“Ali Smith’s There But For The is a thoroughly modern book that plays with form, structure, and language, never allowing the reader to settle for comfortable passive reading; ultimately, it’s a text that demands our full attention, featuring writing that makes reading an active experience.”
Seemingly a mess of contradictions, this novel, firmly grounded in reality and yet so surreal, this novel, whose protagonist disappears out of the story before it’s even begun, this novel, whose title drops off the end of a cliff mid-sentence—this novel works.
Ali Smith’s There But For The is a thoroughly modern book that plays with form, structure, and language, never allowing the reader to settle for comfortable passive reading; ultimately, it’s a text that demands our full attention, featuring writing that makes reading an active experience.
Ms. Smith’s prose is effervescent, her characters involving, and her story, though starting from a simple premise, demands that we read on.
There But For The is a novel about storytelling. It’s about how we communicate and how we connect with other people (or how we fail to, being so exquisitely equipped to fail despite—because of?—our oh-so-convenient modern technologies).
There But For The explores the gray areas between fact and imagination, between memory and experience, and ultimately, the big one itself: in exploring identity, the book examines how language, as much as race, religion, class, and sexuality, shapes us as people—and how gaps in language and knowledge can shape us as well.
The clue is in the unfinished title; Ms. Smith suggests that sometimes the things that aren’t there, the things that are implied, or guessed at—and often these guesses are informed by prejudice—are the most important in shaping our worldview.
Unavoidably, this is a clever novel—and it knows it is clever. It celebrates cleverness, intelligence, knowledge. It makes cleverness fun, engaging reading. The text is stuffed with puns and punning, wordplay, riddles. Clues. The narrative itself is in the form of a daisy-chain: stories backtrack, intermingle, loop around each other. There are huge asides, sections in parentheses that can go on for page after page. But Smith strings these threads together brilliantly. Cleverly.
Many of the key characters are of above average intelligence and have discovered that finding a place in the world is hard, given their highly individual outlooks on life, the fact they don’t fit in with the herd. Ms. Smith gives each of these characters distinct, unique voices. Inner voices, interior monologues, voices from beyond.
And throughout, Ali Smith shows that she has a brilliant ear for the comic and the ridiculous. She’s like a modern, Scottish version of Lewis Carroll, who has decided to ground her fiction in reality rather than in Wonderland.
We begin with a dinner party, her version of Carroll’s Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland. (Fittingly, one of the characters quotes from Carroll’s Jabberwocky. “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves . . .” And then he invents new nonsense: “Did Google Twitter in the blog . . .”)
Ms. Smith’s dinner party is held in the leafy London suburb of Greenwich, and our hosts are the Lees, a stereotypically try-hard bohemian couple who’ve tried to invite “interesting people” because of how this reflects on them (they’ve invited a black couple and a gay man because they are exotic, like a new type of dessert.) Just before the sweet course, one of the guests, Miles Garth slips off to visit the toilet. By the time the rest of the dinner party realizes he’s been gone rather too long, he’s locked himself in the Lee’s guest bedroom and is refusing to come out. He will communicate only via notes.
There But For The unfolds itself out of this one act. This one act which could be the beginning of a riddle, or a fable: “There once was a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party.”
And: “What would happen if you did just shut a door and stop speaking? Hour after hour of no words. Would you speak to yourself? Would words just stop being useful? Would you lose language altogether? Or would words mean more, would they start to mean in every direction, all somersault and assault, like a thuggery of fireworks?”
As Miles beds down for the long haul, a seemingly random group of neighbors and friends slowly gathers around the house, trying to find an answer to this riddle. Why? Eventually, the media start to show an interest. Eventually Miles, or rather, the absence of Miles, becomes the blank canvas upon which people start to write their own narratives. They interpret his act for their own ends because ultimately, he is not there to dispute what they say.
The story is told from the points of view of four people who vaguely know Miles, beginning with Anna, a troubled 40-something year-old Scottish woman who’s trapped jobless, rootless in London. Genevieve Lee, the owner of the room which is “haunted” by Miles, has discovered her name in the address book which was in the pocket of the jacket Miles left draped over the back of the chair at the dinner table, and, in a desperate bid to get someone to help remove their unwanted tenant, calls Anna in.
Anna has not seen Miles for 20 years. In fact she’s forgotten all about him. But over the course of her narrative, we learn about their particular connection, as Anna remembers it. They met when they were both amongst the winners of a bank-sponsored essay competition to describe tomorrow’s world, when they were teenagers. The prize was a grand tour of Europe, and Anna, the only Scottish girl on the tour didn’t fit in.
Until she met Miles, who helped her to discover her voice, to not be ashamed of the cleverness inside herself, to be Anna. When this memory of how he’d helped her comes back to her, it comes back as something visceral: “. . . a certain raw combination of hope and disaffection; a knowledge as vivid as an actual taste in her mouth, of what the time she’d been alive in had felt like; and clear as anything a voice, and the words: there you are.”
Next is Mark, a gay man in his gray years whose long-dead mother speaks to him in rhyming couplets and limerick: “These days it was like being assaulted by a bag lady, an old tramp in a torn coat that’s come through fifty wars, who shouts like she long ago lost her hearing.” Mark meets Miles at a play and, on a whim, goes out for drinks with him. They have a long discussion of the word “but” which they eventually decide they like because: “it takes you off to the other side, and where it takes you is always interesting.” Buts become “the way things connect.”
We also meet May, an old woman whose connection with Miles has come through the yearly visits he makes to mark the anniversary of her daughter’s death. May is a woman whose voice has been buried within herself, within the folds of her own pain, but Miles, even in his absence, helps to draw her out.
And finally there’s Brooke, a precocious young girl who is, arguably, the life and soul of the book. Ten years old and exceedingly clever, she muses on the absence/presence theme populating the book: “You can leave the word the out of Fastest Runner In World and in other places because it is a headline kind of thing and people will understand that the word is there even if it isn’t actually there. It means the word the is implied.”
And: “. . . just any old sentence like: the girl ran across the park, and unless you add the describing word then the man or the girl are definitely not black, they are white, though no one has mentioned white, like when you take the the out of a headline and people just assume it’s there anyway.”
But it is the novel’s searing analysis of modern life that is most memorable. This is Mark: “Sure, there’s a certain charm to being able to look up and watch Eartha Kitt singing “Old Fashioned Millionaire” in 1957 at three in the morning or Hayley Mills singing a song about femininity from an old Disney film.
But the charm is a kind of deception about a whole new way of feeling lonely, a semblance of plenitude but really a new level of Dante’s inferno, a zombie-filled cemetery of spurious clues, beauty, pathos, pain, the faces of puppies, women and men from all over the world tied up and wanked over in site after site, a great sea of hidden shallows.”
Through all of her characters, Smith reinforces the idea that 21st century life “promises everything but everything isn’t there,” and ultimately, only provides a “a whole new way of feeling lonely.”
There But For The by no means contains a hopeless resolution; there is the sense that, even in the smallest way, Miles has imprinted himself on other people’s lives. In that way he has followed the overt suggestion in E. M. Forster’s epigraph to Howard’s End: “Only connect.”