Hopeless Hope

Spring: A Novel (Seasonal Quartet) BY Ali Smith. Pantheon. Hardcover, 352 pages. $25.
The cover of Spring: A Novel (Seasonal Quartet)

Ali Smith is writing the world as it happens. In the vein of Charles Dickens, she has set out to reshape the serial form in her Seasonal Quartet of interwoven yet stand-alone novels, responding to the times, not in a mode of reflection but immersion, publishing as she goes. And what times to choose: best of, worst of, as it goes. To say that these have been eventful years, particularly in Britain still in the tenebrous haze of Brexit’s implosion, is beyond understatement. And yet Autumn (2017) and Winter (2018) both circle these political ups, downs, and side to sides with a distinct wariness. It’s as if Smith is determined to document not the moment of impact, the bloom of flames of a world set on fire, but rather the far edges of the rumbling blast: the bird shaken from the tree, the mug smashed to pieces on the kitchen floor, the witnesses waking with a start weeks later. Her writing is precise and web-like, circling that builds, silvery, sticky. To retain the remarkable shape of these novels, there can be no structural distinction between the characters’ memory and their present, the dead and those not yet, the imagined and the seen. This kind of literary experimentation so often sacrifices baseline clarity, not to mention plot, but Smith’s language is always plain-spoken and surprisingly, harrowingly, matter of fact. It simply isn’t honest or realistic to pretend human beings aren’t always one foot in our childhoods, or sometimes visited by visions, or in extended conversations with dead friends. Her writing sharpens itself against the truth of being a person, becoming truer and truer by generously accommodating all those impossible, untrue facts known as feelings. In an interview about Autumn in The Guardian, Smith says, about life, “It isn’t either/or. It’s and/and/and.”

Spring (2019), like its seasonal predecessors, revolves around two main characters, almost narrators, whose lives seem largely unrelated except by chance encounters and precarious intimacies. Same time, same place. Whether their proximity produces any likeness, event, or actionable relationship is the question at the heart of the books. In Autumn and Winter, we watch as their respective stories connect over small somethings, ripples so slight they are almost un-tellable: a popular song, a book we all read in school, a stone, a sculpture, a photograph, a corporation, a train car, and, as always, the changes of weather and season. When it snows, it snows on everyone. This is the kind of stark, sentimental truth I often turn from, embarrassed by how obvious it is and how obscure its implications remain, but Smith insists: We share this world! Look around! Look at how our lives cross over one another! Look at how feeling sparks as we collide! In Spring, as the snow melts, the question of what is shared takes on an ethical gravity and brutal exigency new to the series. Now, Smith interrogates her own position: Does knowing our own interconnectedness produce empathy? Prevent cruelty? If it’s real, can it still be meaningless? If hope cannot be found there, where can it?

The first mind we peer into belongs to Richard, a middle-aged filmmaker who’s “had it with story” after the death of his best friend and collaborator, a luminous screenwriter named Paddy, short for Patricia. We start his story on the verge of his ending it. Suicidal at the height of grief’s chaos, standing on a train platform in the Scottish Highlands, he has thrown away his phone and skipped town, run away from bloodless obituaries and his current project, a proposed romance between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived a mile apart in Switzerland in 1922. The producers call for various fictional sex scenes between the aging Rilke and the tuberculous Mansfield to zhush up the plot. An excerpt of the script (not written by the essential Paddy) is a sly parody of Smith’s reoccurring themes, the quiet magic of historical synchronicity here stirred into frothy, sensationalist narrative. In reality, Mansfield and Rilke shared nothing more than writing, proximity, landscape. Same time, same place. But as Paddy reels off, still alive in Richard’s recollections, 1922 is “relevant all over again in its brand new same old way,” a year of contested empire, rising fascism, political assassination, border uproar, “and behind it all . . . everything that a mountain can mean.” The Scottish Highlands and the Swiss Alps converge. So do the centuries. For Smith, all this material is transparent and flexible, like those acetate sheets used on old overhead projectors, able to be layered, enlarged, transformed.

At a distance, Richard is no more than a self-pitying straight, white man (divorced, estranged wife and kid, three-quarter life crisis, as per usual). But the second perspective of the novel makes his chatty ignorance and waning ego look almost saintly. Brittany, known as Brit, is a young, smart, working-class woman, who, unable to afford college and without career prospects, has taken a new job as a guard (“DCO,” detainee custody officer) at a detention estate (an “IRC,” immigration removal center), which indefinitely jails refugees and migrants (known by the employees as “deets”). The prison is run by the private security firm “SA4A,” that haunts the edges of the previous books. The names of the IRCs are pastoral, unobtrusive: “the Spring, the Field, the Worth, the Valley, the Oak, the Berry, the Garland, the Grove,” a clear reference to the very real Yarl’s Wood, a detention center near Ali Smith’s home of Cambridge where more than a hundred incarcerated women refugees went on hunger strike in 2018. Smith emphasizes the mundane nature of this staggering brutality by focusing on the labor of its daily maintenance, its bleak neighborliness. Brit calls “the place that pays her a salary . . . a kind of underworld,” and we watch as she enters a half-dead complicity, swallowing the psychic toll of her own behavior:

How dare you ask for a blanket. The day she heard herself say that last one she knew something terrible was happening, but by now the terrible thing, as terrible as a death, felt quite far away, as if not really happening to her, as if happening beyond perspex, like the stuff in the windows in the centre, which weren’t really windows, though they were designed to look like windows.

The pun of her name and citizenry is obvious. A true Brit, she absorbs the cruelty around her, deflects agency and privately absolves herself and her atrocities, even as it erodes her inner world, even with the knowledge that what is done cannot be undone.

How does hope happen in a place like this? And what is its use? Just as we are introduced to Brit, we meet her inverse: a little girl, middle-school age, has miraculously gotten into the center, and convinced management to deep clean the shit-covered toilets. The girl, named Florence, begins as a rumor that swirls around this underworld, a story passed between employees and detainees alike, a glimmering shard of gossip. The CCTV cameras only catch the top of her head, she’s so small, but the stories grow and widen. She’s appeared in multiple facilities, like a dream; her own mother has just mysteriously broken out of one, no one knows how. One month after her appearance, Brit meets Florence, sitting in her school uniform at the train stop outside the center, and she convinces Brit to help her find the location on the back of a postcard: It’s near Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands. Same time, same place. When they get to the train, Florence doesn’t need a ticket, the station master just lets her through. This is a familiar figure in Ali Smith’s novels: the young girl who tells the whole truth and opens every door, whose magic is unspectacular yet ever-present. She is a borrowed allegory, clearly mythological, and yet, anyone who has spent serious time with an adolescent girl, or was one themselves, will not find the staggering power of her play, inquiry, and demand out of bounds. We know this girl, and her revolutionary capacity. What Smith has done is imbue the adults with the fantastical: for a while, they listen to her. Given the chance, Florence can un-border the world.

At first, this sounds like a tired redemption narrative: Numb cop meets precocious youth, sees the error of her ways, assists in her escape, while sad man finds a reason to live, sticks around, everyone’s friends at the end, all colors, all creeds. Real friendships do sprout from this dark earth, and Brit’s conscience does start to thaw. There are scenes of conversation between Brit and Florence that thump with optimism, like hearing your blood move in your ears deep underwater. They are all human, all of this is. “An urgent child,” Richard says when he meets Florence. “Best impetus in the world.” An impetus, however, is not a guarantee of action. Doing good is not simply an issue of finding a reason to do so. We are drowning in reasons. Our beaches are strewn with them. It is not enough. In one of the final scenes, Richard is wandering a rest stop grocery store. He wonders if he will recover the “lemonness of lemons,” if a full return from despair is possible. Smith zooms out: “Somewhere in this moment of the story of a man, a man who could be dead but isn’t, who is standing instead at a fruit bay in a supermarket looking at the complexion of lemons grown somewhere, shipped from somewhere to somewhere, driven to here, unloaded into these basins and now on sale here for use before they rot—there’s a moral. But he still can’t get to it.” Ultimately, novels can’t provide answers to the most necessary questions.

Spring is considerably more explicit about its political positions than Smith’s other books, and its lyric spaciousness is dotted with heavy-handed reference and, one might say, conspicuous virtue. There’s something vaguely embarrassing about the contemporaneity of its situation: This isn’t subtle, or timeless, but, then again, neither is Trump. There are moments where, between Smith’s unrivaled poetics, the clumsy language of protest flashes, rhetoric from another mode, as if someone walked through the conversation chanting. Her insistence on wading into the obvious (the world is a horror show) is similar to her willingness to indulge cliché (the flowers grow alongside horrors). The earnestness bristles, heightened. Part of how she manages this is by presenting much of it through the eyes of a child: The pages of Twitter rhetoric, news commentary, and propaganda messaging are transcribed by Florence, excerpts from her “Hot Air” notebook. Paddy and others vocalize their own righteousness, and it’s uncomfortable, but I’ve also heard almost all these clunky assertions in real conversation, recently. How do we write about goodness, that most unfashionable, most desired object?

Smith is interested in the spaces and moments where the transformative object transforms us all, where the bottom falls out of our individuality. There lies the possibility of a kind of truce, like the Christmas ceasefire of World War I, which Spring repeatedly references. Part of what is painful about such moments of peace or justice is their persistent arbitrariness: If everyone managed to stop fighting on that day, why not any other day? Why not all the days? What stops the moment of rupture from transitioning into a constant state? What allegiance do we have to its transience? Smith takes those moments and tags them, tracks their passage between lives, follows blossoms and hibernations, making a study of what art can change, and most importantly, what it can’t. One of Brit’s fellow DCOs describes the only other day in the center that was like the day Florence came, the time when they watched Chaplin’s The Kid, when the detainees and the guards laughed together. It’s a scene that echoes Preston Sturges’s 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, which culminates in a prison-house screening of Disney’s Playful Pluto cartoon, the chain-gang audience roaring with laughter. In both, the détente is temporary. “There was nothing to it, Britannia, stupid story about a child, a man, a pane of glass, a stone, a policeman,” the guard says in Spring. “After it this place was like I’ve never seen. People in tears at the end of it. People wandered round the wing after it like we were all normal.” The cartoon, or the Chaplin, lifts reality to the surface. We float there, for a minute.

The guard continues, “Sure it all descended pretty fast to the other normal again.” The movie exec is still a movie exec, the guard is still a guard, the girl is still a girl, the prisoner is still a prisoner. It was nothing more than a glimmer. In this sense, Smith offers us a meta-glimmer, in the form of the novel itself. Each book of her Seasonal Quartet has mirrored one of Shakespeare’s late plays, beginning with The Tempest, then Cymbeline, and for Spring, Pericles, Prince of Tyre. One can only assume she has saved The Winter’s Tale for Summer. The late plays are known for being very bleak, a little weird, tangled, excessive: they usually combine otherworldly fairytale elements with loose history and stark, realistic depictions of human relationships. They involve separated families seeking their reunion across strange lands, and there is often a truth-telling daughter, a legendary child, who almost saves them all. In Pericles, that character is the missing daughter Marina, who is so good that she blots out all evil temptation in those around her, a moral eclipse. Florence, like Marina, is impossible, as is the truce that lasts, that holds.

The novel culminates with its disparate characters get a ride in a van converted into a coffee truck, going to find Florence’s mother with the assistance of an underground railroad that helps migrants and refugees escape detainment. The odd bunch talk as they drive along, of war, family, grief, art, laughter. They float, Brit and Florence, briefly neither guard nor escapee. But, eventually, the other reality descends. Despite it all, at the crucial juncture, Brit calls the cops, and Florence, who is all of goodness and also just a twelve-year-old girl, and her mother, whose story we don’t deserve and whose privacy Smith maintains, are arrested. The end. The transformation, the redemption, does not occur. Smith doesn’t give us that. In a flash forward, a volunteer in the underground organization says, “We’re trying to change the impossible, to move things an inch at a time all those thousands of miles towards the possible.” That’s all we get. An inch. A chance, missed.

Reading other reviews and pieces of criticism of this book, I was surprised to see Smith described as virtue signaling, leaning into righteous moralism, because I believe the book does just the opposite, structurally speaking: The story, as a moral agent, fails. Brit recognizes Florence as a human, she even recognizes her as a friend, and she still jails her. It’s as if Smith’s saying, bluntly: Yes, we are all interconnected. That is just a fact. That is not due to human compassion, or the powers of empathy, or the flow of narrative. Our communal existence is a metaphysical circumstance, as simultaneously banal and wondrous as the sky, and it has nothing to do with us. And yet. Sometimes, within that circumstance, there are tiny flapping shreds of opportunity, moments where we are given a way through into acting on that interconnectedness, which is maybe also goodness. Sometimes, a shared object, time, or place (which is all an artwork is, like a bus stop, or a train station) can catch that opportunity in the light. That’s all it does, though. It’s up to us to use it. And most of the time, we don’t.

Spring is about hopeless hope, impossible revolutions, unexpected afterlives, and the way the world goes on. Summer is around the corner. I cried, often, reading it, which is to say that I felt my own optimism and pessimism collide head-on, each crushing the other, spilling their contents out across my body. I followed the strands, which had their own collisions held within them: I traveled with Bliss and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield in my bag, sent friends sudden questions about Shakespeare, revisited Tacita Dean’s film A Bag of Air. It’s only three minutes long, and in the words of Shelley, who I also sat with, it arises and unbuilds. I dipped a toe into Rilke, hesitantly; I listened to Nina Simone and Noname back to back; I re-learned some Scottish history that I barely knew to begin with, despite, or maybe because of, my Britishness. I watched the clouds change as May arrived.

Like another working-class poet from the oft-ignored corners of the U.K., Mark E. Smith of The Fall, Ali Smith’s experiments with form hinge on her commitment to a certain kind of accessibility as well as a conscious withholding—the open door-ness and the obscured larger picture. There’s so much left in your hands to unravel, to follow through. When you move out from the single book into the series, and from the series into her entire oeuvre, you are left with a generous and manifold landscape that could take a lifetime to travel. That winking glimmer multiplies. As Florence says, “What if . . . instead of saying, this border divides these places. We said, this border unites these places. This border holds together these two really interesting different places. What if we declared border crossings places where, listen, when you crossed them, you yourself became doubly possible.” Here, the possible is both a far-off place, inched towards, and the movement itself a kinetic promise. We are always in the thick of what could be, as we struggle to find it on the map. I don’t know a better definition for hope.

Audrey Wollen is a writer from Los Angeles who lives in New York.