Autumn by Ali Smith. Pantheon. 264 pp. $24.95
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley. Washington Square Press. 208 pp. $14.00
There are short stories that seem to have enough material for novels. Alice Munro’s late work was like that, any number of mid-length stories, forty or fifty pages, which encompassed an entire life. Frank O’Connor said that stories deal with a moment in time, novels with the passage of time, so he called Ulysses the longest story ever written, since it dealt—in enormous detail—with one day in the life of Leopold Bloom. For O’Connor it wasn’t really a novel.
Then there are novels that seem to be just overblown stories. Anthony Burgess’ early work was like that for me, as much as I loved it. He was famously writing to make money because he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and wanted to put away some money to support his wife; he wrote five and a half novels in a single year (including A Clockwork Orange). It turned out he’d been mis-diagnosed, but he’d gotten started on a writing career and never stopped.
Ali Smith’s Autumn, with its 264 pages of rather large type, similarly seems like an overblown shorter piece. It’s a lovely story of a young woman and an older man who befriended her when she was 13, partly because she needed a babysitter, then remained her friend for years, so that when she was in her early thirties he was 101, lying near death. Yet they were still friends, and still loved each other. She insisted that, though there had never been anything sexual between them, and though her mother thought he was gay, it really was love they felt for each other. You couldn’t call it by any other name.
Daniel—the man in question—is a natural teacher not just because he has a quirky, slightly askew view of things, but also because he’s genuinely interested in his pupil. The first thing he asked Elisabeth every time he saw her was, What are you reading? And he really wanted to know; he wasn’t just looking for a chance to make recommendations. He wasn’t a teacher about some subject but about an attitude toward life. And at the age of 80—at the time their friendship began—he was interested in Elizabeth as a human being, not a little kid. Such encounters are rare.
Autumn was billed as the first post-Brexit novel, and I thought, Post-Brexit? How fast are they putting out novels these days? Indeed, though, one aspect of the novel, which shows up mostly in Elisabeth’s relationship with her mother, is its post Brexit setting, which sounds familiar in this country as well. Elisabeth’s mother tells her right after the vote that “half the village isn’t speaking to the other half,” and she goes on a rant that, I must say, I utterly sympathized with.
“I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.”
She ain’t the only one.
This novel tells the story of Daniel and Elisabeth, and around its edges captures the moment we’re living in, but in the end the whole thing seemed dashed off to me. It was the first post-Brexit novel but so what. Ali Smith is an extremely fluent writer whose heart is in the right place; I nodded at a lot of what she said. I just didn’t feel this novel added up to much.
Walter Mosley is another kind of writer altogether. I don’t suppose most people would put him in the same review with a literary novelist like Ali Smith; he’s mostly known as an author of genre novels, especially the Easy Rawlins mysteries with which he first became famous. But one of the things I’ve focused on most in our current situation is the issue of race, and though I’ve mostly had a high-culture approach—Moonlight, Fences, James Baldwin, the non-fiction of Albert Murray—I’m not at all sure I haven’t learned more about African American life by reading Walter Mosley, especially the Socrates Fortlow stories. Unlike writers like Burgess and Ali Smith—who take a small plot and blow it into a mid-length novel—Mosley has stories coming out his ears, can’t seem to write them fast enough. He’s written series about Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, Leonid McGill, and three books about Fortlow; he’s done science fiction, YA, straight fiction, erotica, and six books of nonfiction.
I have a special affection for the Socrates Fortlow books, especially this first one, which I have now read three times. Fortlow is an ex-con who served twenty-seven years for rape and murder, then struggled for a while to get back on his feet. When the stories begin he’s living in a tiny two room place and making a meager living by walking around with shopping carts and collecting stuff to recycle, but even so, when a hungry young boy named Darryl shows up, Socrates manages to cook him stewed chicken, dirty rice, and greens, all on a hot plate, and eaten by the two of them out of the same pot; he has no plates. He’s a resourceful guy who knows when it’s meat loaf night at his favorite diner (a former railroad car), and usually gets an extra helping because of how friendly he is. And when he finally forces the local supermarket to let him apply for a job even though he has no phone for them to call, and actually gets the job—in a nice neighborhood far from his—he works hard to establish himself, and gets to know his customers. He slowly betters himself through the course of the three books, while remaining forever remorseful for the violent crime that got him in trouble in the first place.
Like his namesake, Socrates is a student of life, even if it is black ghetto life in Los Angeles, and Darryl to some extent becomes one of his disciples, especially when Socrates rescues him from a difficult living situation and puts him in one where he might have a chance reach manhood. Any number of people in the neighborhood look up to Socrates, even if he is only a bagger at a supermarket. Walter Mosley has created in Fortlow a character who, for me, is more memorable than Easy Rawlins. And he’s never more vivid or engaging than in this first collection of stories.
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