Can the Novel Document the Present in Real Time?

Can the Novel Document the Present in Real Time?

Something Like Life

Can the novel document the present in real time?


The novel is a survivor. In the centuries since Cervantes turned the endeavor inside out, so many writers have set out to make the form, well, novel. From Proust’s long game to postmodern tricksters like Julio Cortázar to the contemporary faction of autofiction writers devoted to blurring the space between fiction and fact, the novel adapts even as it endures.

Throughout her career, the Scottish writer Ali Smith has been interested in the novel’s elasticity. Her debut novel, 1997’s Like, comes in two parts: a story, then a journal by another character illuminating the story just told. How to Be Both, from 2014, is likewise made up of two narratives—an artist in Renaissance Italy, a teen in modern-day Europe—but in some editions of the book, the contemporary comes before the ancient. The jump across centuries shocks, no matter which way your edition moves; the reader tries to reconcile these stories, make them make sense. It’s a fun conceit, even if you’ve already read Cortázar.

Smith’s follow-up is a different sort of experiment. Rather than reach back into history, she set out to create a work rigorously interested in the present moment. The aim wasn’t to do something with the novel form but rather to dispense with what has long been understood as the genre’s prerequisite: time. The UK edition of Autumn appeared in 2016, mere weeks after she delivered the manuscript to her publisher. (The novel was published in the United States a year later.) It tells the story of a young girl and her friendship with an elderly neighbor, one that distilled the political moment even as it was happening. A novel engaged with politics is not surprising; a novel keeping pace with the headlines—in particular, those about the Brexit drama as it unfolded—was.

Readers of Autumn may not have been aware of Smith’s intentions, but it was the first in a “Seasonal Quartet” that she intended to publish at the same brisk clip—Winter in 2018, Spring in 2019, and now Summer. None of the books is exactly a sequel to its predecessors. In each, we are introduced to a separate cast of characters making their way through a United Kingdom riven by bizarre domestic politics, reckoning with Europe’s refugee crisis, and ruminating on the moment’s pop culture and the off-kilter climate of the modern world. This is a work—if we consider the four books a single work, as Smith clearly does—fixed in the contemporary, aspiring to tell us about a world that is still taking form. In Winter, the characters fret over Twitter and argue about “the [ice] shelf the size of Wales that’s about to break off the side of Antarctica.” How like life.

By adopting such an approach, Smith has sought to rethink the role that the novel might play in understanding our lives—as they happen, not in retrospect. Think of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a book that summed up America in the 1990s and appeared only days before 9/11 provided a conclusion to that era. Smith wants her novels to be able to tell us something about the world today; she wants the reader and writer to be engaged (perhaps “distracted” is the better word) by the very same things that engage and distract all of us.

Some critics have pointed out that the order in which you read Smith’s Seasonal Quartet doesn’t matter. Time passes between the books, but as we don’t proceed through the generations of a single family, it’s relatively easy to keep our bearings. And any one of these works will teach readers what they need to know about both the imagined and real worlds in which they’re set. The larger systems of reference and allusion, the author’s stylistic tics (direct sentences, stagy dialogue), the interspersed bulletins from the news cycle—all form the novels’ specific backdrop.

Yet from their first pages, the books could be said to share more than just method. Autumn begins with Dickens, as does each subsequent volume, sort of, and in each we find studies of odd pairings and intergenerational relationships. In Autumn, we meet Daniel Gluck sitting nude on a beach, trying to work out whether he’s caught in a dream or dead. Spoiler: It’s the former, and for the rest of the book we learn about his waking life, in particular his lifelong relationship with Elisabeth, his neighbor, who was a mere child when they met but who became, as is the case with many of Smith’s teens, a wise-beyond-her-years adolescent.

Daniel, once a composer of some note connected to a coterie of midcentury London scenesters, is at the end of his life—the ideal moment for an accounting of one’s days. And Elisabeth, grown now, is involved in that project, as she’s writing an academic study of one of Daniel’s old circle, the Pop artist Pauline Boty.

The books of the Seasonal Quartet, as with Smith’s earlier novels, are invested less in plot than in story. Again, it’s like life: The characters ponder the news of the world (“All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU?”), and they talk. The dialogue tries to both approximate reality and approach profundity: “‘See how it’s deep in our animal nature,’ Daniel said. ‘Not to see what’s happening right in front of our eyes.’”

Winter picks up on familiar ground. We get Dickens again, this time paraphrased: “God was dead: to begin with.” And while we no longer listen in on Elisabeth and Daniel’s heady conversations, there is plenty of talk between the new characters: this time, an elderly woman named Sophia, accompanied by a spectral presence (a disembodied head, the mystery of which will be solved later), who is spending Christmas with her son Art, her estranged sister Iris, and the young woman Art is paying to masquerade as his girlfriend. As in the previous book, the setup is mostly feint. World events arrive much as they do in reality (“The first headline today in the 20 second news round-up after the 20 seconds of advertising says that there is now 80% more plastic in the earth’s seas and on its shores than estimated”), and maybe this is meant to illuminate the things the characters talk, and talk, and talk about. (“I said, Art is seeing things. And your aunt said, that’s a great description of what art is.”) Some readers will find that more than enough.

Spring takes another pirouette: A filmmaker mourns the death of his longtime screenwriting collaborator and daydreams about a picture he means to make about Rainer Maria Rilke and Katherine Mansfield. In a separate plotline, a woman who works for a national immigrant detention center meets up with a ghostly young girl. There’s more about art—Tacita Dean looms—plus a road trip that doesn’t make much sense, but the details in novels don’t need to hold up in synopsis, necessarily.

Perhaps it’s best to think of the first three entries in the Seasonal Quartet as akin to jazz: variations on a theme. The reader tries to chart the connections between the books, and while those exist (the characters do have some vague relationship to one another; a certain corporation is mentioned more than once), they don’t yield much. The references—to Dickens, Shakespeare, art, political chatter—are what holds these works together, just as their improvised design creates a common atmosphere. The four novels, it turns out, are not a jigsaw puzzle, coming together in the end to form a satisfying whole and bound by tidy straight lines. Instead, they’re a collage—a fitting form for fiction that seeks to reckon with a moment in human history that was (and is) so messy.

Summer shares many of the features of its predecessors. Early on it features a slightly altered line from David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the heroine of my own life.” Sacha, the protagonist, can’t place the phrase, but we know we’re on familiar ground: Dickens, a precocious teen, a contemporary Briton poking around on the Internet. Sacha is another of Smith’s trademark wise girls, but she also has a younger brother, Robert, seemingly a prodigy. And the two have a somewhat unusual family arrangement: They live with their mom, Grace, who was once an actress, while their dad lives right next door with his new girlfriend, Ashley.

Smith is asking us to do more than suspend disbelief; you’re either with her or you’re not. Far-fetched domestic arrangements, a grappling with the world we’ve made (“Not even when they see the pictures of Australia burning do they admit it”), the not altogether illuminating wordplay (the book lingers over the difference between “heroine” and ”heroin”)—this is the world of all of the novels in the quartet.

Smith seems awed by the strange world she has created, and a kind of whimsical smugness occasionally creeps into her writing. Robert, playing a prank on his big sister, superglues an hourglass to her hand. It feels less like an actual prank a brother might play than a setup for the author to break out a pun: “this woz best present I cud imagine from now on u always have time on ur hands,” Robert texts her. Sacha glibly replies, “bonding experience.” Smith, though, isn’t exactly joking; this is also a book about the passage of time.

Smith knows that Summer is her quartet’s final act, and she knows that we want some closure. We begin to get a clearer sense of how this all coheres: Art, the son from Winter, and his colleague, Charlotte, are walking by when Robert glues the timepiece to his sister’s palm. The strangers intervene, and these people are thrust together. In another improbable turn, the entire family decides, rather impulsively, to join Art and Charlotte on their journey to Suffolk. Smith takes a moment to remind us of the work’s operating metaphor: “Come too,” Art insists. “You can tell us about your immortal summer. On the way. Summer on the way, even in February.” Well, why not—Grace has fond memories of Suffolk from her youth, Sacha yearns to see the North Sea, and Robert wants to visit a place where Einstein, a hero of his, once set foot.

Art, too, has a task. His mother has died, and he’s been charged with returning a large stone (no spoiler here, but readers of Winter will recognize it) to a man she once knew, a composer, now quite elderly (readers of Autumn will recognize him). It’s possible that Smith is executing something she’d planned from the start, but these connections, once revealed, feel improvisatory, unlikely, and most of all unimportant. Summer does solve some of the riddles posed by the earlier volumes—for example, the mystery of Winter’s disembodied head. But where a whodunit must conclude with the murderer unmasked, Smith is more respectful of the literary novel’s own conventions: opacity and, instead of revelation, a slow crescendo toward meaning. Summer tells us where that head came from, but the answer might not necessarily satisfy.

In some ways, one wonders if perhaps this is the author’s point. The pressing concerns of our age—climate change, rising nationalism, human migration, the consolidation of corporate power—are so profound and complex that our responses are rarely satisfying. To make sense of these things, and to find a way to live in the midst of them, we fix on everyday life, abandoning plastic straws in some gesture toward saving the world. But looking closely at life reveals its illogic and coincidence. Meaning requires search. A choice like naming a character Art hands us the meaning overtly—art matters! But such decisions read to me as notes to the authorial self. They are the sort of thing a writer might, given time, decide to erase from a manuscript, like footprints from a Zen garden. But the very plan that Smith devised for writing these novels means she doesn’t have that particular luxury. Time is on her mind thematically but also practically; she probably feels like she’s got an hourglass glued to her own palm.

There’s no murderer to unmask, so Smith retraces her themes. Sacha, she wants us to know, is the spiritual heir to Iris, who first appeared in Winter as a political radical. But while Iris’s cause was nukes, Sacha’s will be… everything else. “This new generation of responsible young people will sort it out,” her mother declares, and that “it” could refer to impending climate disaster, the ongoing migrant crisis, the self-inflicted wound of Brexit, or any of the other bogeymen that haunt Smith’s (which is to say, our) world.

Robert, the prankster brother, is skeptical of most inclinations to be moral. But if he’s the counterpoint to Sacha, what do we make of his reverence for Einstein?

Einstein! who called for civil rights in the USA. Einstein! who warned against the nuclear bomb and said if he’d known they would use what he had discovered about quantum and relativity the way they used it he’d have become a cobbler and mended people’s shoes all his life instead.

Novels require you to believe that a 13-year-old boy might skip school, head for the local bookshop, and lose himself in a biography of Einstein. Or at least Summer does. It’s lovely to imagine that the future will be a reckoning between Sacha’s vague goodness and Robert’s intellectual curiosity. I’m not sure these are really the forces that shape the world, but I appreciate the optimism—I, too, believe the children are our future.

Summer and its companion novels contain so much of interest that they defy easy summary. This is less a matter of their action (here, a family meets some strangers and undertakes a pilgrimage) than their digressions. There are so many references and tangents—in Summer, on Einstein and the filmmaker Lorenza Mazzetti; in Autumn, on the artist Pauline Boty and, to a lesser degree, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth; in Spring, on Katherine Mansfield. The author’s erudition and curiosity are bracing, but Smith uses them to establish the verisimilitude of her own thought, not the world itself.

Smith is doing what her characters do: thinking aloud. Her desire was to write a novel (or four) that was of the moment, and to do so in what we’ve all come to think of as real time. It can be done; the book in our hands is proof. But however diverting the results, the novels—Spring and Summer in particular—often feel like the first drafts of history, much like the headlines that float in the background. The novels state their concerns (the fate of the woman artist in a misogynist society, what nefarious corporate actors have done to our culture, the maddening fact of injustice, the slow collapse of the planet’s health), but they don’t really dramatize them the way we might expect a novel to. The books raise questions, vibrate with righteous feeling, but don’t actually resolve anything.

Throughout the quartet, Smith’s unconventional methods give her an advantage. She surely holds the distinction of being the first novelist to weigh in on Covid-19 (less as a concern than as a bit of scene-setting): “The net is all photos of people in other countries with masks over their mouths and noses.” At another point in Summer, Sacha is watching the absurd TV game show The Masked Singer, in which a panel of judges must guess the identity of disguised celebrities based on their rendition of a song (“It has struck Sacha that actually everyone and everything on TV is like someone wearing a mask”). It feels dutiful, the novelist dealing with the sudden ubiquity of masks on our city streets in a way that is witty but meaningless.

Smith can’t be blamed for her inability to muster anything to say about the coronavirus. Really, we don’t yet know how to make sense of the social disruption and human costs of the pandemic. Sacha (and Smith) is like all of us, musing about masks while we hope that we and those we love survive and that the world may one day right itself. We don’t know what else to say about masks; only time will tell.

Sometimes Smith’s rush to follow the news trips her up, laying bare the truth that the larger endeavor to make a meaningful novel out of this moment might not yet be possible. I received a copy of the manuscript of Summer in June from the publisher; three weeks later, an electronic galley arrived. In the interim, Smith revised the book to mention George Floyd’s death and the protests that followed. She’s faithful to the strategy she committed herself to, building a novel against the headlines. Floyd shows up only as an afterthought, when Sacha, in a letter, enumerates her heroes, among them “every single person protesting what happened to George Floyd.”

Floyd had been dead less than a month when I encountered those words. I credit Smith for having seen this as a significant moment in the politics of a country in which she herself does not live. But one wishes that more followed from Floyd’s mention, and there’s nothing here, really, about the United States’ racism or violence or the genuine pain that catalyzed these protests. Perhaps Floyd is destined to become a symbol, but it saddened me to meet him here, thus reduced. A newspaper can tell us what is worth thinking about, but a novel should tell us how to think about it. It was inevitable a novelist would one day reckon with Floyd and all his death represents, but I would have been willing to wait a little longer.

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