By Dwight Garner
“How’re you doing,” a character asks in “Spring,” Ali Smith’s new novel, “apart from the end of liberal capitalist democracy?”
“Spring” is the third novel in a projected seasonal cycle that began with “Autumn” in 2017 and continued last year with “Winter.” This is the most political book thus far in this earthy and humane series. Its heart is worn far out on its sleeve. It beats arrhythmically somewhere down near the knuckles.
Smith is not going to ride out this tumultuous political moment artistically, as if she were a car parked under an overpass during a storm. She’s delivered a bracing if uneven novel, one that, like jazz, feels improvised. “Spring” is tendentious at times, but it taps deeply into our contemporary unease. It’s always alive.
Some of the things this novel comes out against: Brexit, 24-hour news channels, immigrant detention centers, shrinking library hours, global warming, CCTV cameras, bad manners, giving away your DNA, emojis, private security firms and, not least of all, the American president.
Some of the things it’s for: dissent, old postcards, Nina Simone’s version of “O-o-h Child,” privacy, cigarettes and casual affairs, the art made by Katherine Mansfield and Charlie Chaplin and Tacita Dean, civil liberties, the communion of souls and playing hooky from work.
These are hardly controversial opinions, at least in the world of elite fiction, where conservative ideas scarcely appear except in exaggerated form, spoken by obvious numbskulls. No wonder conservative readers are so often driven to the ideological safety of the Tom Clancy aisle.
One of Smith’s characters cracks a joke about “virtue signaling” (a delayed train has “virtue signaling problems”) but this novel is all virtue, all signal, all the time.
Yet Smith embeds her politics in interlocking plotlines that flow like waking dreams, in melodies and countermelodies. Her gifts are such that she nearly pulls this awkward bird aloft.
Her novels are like Mike Leigh’s films or The Mekons’ albums. Some are better than others, but all are the product of a unique and hard-won vision; a vision that’s homely in the best sense of that word. You never doubt you’re in the presence of a serious artist, even when things are going pear-shaped.
“Spring” is largely about Richard, a filmmaker in his late 60s, an old lefty trying to make sense of the new world. The convictions of the #MeToo moment have this basically decent man revisiting, in sleepless, thrashing 4 a.m. moments, flashes of his past behavior.
He frets “about this time or that when he’d thought it was all right to act however he liked to the women he was with. He’d touched many a leg. He’d taken many a chance. He’d been lucky more often than most. No one’d complained. At least, not to him.”
Richard is down on his luck. He needs work, but the only project on offer is a terrible script about the time in 1922 when Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke were in the same Swiss town. In real life, they apparently never met while there. In the script, they have wacky sex on a billiards table, and in a swinging cable car.
Richard is crushed by the death of his longtime collaborator and screenwriter, whom he refers to as Paddy. This novel skips around in time. When we see Paddy still alive, she expresses zero patience for the highbrow-baiting that’s on the rise in Western civilization.
“Don’t get at me for knowing,” she says to Richard. “I’m a dying species, I’m that thing nobody out there thinks is relevant anymore. Books. Knowledge. Years of reading. All of which means? I know stuff.”
Paddy is also given too much heavy, expository dialogue. Richard hopes to speak at Paddy’s funeral, but he’s turned down by her children. Distraught and borderline suicidal, he boards a train north.
Other characters will board trains north as well. They will ultimately collide with one another. One of these is Brittany, a woman who works at a brutal immigrant detention center run by a private security firm. She’s learned things like “how to talk weather” while “holding someone in headlock.” About her eating habits, we read: “Her favorite food is anything burnt.”
One day Brittany meets and inexplicably follows onto a train a 12-year-old girl named Florence, an orphan who is a kind of savant of justice, like some combination of Emma González, the Parkland shooting survivor and activist, and Leia Organa from “Star Wars.”
Florence somehow manages to slip into the detention center and have the place cleaned up. She pelts the management with questions like “Why, when you bring people here, do you bring them in the middle of the night?” and “Is migrating to another country because you need help actually a crime?”
The paths of Richard and Brittany and Florence align. I won’t say more about what happens, except to note that we learn of a sort of underground railroad, a community of people who help immigrants escape the clutches of the security state.
“Spring” shares certain themes and concerns with the two earlier novels in this cycle, but they needn’t be read in sequence. You can pick them off in any order.
This novel pivots toward a potentially dark ending. Smith deals out gloom with a practiced hand. “The sky,” she writes, “was a massive closed door.” Her “Spring” can really hang you up the most.
Smith’s vision isn’t fundamentally pessimistic, however. There’s too much squirming life in her fiction, slashes of cleansing light for those who seek it.Correction: April 30, 2019
An earlier version of this review misstated the location in which Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke lived. It was a Swiss town, not a Swedish town.