Review of There but for the
In London, 2011, a guest at a dinner party excuses himself, goes upstairs, and locks himself in the guest bedroom of his hosts’ house. For months, he stays there, forcing his hosts to slide deli meat under the door on pieces of paper and worry that their unwanted boarder will never leave. As the crowds gather outside the house, hoping for a glimpse of the man through the window, the Lee family does the best they can to keep themselves and the situation under control. The man, Miles, seems to be known by no one, really; he has no family, his emergency contact Anna claims she hasn’t spoken to him in thirty years, and the friend who brought him to the party in the first place had only just met him a few weeks before. Everyone wants to know who Miles is and why he’s locked himself in the room, but Miles doesn’t seem in any hurry to supply anyone with answers.
Ali Smith is known for her strange, beautiful writing style, and There but for the is no exception. Each section of the book (headed respectively by one of the words in the title) is written not only from a different character’s point of view, but also in a different style. The first section is a story about a young boy and his father in a basement folding paper airplanes. The story seems unremarkable until the end of the novel, when it connects the characters in a perfect circle; it is, in fact a story written by Miles in the room, inspired by a prompt given to him by ten year-old Brooke. The second installment features Anna Hardie, a middle-aged woman who has just quit her job for all the right reasons, which would be fine except the right reasons don’t pay the bills. Then, in the middle of her financial stress, she gets an e-mail from the Lees about their situation. Though Anna argues that she and Miles haven’t seen each other since they went on a student trip together in the ’80s. Anna’s story switches between the present and the past and she slowly remembers that there’s more to her and Miles’ story than she thought. Part three is from the point of view of the guest who brought Miles to the dinner, Mark. Mark is haunted by the voice of his dead mother in his head, and she only speaks in obscenity-laced rhyme. We get to see what happened at the dinner the two men attended, and suddenly Miles’ decision to leave makes a lot more sense. An Alzheimer’s sufferer, May Young, stumbles through section four, describing in bits and pieces her marriage, her young daughter’s death and the boy who helps her get through it every year, and the workup to her escape from the retirement home where she’s been placed. Then finally, ten year-old Brooke takes over the book in full force. With her stunning vocabulary (thanks to her natural intellect and professor parents) and insatiable curiosity, Brooke is the only one who manages to connect with Miles at all, and ends up changing his life in the process.
Smith’s novel clearly illustrates the complexities of human lives and relationships. Each featured character is somehow connected to another and the connection influences the decisions the other characters make. Smith’s skillful reveal of these bonds is fantastic and I loved being surprised as I was let in on the secret. I also enjoyed the change-up in styles; May’s story is disjointed because of her Alzheimer’s, and Brooke skips from subject to subject like the kid that she is. Mark’s telling of the dinner party shows us how everyone behaves from time to time- obsessed with proving how cultured and wonderful they are to a crowd of their peers. Each story shows a different side to human nature, some that aren’t fun to look at.
Britain seems to be more welcoming to different writing styles than America. I suppose “style” is the wrong word; almost every writer in the world has a different style. But in America, the format of almost every book is the same. In Britain, authors seem more free to change it up. For example, Smith’s novel doesn’t have a single quotation mark in it, though there’s plenty of dialogue. And even without it, her writing never confuses the reader. She tells the story with flair and weight, and it’s altogether wonderful.
He’d said did she know he could sum up the last six decades of journalism in six words?
Go on then, she’d said.
I was there. There I was, he said.
It was a commonplace, he said. By the middle of the twentieth century, every important reporter put it like this: I was there. Nowadays: There I was.
Soon it would be seven words, Anna said. The new century had already added a seventh word. There I was, guys.
She had not known she was this shy.
She had not expected, out in the world, to find herself quite so much the wrong sort of person.
Google is so strange. It promises everything, but everything isn’t there.
Well, but it was sore enough, that wrist on the bed, to be her own wrist, no stranger’s wrist after all, there where the plastic bit into it. That’s how you knew it was you and nobody else, then, was it, when things were sore?
But the fact is, how do you know anything is true? Duh, obviously, records and so on, but how o you know that the records are true? Things are not just true because the internet says they are.