on his imaginary beach. But for Elisabeth, the chaos outside Daniel’s nursing home has become an all-consuming crisis. The natural and economic rhythms of life, the patterns that give reliable order to our seasons and that ensure our passage into adulthood, appear to have broken down.

For most of her adult life, Elisabeth has been watching the future she’d imagined for herself steadily contract. She’s an art-history lecturer at a university in London (“living the dream, her mother says”), but she is on a zero-hour contract with no job security; her university is slashing funding; and her students are graduating into debt. Still living in the cramped apartment she’s been renting since her college days, she is slowly coming to terms with the fact that she’ll probably never be able to buy her own home: “It’s no big deal, no one can these days except people who’re loaded, or whose parents die, or whose parents are loaded.”

Brexit has only delivered the crushing final blow. Every morning since the vote, Elisabeth wakes up “feeling cheated of something.” Her mother, who is retired, looks up property in Scotland, saying, “I’m not leaving the EU.” “It was all right for her mother,” Elisabeth thinks. “Her mother has had her life.” Up to this point, we infer, Elisabeth has been clinging to the hope that, despite the ominous warning signs, she might have a life like her mother’s—that eventually she can get a better job, move into a bigger apartment, be able to afford an occasional weekend trip to Paris, and one day maybe even have a child. But these hopes now seem unfounded.

Looming behind the political crisis threatening her future is the larger ecological one. An epigraph informs us that, due in part to the severe floods of the past several years, so much topsoil has been eroded that “Britain may have only 100 harvests left.” Brexit, which now looks like the opening shot in a prolonged period of global instability, has marked not only the end of Britain’s partnership with an integrated Europe; it has also cast doubt on the possibility of addressing climate change within our existing economic and political system. Elisabeth’s problem, we understand, is not only that she needs to accept a more constricted future than she’d originally envisioned; it’s that it’s hard for her to imagine a future at all.

With this, Smith puts her finger on one of the most disturbing aspects of our current moment. Historically, even the worst catastrophes—­wars, famines, political upheavals—­unfolded within recognizable limits. Even if your own existence was threatened, you could be certain that, somewhere else, people were going about their daily routines unaffected by your suffering, and, in the background, the biological cycle of life, inexorable and unchanging, continued to roll on. This is the essence of the many mythological and religious allusions that Smith has woven throughout Daniel’s story: Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

Over the past three-quarters of a century, however, the twin threats of nuclear war and climate change have removed this comfortable certainty: The first has given us the power to destroy most forms of life on the planet, the second the knowledge that, without a dramatic transformation of our current patterns of social organization, we almost certainly will. Now we have forever wars, endless natural destruction, and threats to human life without any end on the horizon. One of the most unsettling aspects of this shift has been the erosion of any stable distinction between the natural world and the human one. As the mounting evidence of climate change has become increasingly hard to ignore, what we used to think of as the reliable backdrop against which our lives played out is erupting into the foreground in unpredictable and often terrifying ways.

How, then, does a writer depict this erosion of boundaries? Smith’s solution is to give Autumn the form of a collage. The novel is built out of a cacophony of different voices. Scraps of borrowed verse, newspaper headlines, court transcripts, overheard conversations, and other found materials are stitched together with no clear causal or temporal logic. Chapters jump back and forth in time, from Elisabeth’s childhood in the 1990s to Daniel’s youthful days in 1930s Europe to his late middle age in the London of the 1960s. Disjointed news updates periodically break into the text, evoking the sensation of scrolling through Internet headlines:

The Power To Influence. I Can Make You Happy. Hypnotic Gastric Band. Helped produce social media ads. Are you concerned? Are you worried? Isn’t it time? Being engrossed in TV broadcasts equally hypnotic. Facts don’t work. Connect with people emotionally. Trump.

Smith uses this structure to draw attention to shifts in tempo and inflection that might otherwise remain in the background. Her technique is to introduce a simple, familiar rhythm and then, after repeating it a few times, gradually begin to distort it. Fragments from the schoolroom classics that Elisabeth reads at Daniel’s bedside—Ovid, Dickens, Huxley—are woven through the novel. But even these appear unfamiliar and hard to decipher. Stripped of their original context, they only serve to underscore the distance between their measured cadences and the reigning confusion of Smith’s novel. As Elisabeth is anxiously searching for a way to give order and meaning to her own experiences, so is the reader left only with the fragments—a fractured literary form, not unlike the early modernist novels, in the place where a coherent narrative used to be.

One of Autumn’s recurring themes is our willed blindness to the anomalies that threaten our sense of order. Signs of ecological disturbance are everywhere, but as Smith shows, her characters acknowledge these deviations from the norm only in passing and without admitting their larger significance. They communicate their knowledge of the altered landscape they have inherited obliquely, as if unwilling to register the magnitude of what they have lost. “That was back in the years when we still had summers,” Elisabeth’s mother says wistfully at one point, reminiscing about the nights when Daniel used to set up a film projector in his backyard to screen old films for Elisabeth. “When we still had seasons, not just the monoseason we have now.” A moment later, she’s talking about something else.

But although the characters pass quickly over these small breaks in the fabric of daily life, Smith’s novel draws our attention to them. By removing the traditional scaffolding of plot and causation, she invites the reader to make connections that other climate-change novels, in the key of apocalypse, drown out. In the small village where Elisabeth’s mother lives, a World War II pillbox has fallen into the ocean, a remnant of an old coastal-defense system proving itself powerless against the new threat of rising sea levels and eroding shorelines. On the other side of the village, a mysterious new security fence has gone up, enclosing an area that was formerly common land. Near the bus stop, someone has written the words Go Home across the wall of a cottage.

At first, these incidents seem unrelated. But Smith subtly reminds us that these phenomena are all in some ways linked to climate change: The wave of global migration and the corresponding wave of right-wing nationalism that Autumn depicts have been provoked and exacerbated by disturbances of long-established climate and agricultural patterns. After a while, the threat of ecological catastrophe seems to shadow almost every action in the novel. Elisabeth’s paralysis as she sits by Daniel’s bed, reading old books whose wisdom no longer applies to her own life; her mother’s compulsive viewing of an Antiques Roadshow–like TV series in which contestants sort through immense piles of obsolete junk; the furious invective of the pro-Brexit commentators on the radio: All of these come to seem like ways these characters have found to protect themselves from becoming fully aware of what the changes taking place around them mean.

There is a strong undercurrent of mourning and loss running through Autumn. Most of the novel, after all, takes place in a nursing home and is organized around the impending death of one of its main characters. But the sense of grief seems tied to a larger disappearance as well—not only of Daniel, but of the world he embodies, one whose rhythms are tied to the perennial cycle of the seasons and the harmonious vision of the natural world this cycle represents. Throughout the novel, Smith works to remind her readers of the innumerable songs, poems, myths, religious texts, customs, habits, and figures of speech that rely on the permanence of this seasonal cycle. What will they mean, Smith forces us to ask, in 30 or 40 years, when autumn, winter, spring, and summer, at least as we’ve know them, no longer exist?

As the novel goes on, its soothing pastoral scenes are increasingly replaced by descriptions of the unclassifiable detritus that fills Elisabeth’s mother’s antique-hunting reality show: outdated cash registers, ceramic dogs, a room filled with thousands of empty sherry glasses piled haphazardly on top of each other. This is what the world looks like, Smith seems to say, once the comforting veil of a stable and resilient nature has been drawn away: We are left with an immense heap of miscellaneous objects, terrifying in its fragility. One false move could bring it crashing down.

Smith often speaks of the writer’s responsibility to be “hospitable.” Although Autumn makes frequent use of citation, few of its references are esoteric or obscure. The main model for its fractured form is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Many of the novel’s images and motifs, as well as its use of collage, are taken directly from the poet’s canonical diagnosis of modern life’s futility and incoherence. Smith employs these techniques to depict an experience that Eliot returned to again and again throughout his writing: the horror of seeing categories of meaning that had seemed solid and unchanging begin to dissolve and lose their outlines. This emotion, the book suggests, is what seizes us when we see a tree budding in the winter or snow falling out of season: an enervating mixture of nausea, exhaustion, and dread that saps all our energy and will to act.

For Eliot, the only remedy for the disintegration he saw everywhere around him was divine intervention. Inspired by Christian eschatology, his poems took on an increasingly prophetic cast, filled with images of biblical deluge and purgatorial fire that find a disturbing echo in our own visions of ecological catastrophe today. Smith, however, rejects this apocalyptic logic. She insists in Autumn, as she has throughout her career, that the instability and fragmentation that for Eliot was a sign of the end times also holds the potential, as she put it in an interview a few years ago, for “energy and renewal and surprise.” Autumn finds a symbol of this energy and renewal in an unlikely place: the work of the little-known British painter Pauline Boty, whose life story and vivid Pop Art collages Smith uses as material for her own novelistic collage.

A star of the London art world in the early 1960s, Boty was known for her vibrant paintings of pop icons like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe; her striking resemblance to the French New Wave film star Brigitte Bardot; her habit of gleefully posing naked in front of her art; and her untimely death from a rare form of cancer at 28. Both Daniel and Elisabeth are drawn to—even infatuated by—Boty and her work. Daniel crossed Boty’s path during his wild period in London and fell deeply and unrequitedly in love with her. Elisabeth, in turn, was inspired by her love for Daniel to study Boty’s paintings as an undergraduate, and they eventually led her to become an art historian.

For Daniel, Boty is an almost mythical figure, a nymph of the spring, like the ring of girls dancing on the beach in his dreams; to him, she is a romantic symbol of life’s possibility for rejuvenation. Elisabeth’s relationship with Boty and her work is more ambiguous, her attraction mixed with identification. What particularly interests her is the contrast between the untamed vitality of Boty’s paintings and the turbulent circumstances in which they were created. Boty, like Elisabeth, was also working against a backdrop of violence and imminent destruction—
in her case, the early Cold War years.

Elisabeth is fascinated by a pair of Boty’s paintings that depict what we would now call the nature/culture divide. One shows Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Vladimir Lenin, the Beatles, a bullfighter, a US military plane; the other, the bodies of anonymous naked women posed seduc­tively against a pastoral backdrop. The point is clear: history and politics on one side, women and landscape on the other. (The title of both: It’s a Man’s World.) But Boty manages to find humor in this depressingly familiar image of how we divide the natural and feminine from the cultural and intellectual: There is a giant rose bursting out of the center of the first painting in an exuberantly campy symbol of the then-nascent women’s liberation movement.

Up to this point, the novel has traced an arc of disintegration and collapse. Elisabeth has been mourning the loss of a particular conception of the natural world as a stable backdrop and source of meaning and order, as well as the more immediate dissolution of Britain’s EU membership. She has been paralyzed, unable to imagine a future that didn’t conform to the one she’d previously held. But here, Smith seems to be gently pointing out that this story isn’t quite so simple. We believe we are trapped in an inexorable cycle of deterioration, in part because we have accepted the myth of a perennially resilient nature, always erasing at night the marks left during the day.

This myth has justified the colonization, exploitation, and enslavement of many of the world’s inhabitants, and it has propped up a specific image of society organized around biological reproduction and the rituals of the patriarchal family, inheritance, and child-rearing, in which women, like landscape, have been pushed into the background. The revelation that this system was built on a lie—that the vision of a harmonious natural order underwriting it has always been a fiction—­might then not represent the end of the world, but the beginning of a new one. Like Boty’s work, which finds new meaning in dissolving old categories we try to keep apart, the emergence of new patterns of life have the potential to be liberating in their own way.

Part of what makes climate change such a uniquely intractable problem is that it is so hard to talk about. Our vocabulary for it is awkward. We seem to have only two modes of approaching it: either as ambient noise or all-consuming disaster. Autumn doesn’t evade the bleakness of its subject matter or retreat into its own counter-apocalyptic utopian visions. But it does insist on the electric energy that can come from drawing things we normally treat as separate—ecology, feminism, political crisis—into a common thread. If we can learn to look more carefully at what has been overlooked or pushed aside or even rendered invisible in one part of our lives, we may be able to do the same in others.

Autumn’s final image is of a rose in full bloom among the dead leaves of a November garden. The glowing red suggests danger, decadence; the living flower against the dead leaves provokes the queasiness induced by boundaries collapsing, forms dissolving and flowing into each other. But superimposed on this somber and apocalyptic scene is the faint afterimage of one of Boty’s Pop Art collages, a wild fusion of nature and artifice, a burst of color against a gray backdrop. It is an omen of disaster, a sign of the irreversible effect we have had on our surroundings. But it is also a reminder that another world is possible.

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