SUMMER. By Ali Smith. Pantheon. 384 pages. $27.95.
Ali Smith is back with “Summer,” the final installment of her Seasons quartet. We can now see this project for what it is: a daredevil feat, with all kinds of pitfalls built in and bypassed. I don’t recall any recent literature that ties itself so ambitiously to our historical moment.
“Autumn” gave us Brexit; “Winter” gave us Trump; “Spring” gave us the refugee crisis; and now we’re here. It’s “Summer, and our own COVID-19 moment jumps off the page.
In “Autumn,” the first volume, Daniel Gluck (a character who’s back for “Summer”) tells a friend that “every history is a story,” and “whoever makes up the story, makes up the world.” So, what kind of world has Ali Smith made up for us? First, her story leans toward forgiveness. She’s a loving creator (if it’s not too sappy to say), generous with second chances. Take Art, for instance. In “Winter,” he creates a blog, “Art in Nature,” with which he intends to “cut through fake narratives with razor-edge writing. It’ll be searing, it’ll be honest.”
But, it’s neither searing nor honest. Art is a poseur who fabricates experiences and loses his girlfriend, Charlotte, in the bargain. Now, they’re back together and here to play a central part in one of the book’s acts of restitution. No one is stuck forever with the proceeds of sloppy mistakes, although Smith can be scathing when the crime demands it.
No voice here carries the day. Smith is ever aware of the wide streak between what seems to be and what is. She lets us listen in, play emotional detective and unscramble what we can of what is and what was (always crucial in a story that hopscotches across time and geography).
In her Paris Review interview, Smith says that she likes to use the “step-back motion” borrowed from Dickens. By getting a clear bead on the past, she hopes to create a space where we can see the way we live now (“the way that famous first paragraph of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ creates space by being its own opposite”). Never has she been more dedicated to the long view. And never has the long, settled view seemed more inconclusive.
Smith begins “Summer,” like the other Seasons books, with an overture, this one commemorating a dismissive vocal note, when everyone said: “So?” Smith is not a shrugger. Already, the fashion of pretending not to care seems like a lifetime ago. She begins by introducing us to a new family, the Greenlaws.
Grace was once a famous actress and still has a head full of lines and scenes. Her first line nods to Dickens: “Whether I shall turn out to be the heroine of my own life