The Collage Police

Christian Lorentzen

  • Autumn by Ali Smith
    Penguin, 272 pp, £8.99, August 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 97331 8
  • Winter by Ali Smith
    Hamish Hamilton, 336 pp, £16.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 20702 4

Several factors contribute to the innocuousness of Ali Smith’s current project. She’s now published two novels of her projected ‘Seasonal Quartet’: Autumn, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Winter. These books don’t share characters or continuity but constitute a rapid-response literary gloss on the Brexit crisis. Within the fictional United Kingdom of these novels, the referendum is discussed at the dinner table, street-level xenophobia is observed, fences have been put up, some people are angry, some people are afraid, agitation and paranoia are pervasive, and it’s easy to interpret anything coming together or falling apart on the page as a political allegory. Seasons are sentimental things, and now that Britain’s seasons are said to have collapsed into a monoseason, everything to do with nature in these novels might be a symptom of global warming, and climate change has added to nostalgia for the weather, making it more than something to talk about when you want to avoid talking about anything else. I hadn’t realised Autumn was ‘about’ climate change until I read a review cleaving to that interpretation, and I still don’t quite buy it. Nor would I say that these novels are ‘about’ Brexit, though it keeps coming up, or being dragged in, and Winter features as a principal character one actual recent immigrant to the UK.

Earnestness is the quality these novels give off, and you can’t knock them for being phoney or inauthentic. The niceness is real. Cynicism is banished, or peeks in through borrowed headlines. ‘Generous’ is what reviewers often call Smith, and you get the sense that they mean she’s generous to her characters. She looks at them from many points of view and enters into their heads, and if we occasionally see them being selfish or mean we soon learn it’s because they’ve had a hard time of it, or they can’t help it because of their nature, or they’ve had good intentions at heart all along. No surprise, then, that what drama there is in these books has very low stakes, even when, as in Winter, Smith lends the proceedings some tension with little lies, a secret identity and a reunion of estranged siblings.

There is no plot to speak of in Autumn. There’s an old man, Daniel Gluck, 101 years old in 2016, living in a nursing home, where he’s visited by his former neighbour Elisabeth, an underpaid junior lecturer at a London university. Daniel dreams of being washed up naked on the shore and of being a tree. Dream sequences suit Smith because anything goes and nothing gets in the way of her preferred style of free association. Is it free association? That’s the impression it leaves with me, but I suspect Smith perceives connections between the things she puts down on the page. Then there’s the matter of her constant punning, puns that are rarely very funny, even in the bad way, but serve as transitions between subjects and narrative signals. In a flashback to 1995, when Daniel is talking to his 11-year-old neighbour Elisabeth, he explains rhymes and puns: ‘Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does, up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting to come up.’ She tells him of her plans to attend college, and he says: ‘You don’t want to go to college … You want to go to collage.’ It’s a description of Smith’s method. Daniel continues: ‘Collage is an institute of education where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative, and because of these skills everything you think you know gets made into something new and strange.’ Elisabeth will go on to study art history and write her dissertation on Pauline Boty. Daniel was an acquaintance of Boty’s and a collector of her collages. He thinks back on the Profumo affair and Christine Keeler, subject of Boty’s lost painting Scandal ’63. His memories, which stretch back before the Second World War, are the historical elements of Smith’s collage and serve as reminders that times have been worse than they were in 2016, despite the novel’s opening lines: ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again.’ The allusions are as plentiful as the puns.

In addition to being wise, the Daniel of the 1990s is a kindly old man, so it doesn’t make too much sense when Elisabeth recalls a phase when her mother told her not to spend time with him, except in that Elisabeth’s mother is grouchy. Within the novel’s generational frame, Daniel, who has German origins, represents an older Britain that emerged from the war to embrace a gentle cosmopolitanism; Elisabeth is a millennial who has inherited austerity; and her mother is a middle-class baby boomer who has grown weary of politics. Through her Smith articulates a common sentiment:

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.

I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.

The idea of being tired of something before it’s happened, a little different from being tired of having to anticipate something, is one of Smith’s sharper insights, and Autumn has moments of stunning strangeness. Here is Elisabeth as a child thinking about what Daniel looks like, or doesn’t look like:

If he was very old, the neighbour, he didn’t look anything like the people who were meant to be it on TV, who always seemed as if they were trapped inside a rubber mask, not just a face-sized mask, but one that went the length of the body from head to foot, and if you could tear it off or split it open it was like you’d find an untouched unchanged person inside, who’d simply step cleanly out of the old fake skin, like the skin after you take out the inner banana. When they were trapped inside that skin, though, the eyes of people, at least the people in all the films and comedy programmes, looked desperate, like they were trying to signal to outsiders without giving the game away that they’d been captured by empty aged selves which were now keeping them alive inside them for some sinister reason, like those wasps that lay eggs inside other creatures so their hatchlings will have something to eat. Except the other way round, the old self feeding off the young one. All that was left would be the eyes, pleading, trapped behind the eyeholes.

It’s a rather sophisticated thought for an eight-year-old to have, but then Smith doesn’t play by the rules and might argue, if arguing were her thing, which it isn’t, that children, or adults who put themselves in a childish frame of mind, are the ones likeliest to have the weirdest thoughts because they haven’t yet learned the rules that she’s breaking. Smith also doesn’t do scene-setting, systematic chronology or psychological plausibility. One of the oddities of Autumn is that Elisabeth, as a young adult and despite the seventy-year age gap, is gripped by romantic feelings for Daniel, to the extent that they obstruct her love life at university and she has a habit of saying his name in her sleep. Smith doesn’t make much of this unrequited love (Daniel is the opposite of a predator), perhaps because it’s a bit silly. One thing she does make much of is the tedium involved in dealing with state bureaucracy. There are scenes of Elisabeth going to the post office for a new passport – where they tell her that the photograph she has brought of her face, and perhaps her face itself, is too wide – and to the medical practice near her mother’s house, where they insist that her mother isn’t registered. The pathetic comedy of these interactions doesn’t transcend their tedium.

The comedy of Winter is brighter and more pronounced than that of Autumn, which is a light dirge for an order in the late stages of decay, if not yet total collapse. (Daniel, more and more vegetable than animal, is in a similar state; Smith’s attitude is that the broken pieces can be put back together to make something new, like a collage or a pun or a tree.) There are more characters and more actual conflicts. With flashes forward and back, the action transpires over Christmas 2016. Sophia, a retired owner of a chain of shops, lives in a big house in Cornwall, and is hosting her son, Arthur, and his girlfriend, Charlotte, for the holiday. But Art and Charlotte have had a row over politics, or his lack of politics, and she has left him, swiped his laptop, and is posting humiliating counterfeit entries on his nature blog (it’s called ‘Art in Nature’: repeated pun alert) and his Twitter account. In his voice, she claims to have spotted a Canada warbler in Britain, a near impossibility that sends the nation’s birders on its fictional tail. (An actual sighting of a Wilson’s warbler was reported in the Outer Hebrides in 2015.) A bus full of birdwatchers arrives at the house in Cornwall at the end of the novel testifying that they have spotted the exotic creature and greeting Art as a hero. Sometimes (possibly) climate change-related species displacement can be fun.

Art is a professional snitch: he works for a copyright security firm, hunting down songs used on YouTube without permission. He’s the collage police, and his redemption comes in quitting. Because he has promised his mother he’ll bring his girlfriend with him for Christmas, he hires a young woman he spots sitting outside the British Library to pose as Charlotte for three days for a fee of £1000. Lux is homeless, a lesbian, an immigrant to the UK (via Canada) from Croatia, has many piercings, and works with and for peanuts in a packing facility because she stopped being able to pay her university fees. She came to Britain because she loved Shakespeare, and recites the plot of Cymbeline over Christmas dinner. This surprises Art, who had thought she was just a cute street punk and now finds himself falling in love with her. Another unrequited desire, this one results in some cuddling. Lux is about as idealised an immigrant character as you could imagine in a novel notionally pegged to Brexit. (What about the immigrants who don’t recite English poetry? Don’t they deserve sympathy too?) She even charms the novel’s resident grouch, Sophia, and drops the pretence of pretending to be Charlotte, signalling that Smith will stop pretending to write a novel with a plot, which you sense she was never really doing anyway.

Art and Lux have the bright idea of inviting Sophia’s older sister, Iris, over for Christmas, even though the siblings haven’t spoken in years. A longtime political activist, Iris, now in her late seventies, is a veteran of the anti-nuclear movement and has lately been volunteering with refugees in Greece. Old feuds are rehashed and memories are unearthed, as the older women find it easy to talk to the delightful young stranger Art has brought them, an unwitting Christmas gift. Besotted and nervous about his scheme coming off, Art drinks too much at dinner, hallucinates a grassy landscape at the table and passes out. Sophia sees a head floating in her line of vision, a spot that eludes diagnosis on a tedious visit to the optician. I wasn’t sure what to make of these hallucinations, but I wasn’t too bothered by them. Sophia also makes a tedious visit to a bank branch; one senses that Smith has strong feelings about customer service, offset by real empathy for those made to perform affective labour. Leaving the bank, Sophia thinks about bells:

The thing about Christmas music that’s particularly interesting, she thought to herself in a knowledgeable but not offputting Radio 4 voice as if on a programme about Christmas music, is that it’s thoroughly ineffectual, it just won’t and doesn’t work at any other time of the year. But now, at this bleakest midwinter time, it touches us deeply because it is insistent about both loneliness and communality, she told the millions of listeners not listening.

Autumn and Winter have a collage effect similar to listening to Radio 4 on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning: a little bit of light drama; some nature talk as on Gardeners’ Question Time; glimpses of the famous as you might hear on a stray documentary about a famous cultural figure or Desert Island Discs; some feminist history as on Weekend Woman’s Hour; a Shakespeare allusion now and then; and constant headline updates of non-news about Brexit. I wonder if Radio 4 sets a limit on its presenters’ punning?