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James Ley on Ali Smith

At the Sydney Review of Books, James Ley casts an eye over the rambunctious prose of Ali Smith’s seasonal novels and finds Smith with a less-than-firm grip on her control mechanisms:

The incantatory quality is one of the notable characteristics of Smith’s unique and highly propulsive prose style, which has the affect of a kind of ersatz modernism. One imagines it is how Katherine Mansfield might have written if she started drinking Jack Kerouac’s amphetamine-spiked coffee. The only contemporary British writer who might be in some sense comparable is Nicola Barker. Typographic quirks, ludic riffs and jokey authorial asides all contribute to a jumpy informality of tone that gives Smith’s writing its extemporised feel.

The energised prose is well matched to the charged atmosphere of the times. Much of the surface politics of these novels is played out on the rhetorical level of their staged arguments, which are mostly conducted in quickfire dialogue, but make room for the occasional summatory or denunciatory statement. Elisabeth’s mother’s speech can be taken as representative in the limited sense that it is less a penetrating piece of political analysis than a bingo card of blame. It is an admission of impotence and incomprehension that conveys a generalised frustration and perhaps a note of incredulity at the wretched state of the nation. While the quartet as a whole does not lack for the balancing qualities of humour and sympathy, it retains a solid core of moral outrage. Scattered throughout are expressions of anger, exasperation and disgust — sometimes in the context of arguments between characters, sometimes in the voice of the novels themselves — which counter the febrile political context with their own emotional heat. These passages are not necessarily meant to be read in isolation as decisive commentaries, but I think it is fair to say that Smith comes near-enough to editorialising in the scabrous satirical blast at the beginning of Spring, which channels the collective voice of all the cynical manipulators and sowers of discord, and in sarcasm of the opening pages of Summer, where she expresses something akin to contempt for those who would retreat into a pose of indifference, as if all the hatefulness of the past five years were no big deal. “Fuck compassion fatigue”, spits one of her favoured characters. “That’s people walking around with dead souls.”