In our blogiversary post, we invited readers to suggest a book for us to read and review together. You all came up with such great suggestions that we had a hard time choosing, but we eventually settled on There but for the by Ali Smith, which was recommended by CJ. We’d both been wanting to try something by Ali Smith, and this was a very good choice!
The book is set in Greenwich, where, during a posh dinner party, one of the guests, a man named Miles Garth, locks himself in the spare room, refusing to leave and communicating with his unwilling hosts only through notes passed under the door. The hosts, Genevieve and Eric Lee, take great pride in their annual alternative dinner parties, to which they always invite a few strangers to liven up the proceedings. One year, it was a Muslim couple; another year, it was a Jewish couple and Palestinian couple. Miles is there as the plus-one of another guest, Mark, a friend of the hosts’ neighbors who was, we assume, invited because he is gay.
The book is divided into four sections, each focuses on someone connected, often remotely, with Miles. Anna met Miles when they were both on a tour of Europe as teenagers and has hardly heard from him since, despite her name being in his phone. The aforementioned Mark met Miles at the theater and invited him to dinner without knowing much about him. The connection between Miles and May, an elderly woman in the hospital, isn’t clear at first. And ten-year-old Brooke was at the dinner party and has hovered around the Lees’ home ever since. In each section, we are taken inside the characters’ minds as they look back over their histories and consider their futures.
Teresa: One of the things I kept thinking about as I was reading this was its title, There but for the, to which I mentally added “… grace of God go I.” I felt like Smith was showing how even though every person’s life is unique, we’re all a hair’s breadth from doing something that seems utterly preposterous but makes complete sense. Miles’s decision to move into the Lees’ guest room is obviously against all convention and a ridiculous thing to do, but that desire to just take leave of it all has its appeal, as Anna describes here:
Imagine the relief there’d be, in just stepping through the door of a spare room, a room that wasn’t anything to do with you, and shutting the door, and that being that.
There’d be a window, wouldn’t there?
Were there any books in there?
What would you do all day?
What would happen if you did just shut a door and stop speaking? Hour after 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? Would they proliferate, like untended plantlife? Would the inside of your head overgrow with every word that has ever come into it, every word that has ever silently taken seed or fallen dormant? Would your own silence make other things noisier? Would all the things you’d ever forgotten, all layered there inside you, come bouldering up and avalanche you?
As appealing as a retreat like Miles’s may be, there’s no retreating from our selves.
Jenny: I loved how each self was slowly revealed. Sometimes it was difficult to see the connection to the main story, at first, as with May Young’s chapter, but the narration was so fresh and original that I didn’t fret at being taken away from the plot, such as it turned out to be.
I, too, was interested in the way that Smith takes the behavior in the book well over the top — makes it implausible — and yet manages to stop short of caricature in order to show us something real and interesting about people. Miles’s flight to the spare bedroom is only one example of bizarre behavior. What about the excruciating dinner party he’s fleeing? Surely, surely, no one, however stupid, would ask a black couple from York if they’d “seen any tigers where [they're] from”? Or proclaim that a few mundane exchanges about musicals made for “the gayest conversation [he'd] ever heard”? But Smith’s fizzy, poignant dialogue reveals as much about those who are being silent as about those who are speaking.
Teresa: That dinner party was so terrible—I could absolutely understand Miles wanting to flee! I think one of the things that makes it work is that a lot of the ridiculousness involves people speaking or acting on the fleeting thoughts we occasionally have but know better than to utter or act on. At one point, Mark even does exactly that, when he describes the images he found when he typed “something beautiful” into Google and discovered that being connected to everything, as we are today, is “a whole new way of feeling lonely” as we drift from site to site in “a great sea of hidden shallows.” That paradox of increased connection and greater loneliness in the 21st century gets talked about a lot—to the point that I’m tired of the conversation—but Smith’s approach to it is so clever and fun that it feels new in her hands.
Jenny: That’s a great observation, because of course Miles’s pivotal act is also one of those things that occasionally crosses everyone’s mind but that we never actually act on. (At least, I hope not.) This comes out, too, in some of the other characters who have less filter, but in a positive way: May, who can’t quite control what she says, and Brooke, who loves jokes and puns and wordplay, and says exactly what she thinks, even though it’s gotten her into trouble with a nasty, bullying teacher.
Of course, a lot of the book is about the disparity between appearance and truth, just as it is about the gap between connection and loneliness that you mentioned, Teresa. Time, place, and even names shift back and forth, and the end of the book makes the gap greater than ever, yet brings us right back to the prologue. What did you think of that opening story? What is it telling us?
Teresa: It’s an odd little vignette, one of several that appear between the main sections. The man on the stationary bike is moving but not going anywhere, which seems significant. Then there are the bars over his face, hiding his identity, until they’re removed by a child. Perhaps it has something to do with hiding from ourselves, just pressing on and making no progress because we’ve lost our sense of who we are. And we, like the folded paper, are more substantial than we appear at first glance. But how does that play out through the whole book? Have all the characters lost something of themselves?
Jenny: I tend to think the image of the bar over the man’s mouth is just as significant, censoring him. So the characters have lost some sense of who they are (or some way of seeing others, which is just as important), and they have also been silenced. And Miles’s outrageous act changes this for all of them, not least for Miles himself: brings them back to themselves, and frees them to speak.
I thought this book was wonderful. It’s not every author who can write a sentence that is funny and poignant at the same time, but Ali Smith achieved it in almost every paragraph. She doesn’t get stuck in the rut of writing about the same kind of characters, either: she writes, purposefully, about old and young, black and white, annoying and rather wonderful (and sometimes both in one, as many human beings are.) For me, the over-the-top, tight-wire-act nature of the central plot device made the book even better.
Teresa: I enjoyed it very much too. One of the things I liked best about it was that, despite taking on some big ideas, the book also has a wonderful sense of whimsy. There are the puns that Brooke and Anna exchange and the little language gaffes various characters (intimate instead of Internet was a favorite of mine). It is rare to find authors who manage the balance between serious and silly so well. I look forward to exploring what else Ali Smith can do.