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.