This month weâ€™ll look at Ali Smith, who is not a new author, but whose â€œSeasonalâ€ quartet I just began reading. Smith is a Scottish author, playwright, academic and journalist. See a complete bibliography at Wikipedia.
For the purposes of this article, I will focus on her Seasonal series. The first novel,Â Autumn,Â was published in October 2016. The next novel, Winter, came out in November 2017. WhileÂ AutumnÂ has been described as the first Brexit novel,Â The NationÂ has a beautiful article by Namara Smith titled â€œOmens of Disaster: Ali Smithâ€™s new novel examines the ecological and political disintegration at the center of our world,â€ which goes into the climate change aspects of the books.1
The NationÂ argues that, first, novels depicting climate change often borrow from the disaster genre, which has a rigid narrative. And that, second, viewing climate change as a disaster event limits it to something that is a technical issue, something that can be managed. The article points out that climate change storytelling often depicts one or more apocalyptic events, when, in reality, global warming is a â€œwar of attrition whose consequences have accumulated slowly enough to be almost imperceptible and through the repetition of millions of individual actions.â€ And, instead of looking at the disaster as something technical, it is really â€œan existential question that concerns us all.â€
Ali Smithâ€™s Seasonal series rises above the problematic genre symptoms by having â€œordinaryâ€ events, asÂ The NationÂ says.
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.
The article also points out that these changes caused by climate change are becoming common in contemporary fiction. My take-away from this is that itâ€™s interesting to see how authors are writing about global warming, but to try to prescribe one genre for climate change novels is tough. As with every literary and ecological parallel in the past, global warming tropes and themes become so commonplace that they begin to spill over into everything else â€“ just like climate change has done and will continue to do so.
I was drawn to the novel for two reasons: the idea of seasons becoming out of whack has been a focus of mine for a while, especially after seeing changes firsthand where I live. Another is that in the novel an old man, Daniel Gluck, is facing death, and his time spent in a nursing care facility â€“ where he has endless dreams in which we think he is probably reliving past events â€“ reminds me of my dad somewhat.
When approaching the idea of climate change in fiction, when I published the anthologyÂ Winds of Change: Short Stories about Our Climate, I contributed a short story, under pen name Clara Hume, called â€œThe Midnight Moonâ€ (available at theÂ Dragonfly LibraryÂ for free). This was a take on a Twilight Zone episode called â€œThe Midnight Sunâ€ and featured an autumn in Chicago, where two women reflect on life cycles. Writing this short story was based upon real observances of variable plant changes where I live, specifically one summer where a rowan tree blossomed very early, but I had also recently talked withÂ Emmi ItÃ¤rantaÂ about her novelÂ Memory of Water,Â which looked at the disappearance of cultural and ecological continuity in our years of changing climate.
I could identify too with the old man, 101-year-old Gluck, in Aliâ€™s novel. I had a similar circumstance in real life, often sitting with my dying dad in the nursing home. My dad was a brilliant man who developed Parkinsonâ€™s, which ravished his genius mind. He began signs of dementia a couple years before his death, and at some points could not distinguish dream from reality. Almost hauntingly surreal were the dreams he relayed to me in vivid detail, which were bizarre on every level, and which quite frightened him. One dream was even about a beach, but instead of seeing drowned refugees float up to the shore (as in Smithâ€™s novel), my dad saw bloody heads hanging from the â€œceilingâ€ (the sky).
When my dadâ€™s mind was all there, he was a math teacher as well as a writer, and he loved poetry. When we grew up, he would read the great poets to us, and I specifically remember him talking to me about Keats, and how dad was entering the autumn of his year. TheÂ Autumn novel starts out with Keatsâ€™ famous ode.
Smithâ€™s novel touches close to home, not only personally for me but at a level that is wide-reaching to all humans on this Earth.Â The NationÂ states:
An epigraph informs us that, due in part to the severe floods of the past several years, so much topsoil has been eroded that â€œBritain may have only 100 harvests left.â€ Brexit, which now looks like the opening shot in a prolonged period of global instability, has marked not only the end of Britainâ€™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.
The idea of 100 harvests left is one way to look at climate change. Smithâ€™s wit and non-linear (collage) writing style also help us to perceive climate change at an intimate level. It is not far out there. It is now. It has been. We can view it in every perspective, past and present and future. It becomes more real with each passing generation. And 100 harvests puts a time-stamp on continuity. Itâ€™s an extinction of ritual, both ecological and cultural. When I think of it, I feel a slow burn and think of my own father and the way he taught us to be outside, to celebrate the elements, the wild, the seasons. I see time passing fluidly, quickly, like quicksand. Yet on a daily basis, it is slow and sometimes tedious.
The novel explores time, and even no-time, as well.Â The GuardianÂ states, â€œAutumnÂ begins in a wild region of no-time, as Daniel Gluck dreams that he is young again, or dead.â€Â Elisabeth Demand, another main character in the novel, is reading Adolph Huxleyâ€™sÂ Brave New World,waiting in a post office. The clock on the wall is broken. No-time.Â The GuardianÂ says:
The clock has stalled; miserable people queue alongside her, staring into space. â€œCOMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITYâ€, thinks Elisabeth, citing Huxley. Inevitably, when she reaches the front of the queue, her application is rejected. Her photograph is â€œthe wrong sizeâ€, the man says. â€œHe writes in a box â€¦ HEAD INCORRECT SIZE.â€ Then, he â€œfolds the Check & Send receipt and tucks it into the envelope Elisabeth gave him with the form â€¦ He hands it back to her across the divide. She sees terrible despondency in his eyes. He sees her see it. He hardens even more.â€
The relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth crosses time as well; they met when she was a child, and she has since adopted him as a surrogate father. In between these nearly three decades, they have had occasions to reunite a few times. The things along time come and go: â€œIgnored. Lost. Rediscovered years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered again years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered ad infinitum.â€ Time is the essence of mortality, but it can be slow or fast. It can eclipse. It can end.
Whatâ€™s next? Winter. The Goodreads description sounds fascinating:
Winter? Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. The shortest days, the longest nights. The trees are bare and shivering. The summerâ€™s leaves? Dead litter. The world shrinks; the sap sinks. But winter makes things visible. And if thereâ€™s ice, thereâ€™ll be fire.
(Photo downloaded from Topping & Company Booksellers.)
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runsÂ Eco-Fiction.comÂ andÂ Dragonfly.eco, sites that explore ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novelÂ Back to the GardenÂ has been discussed inÂ Dissent Magazine,Â Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological DiversityÂ (University of Arizona Press), andÂ Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate ChangeÂ (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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