There But For The

Mister Litlove said last week, after a particularly tough few days with difficult clients, that people are made up of two parts – the thin veneer of adult and the child underneath. All too often, he said, you find yourself having to deal with the child, but it’s only at that point you really know who you are dealing with, and that you can see what the person is all about. I had cause to remember this when I was reading Ali Smith’s brilliant new novel, There But For The. What I love about her style is the unusual combination of adult and child in her voice, but what makes it so special is that the child is so delightfully playful and the adult so wondrously wise. Her perspective on the way we live now is full of the chuckling absurdity of the child who cannot be deceived, her sensibility is full of the grounded compassion of the elderly sage. It’s no surprise that both of these types of character take over the reins of the narrative in what turns out to be a four-handed account of a central enigma.

The premise is simple: a man named Miles has been invited by Mark, whom he hardly knows, to accompany him to a dinner Mark doesn’t much want to attend thrown by a rather pretentious woman at a house in Greenwich, London. Halfway through the dinner party, Miles excuses himself and then locks himself into the guest bedroom upstairs and refuses to come out. He communicates with his hosts by pushing notes underneath the door, they send him wafer-thin slices of ham back as sustenance, knowing he is vegetarian and hoping to flush him out. Rather than call the police, Genevieve, his hostess, calls the media, and before long a huge camp of followers have congregated in the back garden, sending up food baskets on a system of ropes and pulleys and waiting with reverence for a glimpse of his hand at the window.

The narrative revolves around Miles without ever cracking the mystery he represents. The first part, ‘There’, is narrated by Anna, who has just left her soul-destroying job at a relocation centre for refugees called ‘The Centre for Temporary Permanence’. Her phone number has appeared in the contact list on Miles’s mobile and convinced, despite Anna’s protests to the contrary, that she must be significant to his life, Genevieve has demanded that she come over and try to talk him out. Given that temporary permanence is a pretty fine way to describe Miles’ occupation of the spare room, Anna ends up organising the back garden rally, after the memory returns to her of the brief school holiday where she made his acquaintance. The second part, ‘But’ is narrated through Mark, whose mother was a famous artist before she committed suicide while he was still a boy and whose legacy is a thousand snippets from show songs that run through his head along with his mother’s voice, speaking to him in rhyming couplets. The third part ‘For’ belongs to May, dying slowly in a care home and reviewing the pleasures and tragedies of her life. Her connection to Miles only becomes clear at the end of the segment. And finally the narrative passes to the voice of the precociously intelligent child, Brooke, whose academic parents were also at the dinner party. Brooke is struggling to manage the huge acquisitive power of her mind and her fascination for history, and finds in Miles an unexpected ally.

Each of these narratives passes through the stream-of-consciousness of its narrator, and one of the particular pleasures of Ali Smith’s writing is seeing how she works out the interplay of possibility and necessity in the mental processes of her characters. Thought here is gloriously playful, rhizomatic, spreading out in all directions at once, random and uncontrollable, and yet, as we follow the path of the protagonists’ thoughts, what might look like mental flotsam and jetsam nevertheless takes the reader on a slyly unfurling journey in which the significant elements rise to the surface, spark connections and reverberate with meaning. I love the way that each story holds a beautiful glancing relation to the mystery of Miles, alone in the guest room. Although none of the narrators knows him well, the situation obliges them to consolidate their knowledge of him, and to see the pieces of their lives fall differently from this unusual perspective. The title of the book There But For The is perfectly judged in this respect – it reminds the reader how important mystery is for arousing our curiosity and making us think. Miles is a necessary mystery, a catalyst for spawning a multitude of stories that cluster around his absence and fill in his void.

Questions of memory, knowledge, history and time underlie and entwine with the playfulness of the surface narrative, which is mischievously alive with wordplay, puns, jokes, snippets of songs, surreal fantasies and amusing anecdotes. There are profound preoccupations here, with human connection and what it really means, with ethical issues of how we might want to treat one another, with the constant preoccupation we have with how things look (and the recognition, mostly forced underground, that how things look is actually irrelevant to meaning and pleasure), but all this is carried along on a stream of prose that is essentially musical, singing with the cadences of human speech, continually attentive to what makes us laugh, what makes us think and what makes us feel alive.

Anyone who is a regular visitor to this site will know I’m a fan of Ali Smith’s writing. Here’s why: so much writing with an experimental streak can often feel almost aggressive towards the reader, written as if in disgust with the current state of literary affairs or out of frustration against a culture that’s seen as dumbed down or lazy or trivial. But Ali Smith’s brand of experimentalism is clearly done out of love, love of language and its rich possibilities, affection for the convoluted yet fertile processes of imagination, and tenderness for our human condition which as Orwell says in one of the epigraphs is to be ‘prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.’ Both the sage and the child in Ali Smith’s voice are filled with kindness for her characters in the face of this plight and ‘for genius to be kind takes a special sort of genius in itself’ as one of the characters in the novel thinks. It could be a slogan for this book.

20 thoughts on “There But For The

  1. I am going out right now to get this book. Actually, first, I am going to re-read your review because it is so perfectly done. I think you too have this genius, this kindness toward everything you write about, and it is one of the things that makes me value you so much as a guide and a fellow reader and writer. (And I am with you on the aggressiveness of experimental work. You hit that nail squarely where it should be hit.) xo

  2. If this one is anything like her The First Person and Other Stories then I am prepared to be entranced. First Person was such a delight. It felt like one of those wonderful conversations that makes you feel both clean and larger than you were before it began. Is that the consequence of writerly compassion to do you think?

  3. I got two of her novels “Girl meets Boy” and after your recommendation “Hotel World”. I am very curious. When it is experimental for the sake of being experimental I do not enjoy it but if it’s a thoughtful exploration of language and a playful way of saying old things in a new way, then I am very interested.

  4. I have never read any of her works but am really thinking this HAS to be put on to my TBR list. This also sounds almost similar to a book I started reading a while back called “Seven Types of Ambiguity”. I never finished – although that is not a reflection of the work or the author, just poor timing at such an attempt.

  5. I am reading (and loving) Girl Meets Boy so I am glad to hear you raving about her work. I must admit that when you said ‘experimental’ my heart sank a little but this is the good kind of experimental, as you point out. The one that is done with love of the language and love and compassion for her characters.

  6. Hmmm…well, you got me to read and love Markson. Maybe you’ll get me to read Ali Smith, too (especially since I was just commenting on stepping out of my comfort reading zone over at Stef’s So Many Books).

  7. I don’t always do well with experimental fiction, but maybe it’s due to that aggressiveness you mention. I often feel like I’m floundering, but I like reading outside my comfort zone, so I shall be adding this one to my list–it’s not due out until fall here. I liked her novel The Accidental, and I have Hotel World, so perhaps I can read what I have on hand while I wait. Besides I like stories with alternating narrators who throw light on a central character–so this sounds very interesting.

  8. I have been reviewing “Girl Meets Boy” (Jente møter gutt) and “The First Person and Other Stories” (Første person og andre historier) in Norwegian, these are for the time being the only ones translated to my language. I think my personal favorite amongst here many great books is “Like” from 1997.

  9. Bloglily – dear BL, you are SO good for my morale! Thank you for such a lovely comment which improved my day enormously when (and every time since) I read it. And that aggressive experimental thing annoys me so much – I do so prefer the playful type!.

    mary – you put it perfectly when you talk about conversations that leave you cleaner and larger. That is exactly it! I think compassion must have something to do with it, because it soothes us on our journeys and makes us feasible to ourselves again.

    Charlotte – can’t wait to hear what you think!

    Deborah – thank you – that is SO nice. And I am so looking forward to the release of The Lantern, too.

    David – I would love to know what you think of it – this is probably the most philosophical I’ve known Ali Smith to be, and that aspect of it might appeal to you.

    Caroline – story and characters always come first with Ali Smith, and so that makes her a very accessible writer, I think. I will be so interested to know what you think of her works.

    Kimberley – is that William Empson? It rings a vague bell with me. And I do agree that books require a certain mood sometimes, and without that they don’t quite work. I’d love to know what you think of this if you read it.

    Pete – yay! So happy that you are loving Girl Meets Boy, which is so tender and funny. There’s heart and mind in her work, and that makes it so much more accessible and entertaining, I think.

    Lilian – if you like her already, you’ll certainly like this one. And I do love reviewing books that please me – it’s like a gift.

    Emily – this is nowhere near as big a step outside the comfort zone as Markson. Really, this is only a toe outside. Do try Girl Meets Boy – I think that is a good first read because it’s short and funny.

    Danielle – if you liked The Accidental, you should like this one as they have family similarities, if you see what I mean. Same sort of structure, same sort of playful voice. I haven’t read Hotel World yet – must get to that one soon. I’d love to know what you make of There But For The, or Hotel World, when you get to them. And I quite understand about experimental writing. I have to be in the right mood for it myself (and I’m not always!).

    Stefanie – lol! this made both me and Mister Litlove laugh out loud.

    Sigrun – oh I loved Like – it seems a long time ago that I read it, though, so my memory for the details is hazy. How lovely to find another Ali Smith fan – I had no idea she was translated into Norwegian at all. Hopefully the publishers will hurry up with the other titles.

    Jenny – bless you! What a nice thing to say!

    Bookboxed – I am so glad you’ll read this – do let me know what you think of it, won’t you?

  10. I must admit that I will usually struggle with this style of writing but as you’ve described it here I feel as though this would be accessible and enjoyable for me.

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  12. After far too long, I have finally read this book, and will post about it on my own blog once I have figured out exactly what I want to say about it. But to you, I would like to say: thank you for all the effort you put into your incredibly intelligent and insightful reviews. I would never have read this book were it not for your blog, and it excited me in ways that made me glad to be alive. It excited me so much that I had to keep putting it down and walking around the room just to dispel the energy it created in me. And I am very curious to read more of Ali Smith’s work.

    • David, your comment has made me very happy! I love that description of you having to put the book down and walk around the room. That’s what real creativity can do for us, I think, pep us up somehow, give us access to that red energy that says, yes, we CAN do things, we can think in new ways and renew ourselves entirely. I am SO glad you enjoyed Ali Smith. Try Girl Meets Boy or The Accidental next if you are on a wave. And let me know how you get on!

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