There But for The Hardcover – Jun 28 2011
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A Washington Post Notable Book of 2011
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2011
“There but for the is a brilliant title for a brilliant novel. Ali Smith invents new forms of fiction in the interstices between parts of a sentence – commenting "but the thing I particularly like about the word but … is that it always takes you off to the side …" The story is about a man who leaves a tedious dinner party, locks himself into a bedroom and refuses to leave. His hostess calls in the press and he becomes a cause celebre. He is put together in a series of stories from different, tangential points of view. The novel is both funny and moving – it succeeds because of Smith's extraordinary skill with ordinary language.” –A.S. Byatt, The Guardian (London), Best Books of 2011
“To read a book by Ali Smith is to become an unabashed fan of her clever wordplay, her inventive prose, her concern for the ethical collapse of the lives of ordinary people. . . . As wickedly ingenious a novel as is likely to be found this season. . . . Exhilarating. . . . At a time when technology is separating us, changing our language and our histories, we must listen to Ali Smith. We must heed her cautionary comments on the human need to be individuals and the human need for connection. Otherwise, There but for the.” –Anniston Star
“Ali Smith’s clever, by turns whimsical and subtly wrenching fifth novel, There But For The, is another book that sends you back to the beginning once you’ve reached the end, both to connect the dots of her intricately structured story and to marvel at what she has pulled off. . . . With her penchant for wordplay on full display, the author of The Accidental switches between the perspectives of four people whose lives have been peripherally touched by her gentle shut-in, a man who, like J.D. Salinger’s Seymour Glass, has perhaps too much heart to survive comfortably in a hard world. These appealing characters include a ‘preternaturally articulate’ 9-year-old, one of literature’s most beguiling little sages since Salinger’s Esme.” –Heller McAplin, NPR “Five 2011 Books That Stay With You”
“Quirky, intricately put together. . . . A book about loss and retention: about what we forget and what we remember, about the people who pass through our lives and what bits of them cling to our consciousness. . . . Ms. Smith is brilliant at leaving things out and forcing the reader to make connections, so that, for example, the remaining words of the title phrase (‘grace of God go I’) go without saying. . . . Language here also proves itself to be dense and referential, capable of making unexpected connections and of imprinting itself feelingly on the mind in a phrase, a rhyme, a snatch of song lyric.” –Charles McGrath, The New York Times
“Those who have read [Smith’s] previous novels (including The Accidental and Hotel World) will tell you that she’s a rare talent, and in There but for the she stretches that talent in ways you’d never have imagined. You can almost feel Smith flexing her writerly muscles as you turn the pages. From the enigmatic opening onwards, it’s clear that this won’t be your typical novel, and Ali Smith isn’t your typical wrier. . . . As challenging as it is confounding, weaving four separate stories around the central spindle of Miles Garth. . . . It’s the kind of philosophical tour de force that we’re more used to seeing from the likes of Paul Auster, but in Ali Smith’s hands it also acquires a humanity and a tenderness that feel utterly new. Smith’s love of language shines through too, as she mixes local vernacular with higher registers, creating a vibrant patchwork of words that knits together her themes and ideas in unique fashion. . . . A fascinating read, even if you don’t want to delve into its meta-narrative, and Smith has such a way with words that even the most mundane act can become poetry in her hands. Like Miles Garth himself, her invisible hand creates ripples that will mesmerize and enthrall you from start to finish.” –Culture Mob
“A beguiling ode to human connection shot through with existential wonder and virtuosic wordplay. If you fell for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, you’ll appreciate Smith’s formal twists and turns—and there’s more where There came from.” –Time Magazine
“It is with this word play, repetition, rhyme, and rhythm that Smith proves herself one of the ‘cleverist’—a British author at the top of her game who combines eccentricity and originality in equal measure. And, as I discovered when I heard her reading from the opening pages last week with a cadence rarely found in a fiction writer, There but for the is a story quite literally crying out to be heard. Here we have a novel, and a novelist, delighting in the joy of language itself.” –Lucy Scholes, Daily Beast
“Ambitious, rambunctious, and poetic. . . . [Smith] makes use of what have become her trademarks—a narrative trickiness in which any given story may be incomplete, and a certain linguistic playfulness, which in this case includes puns, Lewis Carroll-like absurdist banter, and conversations that read like transcripts, a trick that has the interesting effect of making them sound familiar and odd at the same time. . . . Smith is good at pulling a surprise, especially a tragic one, out of nowhere, to get you in the gut. . . . Smith’s people sound real when they talk, and so do the thoughts as they flow through their heads. . . . Contains all the real, solid stuff of a novel. It satisfies, it enlightens, and there’s a surge of wonderment and poignancy beneath the narrative that continually springs up.” –Katie Heagele, Philadelphia Inquirer
“Exceedingly clever and subtly wrenching. . . . Structurally, this novel is a marvel. Smith has interwoven multiple points of view before, but this time her shifts in perspective are just disorienting enough to keep readers on their toes. And she slyly slips in significant information, at times before we’re ready to understand its full import, an approach that makes the eventual aha moments especially satisfying. “There but for the” packs an emotional wallop in part because it engages us to read more actively. Smith prompts readers not just to connect the dots of her story but to assemble the pieces of her title and supply the implied words: …grace of God go I.’ –Heller McAlpin, The Washington Post
“Ali Smith’s weird and wonderful puzzle of a fifth novel is ostensibly about a dinner-party guest who locks himself in a spare bedroom and refuses to come out, inadvertently sparking a media frenzy. But the book—packed with jokes and random facts—is really about small stuff like life and death and the meaning of human existence, all told with sharp humor and real insight. The novel itself is a riddle with no solution, which is exactly the point: When you reluctantly come to the end, you can’t help going back to the beginning, trying to unravel this beautifully elusive book’s mysterious spell.” –A-, Entertainment Weekly
“Masterful. . . . Rapidly gains momentum, turning a simple tale into something ambitious and grounded. . . . As much as There But For The is about the connection and memory in a narrative sense, its love of language is even more impressive. Smith uses a constant internal monologue to depict her characters, without external narration, and they jump from word to word, pun to pun, or in one case, conversation with the imagined dead to conversation with the living. The wordplay is often a delight on its own, but Smith also uses it to great effect for revelations in the story.” –The A.V. Club
“A marvel of a novel, sweeping in purpose (what is the meaning of life, of history, of our presence or our absence) and magnetic in both the presentation of its cast and characters and the unfolding of its deceptively simple plot. . . . The writing in There But For The is lovely, the imagery sharp and moving, and the flow unstoppable. . . . I simply could not put this book down, other than to place it on my lap while I worked out the pieces of the puzzle. . . . Smith is also unabashedly aware and even proud of the quirks and thrills of the human mind, of how we can make up songs and puns and jokes, create connections out of chance meetings, and care, really really care, about both our history and our future.” –Nina Sankovitch, Huffington Post
“Quirky. . . . As intriguing—and clever—as its title.” –Counterpunch
“Ali Smith loves words. She loves playing with them, calling attention to them, listening to them as if they were members of a vast extended family, each precious in its own right and she their fair-minded parent, determined not to play favorites. She can give the word ‘but’ such a star turn that you wonder why you’d ever taken it for granted. Smith’s love of language lights up all her books. . . . Smith’s wordplay never comes at the expense of the many other facets in her complicated creations—characters, places, ideas. . . . . A witty, provocative urban fable. . . . If you enjoy surprising, often comic insights into contemporary life, she’s someone to relish. . . . When the narrative turns to the elderly May, Smith’s expansive humanism returns in a wonderful, complex account of this vibrant character, one that touches on aging, family ties, death and ‘the intimate.’ . . . [A] lively, moving narrative. . . . . All the likable characters in There but for the enjoy a good verbal game, most happily with someone else. It is as though playing with language is what enables them to make their way through a complicated world. It’s a knack that might also be picked up, most enjoyably, by reading Ali Smith.” –Sylvia Brownrigg, The New York Times Book Review
“Sophisticated, playful. . . . Exhilarating. . . . In her astonishing, light look at the human need for separation—for a closed door—and its counterpoint, the need for connections, Smith blasts a window open in our heads.” –The Plain Dealer
"British author Ali Smith has never been what you’d call a conventional novelist. Whether she is using a hotel as a metaphor for the various stages of life, examining the impact of uninvited guests or re-envisioning a classic Greek myth, Smith has proved she isn’t afraid of taking chances or pushing boundaries. Smith’s novels tend to begin with a slightly outlandish but irresistibly intriguing premise. . . . Leave it to Smith to take a seemingly simple and straightforward (and absurd!) idea and transform it into anything but. . . . This is a novel that is deeply cerebral and is guaranteed to get your synapses firing. For those who relish a bit of an enigma and are looking for something extraordinary when it comes to fiction, There But For The delivers in spades." —Bookpage
"Exhilirating." —Marie Claire
"Like several recent novels, notably Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, this work is a collection of interlocking stories organized around a single theme and featuring multiple characters. . . . Smith…deftly satirizes our media-saturated environment, using an oddball cast of characters to point out the difficulty we have in making genuine human connections and demonstrating how beautiful and rare it is when we actually succeed. The passage of time is a constant underlying preoccupation as well, as befits the setting—home of the Royal Observatory, which established Greenwich Mean Time. . . . This is a delightful, beautifully written, touching novel that will strongly appeal to lovers of language and wordplay." —Library Journal
"With its shifting points of view, Smith (The First Person: and Other Stories, 2009, etc.) displays a virtuoso gift for channeling her character's inner voices. Happily, the book manages to wear its profundity lightly. . . . [An] offbeat exploration of the human need to connect with others." —Kirkus Reviews
"This startling lark from Smith (The Accidental) is so much more than the sum of its parts. Both breezy and devastating, the novel radiates from its whimsical center: Miles Garth, a dinner party guest, decides to leave the world behind and lock himself in his hostess’s spare room, refusing to come out and communicating only by note. Four charmers with tenuous links to Miles, nicknamed Milo by the growing crowd camped outside the suburban Greenwich London house, narrate the proceedings: Anna, a girl who knew Miles briefly in the past; Mark, a melancholy gay man who Miles met watching Shakespeare at the Old Vic; May Young, an elderly woman who Miles helped grieve her daughter’s death; and the wonderful, "preternaturally articulate" Brooke, arguably the cleverest 10-year-old in contemporary literature. Together, they create a portrait not so much of Miles—because none of them really knows him—but of the zeitgeist of their society. In a lovely departure, and in spite of the fact that there is not one ordinary, carefree character in this whole tale, all parents are literate, loving, and tolerant: though Mark is exhausted and sad, his famous mum speaks to him, in verse no less, from beyond the grave; though May is trapped in dementia, she was a kind mother to her ill-fated daughter; and though Brooke is clearly plagued by attention deficit disorder and is misunderstood and disliked at school, her parents love her dearly. This fine, unusual novel is sweet and melancholy, indulgent of language and of the fragile oddballs who so relish in it." –Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed review)
“There But For The will remind you what a joyful activity reading truly is. Nobody writes with more panache. You learn so much from an Ali Smith novel, you laugh so hard and are filled with such intellectual and spiritual nourishment, and all you want to do when you’re finished is go read another one.” —Sigrid Nunez
“In There But For The Ali Smith displays her usual fizz and artistry. She always surprises, she never disappoints.” —Kate Atkinson, author of Started Early, Took My Dog
“A British literary phenom, Smith sets her third novel at the posh London suburban home of the Lee family, who are throwing a dinner party one night when guest Miles Garth goes upstairs and locks himself in a room. While his host, her daughter, an old school friend, and the Lees’ neighbor all try to coax him out, he communicates only via notes passed out under the door, resulting in a game of words as engaging for the reader as for Miles’ unwitting hosts.” –The Millions, Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2011 Book Preview
"By times amusing, engaging and edifying, it is punctuated with Smith’s arid observational wit, her ability to dissect language, to turn it inside out and upside down." –The Irish Independent
"A tribute to persistent literary, cultural and philosophical leitmotifs. . . . Smith unleashes a quest on the nature and meaning of time, memory, history, art, culture, civilisation, death, loss, life and living — with a scintillating satire on contemporary society and a pilgrimage through popular culture." –The Indian Express
“A warm, playful, dazzlingly written modern fable . . . Memory, nostalgia, the sense of growing older, of things passing, the disappointments of adult life—the themes are handled lightly, but are built up, layer on layer, with cunning care. The increasing shabbiness of modern life is a recurring motif, the internet not least, which “promises everything but everything isn't there,” and which ends only by offering a “a whole new way of feeling lonely.” —The Irish Independent
“You could call Ali Smith’s new novel, There But For The, a tragicomedy . . . The fun comes in the form of Smith’s satire of the media . . . of new technology users and of upper-middle-class snobbery . . . Though the locations shift and characters appear out of nowhere, Smith agilely keeps the narrative together. Everything connects—even if the people can’t. A must-read.” —Toronto NOW
“A satire on the conflict between the bourgeois lifestyle of the Lees and the anarchic goings-on of Miles and other lesser characters. If you liked Smith’s earlier fiction, you will know she enjoys setting up a situation before chucking in a literary Molotov cocktail then describing what happens. . . . A highly original novel.” —The Sunday Express
“The novel examines people’s perceived and inner identities, especially relating to their place in the world, and brims with playful language exploring the meaning behind words and actions, taking apart the middle-class pretensions that the characters are trapped within. It’s a strong offering that dissects the heart of modern life.” —The Huddersfield Daily Examiner
“Off-the-wall imagination and some scintillating wordplay . . . A barbed satire on our times, the growing absence of opportunity for quiet reflection and our inability to truly communicate with one another in the age of the mobile phone and the internet. . . . Smith’s ear for natural dialogue from completely different social milieus is unerringly accurate. Those who take the plunge ready to go with the flow will not be disappointed.” —Daily Mail
“A virtuoso piece of writing, both funny and gripping . . . Smith is a writer with a rich array of conventional strengths . . . Her prose responds to the world with loving attentiveness . . . One of the great pleasures of her work is its harmonious mixture of pure lyricism and straightforward demotic . . . Some of the best, or at least the finest writing in There But For The has to do with the effects on the mind of living in the Internet age.” —The Times Literary Supplement
“The fascination with language—a central preoccupation in almost all of Smith’s stories—is evident here . . . It is more than simple word play. The semantic and structural disruption, starting with the novel’s unfinished title, reflects its anarchic intent—to disrupt the comfortably smug, middle-class sensibility personified by Genevieve and her dinner party set, with their stultifying prejudice and snobbery . . . Along with her cleverness and wordy wit, there is a bewitching romanticism to Smith's world, where people truly connect and leave tender imprints on each other. Both she, and they, also tell stories-within-stories.” —The Independent (London)
“Stylish, witty, offbeat and consummately likable, Ali Smith has perfected a narrative tone ideally suited to her wry, intelligent fiction. Yet another of the talented Scottish writers, Smith is a shrewd observer, loves facts, is playfully, if astutely, alert to nuance, and never takes herself too seriously, which explains why she can hold a reader with the lightest of touches . . . Ali Smith . . . is always good company.” —Irish Times
"A playful yet erudite celebration of words. . . . Smith’s prose is not just supple, it’s acrobatic: one minute providing crisp realism—cocky teenagers, unspoken homophobia, university bureaucracy—the next a hypnotic stream-of-consciousness. Smith can make anything happen, which is why she is one of our most exciting writers today. . . . [Her] dizzying wordplay makes the real and surreal equally stimulating." —Lucy Beresford, The Daily Telegraph (London)
"You rarely get bombs or tornados or motorway pile-ups in Ali Smith’s books, but the results of inner turmoils within her characters can often be just as devastating. In There But For The, nuances and shades and intricacies stack on top of one another to reveal some valuable truths about the way we live now. . . . At the core of the book is a feeling that while our means of communications have become more sophisticated, shinier and quicker, true connections are harder to maintain. . . . Our physical and philosophical breakdowns are sharply satirized in this almost mythical narrative dreamed up by one of contemporary literature’s most deft and astute analysts of human nature. Another Booker nomination may well await." —Brian Donaldson, The List (UK)
"A winsome, compelling read. . . . Smith’s version [of the English dinner party] is a tour de force. . . . The prose is playful, intelligent and witty." —Lionel Shriver, Financial Times
"A seriously playful puzzle of a novel. . . . Whimsically devastating. . . . Smith is repeatedly drawn to explorations of language games, to the moment in which what we say slips free from what we think we mean, where the generic becomes the particular, where the identity of the speaker comes under scrutiny. . . . Playful, humorous, serious, profoundly clever and profoundly affecting." —Alex Clark, The Guardian (London)
"Smith fans will recognize familiar character tropes—the autobiographical free-spirited, savant child, the enigmatic stranger, the talkative dead—from Smith’s earlier works and no doubt delight in Smith’s celebratory, sometimes Rabelaisian…wordplay. . . . She’s on the money, in her satirical, at times painfully acute, observations of haute bourgeois London life and this reader delighted, too, in the vividly contrasting portrait of the high-spirited, fearless, untrammeled Brooke. . . . Her ludic delight in language and in the texture of ordinary lives are both sublimely infectious. . . . Interactive and willfully democratic, There But For The is an uncompromising and original 21st-century novel. There’s no ego here, just an invitation to join the fun. I take my hat off to Ali Smith. Her writing lifts the soul."—Melanie McGrath, The Evening Standard (London)
"This is a thought-provoking and engaging book…If there’s any justice it must be a contender for one of this year’s literary prizes." —Daily Express
"Ali Smith’s dazzling, spry novels and stories are fond of such bizarre opening gambits, tested and stretched for their narrative and thematic possibilities almost as a game, or a fictional constraint: imagine if. . . . Figures of speech and verbal tics, and wordplay that startles in the way that poetry does, attentive to the minute ways words fall against each other. . . . There is something deeply democratic about [the book’s] interest in the little words, conjunctions and prepositions, and how they change the way we construe the world. . . . This is a novel deliberately informed by song. . . . A very artful and thought-provoking book." —Lucy Daniel, The Sunday Telegraph (London)
"A book full of kindness and compassion . . . The painful realities cleverly contrasted with surreal touches never fail to satisfy." —Time Out London
"A playfully serious, or seriously playful, novel full of wit and pleasure. . . . The pleasures here are in the small moments, the interest she takes in the tiniest words. . . . There are some wonderful disquisitions on our cultural idiosyncrasies. . . . Appealing and painful observations on the temporary permanence of our lives." —Sarah Churchwell, The Observer (London)
About the Author
Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962. She is the author of Free Love and Other Stories, Like, Other Stories and Other Stories, Hotel World, The Whole Story and Other Stories, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy, The First Person and Other Stories, There but for the, Artful, How to be both, and Public library and other stories. Hotel World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize and The Accidental was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize. How to be both won the Baileys Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Folio Prize. Ali Smith lives in Cambridge and her next novel is forthcoming in 2016.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
As a media frenzy ensues, a cast of characters from "Milo's" past emerges to shape the author's four chapters. Forty-something Anna Hardie met Miles in 1980 on a European Grand Tour; gay sexagenarian Mark Palmer, whose late mother speaks to him in verse, tried to pick Miles up at a Shakespeare festival; elderly dementia sufferer May Young benefited from Miles' help with grieving for her late daughter; and precocious ten-year-old Brooke finally breaks through to Miles with her wit and cleverness.
"There But For The" contains exquisite and heartbreaking scenes written in experimental, kinetic prose. Themes of time, isolation and identity provide a thought-provoking read and the non-linear story line engages the reader's intellect. However, Smith often overtaxes the narrative with exaggerated stream-of-consciousness, which distracts the reader from the plot's tension. Dialogue between characters tends toward the precious and inauthentic, filled with puns and double entendres. Brooke, especially, with her references to classic literature and obscure erotica, comes across as a literary tool as opposed to a genuine personality.
"Imagine if all the civilizations in the past had not known to have the imagination to look up at the sun and the moon and the stars and work out that things were connected, that those things right in front of their eyes could be connected to time and to what times is and how it works." -p. 355
Smith does a marvelous job of showing the countless, sparkling, half-hidden, sometimes painful filaments that connect seemingly disparate people. Though the hosts of the dinner party had never met their new housemate before ("A stranger is living in our house against our will"), it becomes clear that there are profound, unconscious ties between these people. The idea of a stranger living in one's house "against one's will" is incredibly evocative. What Smith suggests to me is that below the surface of our lives there is an open invitation to the unknown and a recognition of the ways in which the deepest parts of ourselves are often strange to us -- and that we spend our lives alternating between running away and trying to connect, to come close, to welcome what is most deeply buried, often resented, largely feared. But when we accept and open up to this stranger inside us, the most incredible gifts are inevitably unleashed.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Taken separately, each of the words in the title seem nondescript; together, they seem empty without the expected conclusion--without, in other words, God or grace. And maybe that's exactly what Smith intended: to make us ponder the place ("there") of God and the location of grace in a society that is technologically advanced "but" individually isolating. (Think about the person with 5000 'friends' on Facebook.) It may be hard to find, but, ultimately, Smith concludes, grace is still there, within and between us.
The novel consists of four chapters, one for each word in the title, each focused on a different narrator. As many of the reviews below note, the basic premise is that a man attends a dinner party, walks upstairs between the main course and dessert, and locks himself into the spare bedroom, refusing to come out. But the real stories are inside the heads of the narrators. Anna ("There"), a fortyish single woman bored with her job, is surprised to learn that her email address has been found in the interloper's (Miles's) cell phone, pushing forth long-forgotten memories of the continental tour she won as a teenager. Mark ("but"), a gay man in his 60s still grieving the loss of his partner more than 20 years earlier, is haunted by the lyric-singing, rhyme-spouting, often-obscene ghost of his mother, a brilliant artist who committed suicide. May ("for") is a terminally ill 80-year old falling into dementia and memories of the daughter she lost, yet still sharp enough to observe and regret the changing world around her. Finally, the delightful Brooke Bayoude ("the"), who is either the CLEVEREST or the CLEVERIST, a girl who delights in the sounds and multiple meanings of words and wants to pin down the 'facts' of history, even as she comes to realize that facts, too, are mutable. Along the way, Smith deftly and subtly weaves in unexpected connections among these characters and even the novel's secondary characters.
I'm not one who generally likes fiction that philosophizes. Here, it takes you unawares, most often playfully, but sometimes melancholically. It's a rare book that can make you think, think about your own life, while you're being so well entertained. And as a wordsmith/word lover, I found Smith's puns, rhymes, jokes, allusions, double entendres, etc. thoroughly delightful. (Having vivid memories of riding in the backseat of the family car at about age nine, pondering the sounds of the word "jello," drawing it out in the voice in my head, I could really relate to Brooke.)
I haven't always been a fan of Smith's type of literary experimentation; in fact, the last of her works that I read, a short story collection, was off-putting simpy because it seemed to exist only for the purpose of experimentation, and while I liked 'The Accidental'--another novel using multiple narrators--, I was somewhat disappointed in the ending. But for me, 'There but for the' is about as close to perfection as it gets. Put aside your usual expections, open your mind, and jump in. You won't regret it.
Written in an almost "stream of consciousness" style, the pacing of this book was a bit uneven, with parts very readable and other portions dragging. There was a point in the middle where I wasn't sure if it was worth the effort to finish. The pacing did improve, though, and the final section proved to be the most entertaining, so it seems to have been worth plowing through.
This book is probably not for everyone, and I suspect that the response to this will be fairly polarized, with people either loving or really hating it. If you enjoy books that are full of character self-reflection, and don't mind the lack of any real plot, then this might appeal to you. However, if you need action in you books, then give this a pass.
The main characters of the four chapters, entitled There, But, For and The respectively, experience a pressing solitude (one character describes the Internet as "a whole new way of feeling lonely"). Three have met Miles at some point in their lives, but none of them know him intimately. Anna, who is also known as Anna K (as in Kafka's The Trial; or anarchy; or "Anna Key in the UK," a Sex Pistols cover), knew Miles briefly as a teenager when they both won an academic competition to travel to various European cities. She remembers him as confident, spirited, and arch.
Anna's former job at the Center for Temporary Permanence is reminiscent of Jonas's in How to Read the Air. As senior liaison, she condensed the trauma stories of individuals so that their narratives fit onto one page of a document. "You have exactly the right kind of absent presence," her former boss tells her, referring to her forced remoteness from her clients. Temporary permanence and absent presence amplify the tragic isolation of contemporary society. Now in her 40's, Anna is experiencing an existential crisis of identity and alienation.
Mark met Miles at a local theater production of A WINTER'S TALE, and initially tried to pick him up. They began a friendship over their opposite responses to a cell phone going off during the play, and Mark subsequently brought Miles to the dinner party hosted by Gen and Eric (Gen-Eric, a pun). Mark has been plagued for decades by his dead mother's voice whispering into his ear in rhyming couplets. Her absence is a constant presence in his life.
A dying, elderly woman's connection to Miles is not apparent at first. She is in the hospital, gradually losing her grip on reality, and determined not to be sent to a nursing home. Her status as sick and old illustrates the tacit ageism of society, as others regard her as invisible while they manage and condescend to her.
The true central character is Brooke, the less than decade-old daughter of one of the dinner party couples. Brooke is too remarkably precious and inauthentic-- a provocative child prodigy who thinks, talks, and usually writes like a post-grad student. She is familiar with the text and nuances of HAMLET, as well as other references to lofty literature and obscure esoterica. Can't children just be children in literature anymore? It borders on gimmicky.
Brook's dialogue and interior monologues, however, are weighted with the gravitas of the novel. She is loaded with punny ideas, time-slips, and her attraction to the Greenwich foot tunnel invokes the infinite coil of memory and history. Her behavior toward others is unimpeachable, yet drenched in irony. Unfortunately, Brooke feels less like a real character than a bridge between the text and Smith's ideas.
Smith is a high-wire artist of the nonlinear storyline, and a conjurer of experimental, hyperkinetic prose. The elastic and slanted wordplay revolve around isolation and identity. But Smith overtaxes the narrative with voguish stream-of-consciousness during the latter part of the story. It exaggerates and escalates to the point of burlesque, and removes the reader from the narrative tension into the staginess of its performance. The manic flow of prose floods the reader with its self-awareness.
Some of its parts are exquisite and heartbreaking, but the sum of its parts is less than some of its parts. The combination of typecast characters and pc heavy-handedness is stultifying. The middle-class white people are boorish philistines. The ethnic characters and those with alternate lifestyles, as well as the precocious Brooke, are paragons of temperance and sensitivity.
The themes prevail, but the lush linguistics and hurricane of words crushes the characters underfoot, and the clichéd stereotypes are laden with the very middle-class pieties that Smith aims to send up, allocated to types. Moreover, the visceral opening of the novel diminishes in her cerebral profusion of the last fourth of the book and threatens to vanish with Miles behind the closed door.
Many of Smith's regular readers love her for her style. I have to say that I tolerate her style, but love her work, instead, for its memorable characters and unusual plotlines, both of which are strong points of this new novel. The story begins at a London dinner table, over which a group of near strangers are becoming better acquainted, when Miles Garth suddenly leaves the table. Only when Miles does not return within a reasonable amount of time, is it determined that he has locked himself inside one of the home's upstairs rooms - a room he will remain inside for hours, that turn into days, and then into weeks. Desperate to rid her home of her newly acquired squatter, the dinner host first searches Miles's address book for someone who can talk him out of the room.
That is how she finds Anna, the first of four narrators through whom we learn more about Miles Garth and how he ended up where he is. Anna, a fortyish woman who met Miles on a high school trip to France, at first barely remembers him but surprises herself by some of the things that come back to her. Mark, who is responsible for having invited Miles to the dinner party, is a gay man in his sixties. May, in her eighties, remembers the kindness shown her by Miles. And, finally, there is Brooke, a precocious little ten-year-old girl who only met Miles at the party but now feels somehow connected to him.
There But For The explores some basic questions, even to the meaning of life, but its main theme involves how differently those who pass through our lives might remember the experience than we remember it - and how little we really understand about ourselves and those with whom, over a lifetime, we share time. The novel's relatively simple plot is deceptive; there is a lot going on here.