Ali Smith’s new novel “There But For The” was described in several recent reviews as a story about a man, Miles, who leaves the table of a dinner party, walks upstairs, and locks himself in his host’s guest bedroom. He refuses to leave. The story is told in four sections, from the perspective of four individuals who know Miles. This sounded like an entertaining premise, and given that the book is by a British author, I may have incorrectly assumed I was in for a rollicking story in the vein of “Fawlty Towers.”
Instead, “There But For The” is a novel that is esoteric and unusual, relying heavily on the author’s ability to mold words and phrases into clever puns, allusions, and well, the literary equivalent of contemporary artwork. Smith is apparently well-known for this style of writing; she toys with us in the way she writes—almost challenging us to “get” as many of the inside jokes and to follow the discordant rhythms she plays with her pen.
I liked this book, but I felt intimidated by it. I worried I wasn’t “getting” it, and that it was the kind of literature that is only for professors, poets and, maybe the British. I felt like patting myself on the back when I picked up on a pun. But then I’d start to sweat as I flashed back to sophomore literature assignments, worrying that I would completely misread the point of this story. One of the reasons I think that the book reviews of “There But For The” remain largely generic is that the authors of those reviews were also intimidated by some of the more enigmatic themes and ideas.
Quickly, know that Miles, the permanent houseguest, is only a bit character. We meet him in each chapter, but we never really know him. We don’t find out why he nested in the guestroom of his dinner host. We don’t know if he is gay or straight. We don’t know if he has a family or if he is employed. He’s an oddball, but he’s also appealing. The four chapters, each titled as one of the words in the title of the book, are told from the perspective of a woman Miles met briefly in school, the gay man that brought Miles to the dinner party, an elderly woman whose daughter was a friend of Miles, and from the older-than-her-age daughter of a couple who attended the dinner party.
In each chapter, Smith relies heavily on the word that is the title of each chapter. For instance, in the second chapter called “But,” Smith repeatedly uses the word, building on its place in language as a conjunction, and employs the conjunction as a metaphor for the interaction that builds between Miles and Mark, the lonely gay man who he befriends. (Actually, this was an incredibly artful passage of conversation in the book.) If you go through each chapter and search out how Smith finds ways to rely on its title word, your mind will marvel at the intricacies of her prose.
Smith also deliberately sets the novel in Greenwich, the city that is quite literally the epicenter of time. Smith moves us in and out of several moments in time in each story, and as they shift, we find our head spinning somewhat, relishing a pleasing, drunken high.
I could be reading too much into this (but this kind of literature is what we want it to be, right?) but I think Brooke, the child, is the true voice of the author. She’s the daughter of brilliant parents who teach her to joust with words, relish erudite jokes and puns, and explore personalities of those around her. In the climactic conversation of the novel, Miles talks to Brooke about being clever. I’ll excerpt heavily from Miles’ words, hoping that SOPA and PIPA don’t end up becoming law:
“Cleverness is great. It’s a really good thing, when you have it. But there’s no point in just having it. You have to know how to use it. And when you know how to use your cleverness, it’s not that that you’re the cleverest any more, or are doing it to be cleverer than anyone else like it’s a competition. No. Instead of being the cleverest, the thing to do is become a cleverist.“
I love that, and I think it is Ali Smith channeling her writing philosophy. She is hopeful that she’s being a cleverist and not the cleverest. And that’s the key to this novel. Ali Smith is playing words with strangers; her characters are somewhat blurry so that her titillating wordplay remains in focus throughout the novel.
I doubt I’ve enlightened you much about this novel. This was a departure from the type of fiction I typically choose—most of what I read has a more clearly defined plot and set of characters. This was out of the ordinary and that’s OK sometimes. When I finished the book, I sought out reviews, hoping for thoughtful analysis of the thematic undercurrents that challenged me, but like I said earlier, I found mostly simple and misleading reviews. The New York Times review gets close to how I perceived the novel. Maybe there’s an English professor or another literature lover out there who will read this and discuss it with me. I’d appreciate the opportunity to think it through with someone else. Use the comments if you are so inclined!
Thanks for reading.