"There was once 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." That, in a nutshell, is the central plot of Ali Smith's latest book. But, given the ambition and talent of this Whitbread Award winner and Booker Prize finalist, it probably goes without saying that there's much more to Smith's novel than this bare-bones plot summary would imply.
"The dinner party conversation is vigorous and entertaining (on many levels), and the young Brooke, in particular, is fascinated by the flexible, playful and sometimes misleading powers of language."
“Going without saying” is one of the themes of the book, from the title on downwards. It's nearly impossible to hear “There But for The” and not finish the proverb: "grace of God go I." But who, of the half-dozen characters delved in this novel, is the unspoken "I"? Or is it all of them? Or all of us? This theme is also explored inasmuch as we come to know Miles Garth, the man in question, through others' impressions and memories of him rather than through his own words.
Among these are Anna, who met Miles when they were both students while she was on a school trip 30 years before. When Miles's unwilling host (she and her husband dub Miles “Our Unwanted Tenant” and slip the troublesome vegetarian slices of ham under the door: "Beggars can't be choosers," she says) finds Anna's contact info in Miles's wallet, she summons Anna to see if she can help coax Miles out of the bedroom where he's locked himself.
Other characters who move through Miles's life and onto the pages of Smith's novel include Mark, the man who, on a whim, invites his new acquaintance Miles to the ill-fated dinner party in the first place. Mark is constantly accompanied by the rhyming, ribald voice of his dead grandmother, whose snide commentary in verse provides much of the humor in that section. There's also Brooke, the precocious 10-year-old dinner party guest whose delightful questions derail dinner party chitchat and whose musings on everything from Greenwich history to Harry Potter to knock-knock jokes form the heart of the book's final section. And there's May, Miles's elderly relative who constantly has to remind herself that she's still alive and who confuses "the intimate" with "the Internet."
This type of wordplay --- silly on the surface but with an undercurrent of truth or even profundity --- is at the heart of Smith's latest, as it has been in her previous award-winning novels. The dinner party conversation is vigorous and entertaining (on many levels), and the young Brooke, in particular, is fascinated by the flexible, playful and sometimes misleading powers of language. Miles, at one point in Mark's recollection, says, "the thing I particularly like about the word ‘but,’ now that I think about it, is that it always takes you off to the side, and where it takes you is always interesting."
Come to think of it, that sentence could just as easily sum up Ali Smith's writing, which is often oblique, always surprising, and endlessly interesting.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 22, 2011
There But For The