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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Friday, June 9, 2017

Disappointed by Ali Smith's new novel, Autumn

I've liked some of her work and was drawn to Ali Smith's new novel, Autumn (no idea what's autumnal about this work btw), because of some strong reviews - but, seriously?, are these reviews based on the experience of reading this novel or are they pat-on-the-back, log-rolling tributes to a well-established author who in this work seems to be "mailing it in"? I just could not warm up to or engage w/ this novel in any way (through 150 or so pp.) Starts off w/ a pretty powerful scene in which a body washes up onto the shore, and then we are inhabiting the body, who recognizes, as he gains consciousness, that he's naked, and runs into the woods to gather some leaves as an improvised cloak. And then we learn that this is a dream or hallucination by a 90+ year-old man on his death bed in hospice care. Is there anything more tedious in fiction than a dream sequence, or at least a dream that doesn't serve a purpose within the plot and provide us with information and feeling? Over the course of the next 100 pp. or so we move back and forth between various dream-visions of this man (David Gluck) and memories on the part of the 20-something woman sitting at his  bedside (Elisabeth) who recalls various times in her life when she went on walks w/ and engaged in discussion with David, who was her neighbor in her youth. During these walks & visits they play various "clever" word games and he introduces her to some new concepts, in particular shows her images of a British pop-era artist, Doty, a real person in fact - and later Elis decides to do her graduate thesis on this artist. At present, she's a minimally employed art-history prof w/ no clear direction in her life. Now, if AS could build this novel so that there is some conflict, movement, development - particularly something between or about this friendship between Elis and David - maybe if E had been a truly neglected or disturbed child and he influenced her in a good (or even a bad?) way - then we'd have something, but for me all of her flashback recollections are just scenes, they go nowhere. Now AS is particularly known for her sharp political sense, and all of the reviews talk about this as a "ripped-from-the-headlines" novel - which in this case comes down to a prose-poem lament about Brexit Britain, a scene or two involving the fencing in of common land and E's defiance of authority as she walks the perimeter of the fence, and a building where immigrants live and where someone painted "go home." These all make us feel good because we, and AS, are on the "right side" of these issues - but a better novel would examine various perspectives and POVs (compare with Elizabeth Strout's novel, which I didn't really love but at least admired, about Somali immigrants in Maine). AS is good at creating straw men and then burning them down; some of the "bad guys" in the novel include officious bureaucrats who give E a hard time w/ her passport application, a security guard at the perimeter fence, a thesis advisor who tries to dissuade E from writing about a female artist -- these are such easy targets, and not particularly believable (e.g., the advisor seems like he's living in about 1955). Over and out.

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