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Ali Smith, author of Autumn.

Christian Sinibali

Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton

Last weekend, driving into Toronto and tuned dutifully to CBC radio, I caught a bit on Quirks & Quarks about the relationship between sleep and memory.

The traffic was bad and the weather was worse, so my recollection of host Bob McDonald's interview with his guest, some sort of sleep scientist, is a little foggy – so please bear with me.

As best as I remember it, after describing the human brain as a sort of Etch A Sketch, the scientist explained that since we simply don't have the storage capacity to record everything that occurs over the course of the day, one of the purposes of sleep is to clear the screen – to shake the pictures free, as it were – for the following day. Amid all that erasure, the scientist continued, particularly poignant details are saved as memories. He then provided a synaptic explanation, which I interpreted to mean that, during sleep, the knobs of the Etch A Sketch aren't turning, no new pictures are being created, and so we wake to a relatively blank slate each morning.

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This is where, stuck on the Queen Elizabeth Way in gridlock, my thoughts began to wander. What about dreams? Most people have bolted awake from a nightmare only to have the terrifying details, if not the attendant terror, instantly recede, and even those lingering sensations tend to fade over time as well. Does an inverse process wipe our waking brains clear of the previous night's stories, images and feelings? Where do those memories go?

They aren't, allegedly, meant to turn up in fiction. "Tell a dream, lose a reader," advised Henry James, and countless creative writing instructors since. Perhaps Ali Smith missed that lesson – or ignored it: Autumn, her 14th book, is full of dreams. In fact, after some nihilistically corrupted Dickens ("It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times"), the novel even opens with a dream, albeit one pierced with melancholy awareness: "It will not last," 101-year-old Daniel Gluck realizes, mid-reverie, from his deathbed.

Whether Henry James meant that dreams are a lazy way of articulating psychology, or that they are simply as boring to read as they are to hear, or that their transcription poses logistical complications (how to document something that never really exists in time?), none of that matters in Autumn. Dreams, here, are braided into the fabric of the novel with such intricacy that even the "woke" parts feel dreamlike, and transitions between fantasy and reality have the fluid sensibility of easing in and out of sleep.

Daniel Gluck, in fact, spends almost the entire novel asleep – not in a coma, exactly, but lingering semi-consciously somewhere between this world and the next. In this state, he's visited daily by his former neighbour, Elisabeth Demand, whom Daniel befriended in her childhood; "I love him," she states at one point, candidly enough. From Daniel's bedside, Elisabeth reads from Ovid and Dickens, and Autumn twines these scenes (and texts) with the history of Daniel and Elisabeth's relationship, the current circumstances of her life – 32, living back home with her mother, teaching sessionally at a nearby college – and a through-line about the British pop artist Pauline Boty, an unrequited love of Daniel's and the subject of Elisabeth's graduate work.

Meanwhile, summer is dwindling into fall, the Brexit vote has just passed, and the world teeters at the cusp of profound and, depending whom you ask, either catastrophic or exultant transformation. A short chapter comprising equivocations acknowledging both sides of the EU referendum – "All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they'd really lost," etc. – suggests the sorts of binaries that Smith troubles throughout the novel, locating her characters less at some firm, political centre than in an interstitial space of possibility and flux.

Between the centenarian Daniel, a believer in the fundamental immutability of things – "Plus ça change," he shrugs at one point – and Elisabeth, the rut-stuck millennial for whom the future isn't just bleak but non-existent, the novel positions Elisabeth's mother, Wendy, the most dynamic character in the book – in that she's the only one, like a true baby boomer, inspired to self-actualization: "It is like magic has happened in my life," she enthuses to her daughter. (Which, amid a potential global meltdown, could be inspiring or disheartening, depending how generous you're feeling.)

Although Autumn has been commended for its intellectual engagement with the issues of the day – a "coruscating novel of ideas," even – it's far more impressive as an exercise in tone and pacing. The book is too embedded in the present moment to get much of a handle on things, save the occasional rote aphorism ("It is the end of dialogue," etc.), but it's precisely this lack of fixity that makes the novel feel so contemporary. With one eye gazing nostalgically into a swiftly fading past and another warily observing the tenuous present, the narration wheels between exploratory and anxious – not unlike, I suppose, the language of dreams.

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What has Western existence become over the past few months if not a sort of dreamscape? History's dependence on facts, however debatable, has been rendered obsolete, and while the world fractures along ideological fault lines, we are barely capable of digesting the news of today, never mind predicting how they might inform tomorrow. As in dreams there seems to be only now, and all our previous codifications – of causality, of logic and rationality, etc. – no longer seem relevant or useful. It's precisely this phenomenology that Ali Smith captures so acutely in Autumn, which hopefully posits art as a means to negotiate these weird, wild and murky times.

Later in that same episode of Quirks & Quarks, a different scientist suggested that a lack of sleep causes us to retain more negative than positive memories – that, essentially, not only does the Etch A Sketch fail to clear, it stores the most distressful stuff. Maybe we're too lost in the dream these days to get our minds straight. Autumn's Elisabeth, at least, seems besieged by worries of some impending annihilation: "Savagery's coming. Heads are going to roll." This is Ali Smith's first novel in a seasonal quartet. Next, one assumes, will be the desolation of Winter; then, if we make it that far, Spring. But Autumn is not all doom and gloom. In fact, the novel ends promisingly: not with death and destruction, but with an awakening.

Pasha Malla's new novel, Fugue States, will be published in May.

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