There But For The: A Novel
“Readers of There But For The have a similar choice to make. They can either be frustrated by the willful withholding of answers and the narrative diversions, or they can surrender to Ms. Smith and let her unique, infectious writing style wash over them.”
While attending a dinner party in suburban London, a man named Miles Garth excuses himself after the main course, locks himself in his hostess’s spare room, and refuses to leave. He communicates by note and eats only what is passed through the bottom of the door (but requests it be vegetarian).
Weeks go by and the exasperated homeowners contact the media, whereupon Miles becomes a tabloid sensation. Folks camp out on the street, ascribing causes for his mysterious behavior, awaiting a signal from their christened hero.
This is how Ali Smith sells you on There But For The, the quirky premise on the dust jacket that will attract you in the bookstore. Why is Miles doing this? one imagines it saying. What message is he trying to convey?
It may be something of a surprise, then, how little the figure informing every page of this sly, playful novel actually appears in it. Ms. Smith sets up her story only to glide around it with all manner of whimsical wordplay and tenderly drawn character sketches. It also serves as a satire, touching on issues of class and culture, particularly during the dinner party and in the reality TV-infused nature of the camped-out crowds.
There But For The is structured in four sections, each headed by one word of the title and devoted to a different character: Anna, an unemployed Scottish woman tasked by the party’s hostess to cull Miles out of the room; Mark, whose long-dead mother speaks to him in verse; May, an elderly woman whose fading mind has never moved past her teenage daughter’s death; and Brooke, the preternaturally gifted 10-year-old daughter of one of the guests.
Each of the characters has a peripheral relationship to Miles, and Ms. Smith, canny novelist that she is, does not spell them out. The four sections are sequenced and information doled out in a particular way that dawns on the reader only in retrospect.
Most of this, however, is surface-level narrative business, which is only one half of the equation. There But For The is also a language-lover’s dream, replete with word games and non sequiturs, dirty poetry, and knock-knock jokes, with narrative asides galore (the dinner party itself, ostensibly the book’s most important scene, is offered parenthetically).
Brooke, in particular, brims with a linguist’s flair for words and facts, their importance and their dexterity, with an enthusiasm so unbridled her teachers despise her. The overly clever child character can often seem contrived and annoying, but Ms. Smith pulls her off with aplomb. She is the book’s most memorable creation.
Everyone here indulges in a similar appreciation of language—everyone, that is, save the odious hosts of the party and their buffoonish guests, whose broad characterization is likely the There But For The’s most glaring weakness. The novel is more effective—and moving—when it sticks with the four more central characters and how their ideas of language have connected them with the world.
Consider this passage from May, who receives from a hospital visitor an old message with the words UNO HOO written on them and thinks back:
“Philip had bought May a camera for Christmas once. It was the latest thing, a Kodak disc, like a normal camera but a little round thing inside it instead of a spool . . . May still had it in its box in the top cupboard above the wardrobe. Keep it alive. Keep it with Kodak.
“Because it was a Christmas gift, it had a place on its cardboard box where you could write who it was to and who it was from. Next to To was May’s name, in Philip’s handwriting. Next to From he’d written UNO WHO, then crossed out with the pen the word WHO and written, under it, HOO. UNO HOO now meant more to May than any camera.”
This is a novel that isn’t read so much as unpacked, with a new layer revealing itself just as you get a handle on the previous one. But of course the question lingers: Why has Miles Garth locked himself in a room for months?
It is not spoiling anything to say we never find out; Ms. Smith has other agendas here. But she is well aware of the reader’s expectations and so she provides some veiled advice.
In the fourth section, Brooke has stumbled onto a used copy of Conrad’s The Secret Agent, inside of which a prior owner circled some of the words. Ever the fact-finder, Brooke wants to know why that person chose those words to circle, but of course there’s no way of knowing.
The mystery of the circled words consumes Brooke, causes her to lose sleep, until her mother tells her that “if she wanted to read that book and not be annoyed by the not-knowing, she would either just have to persuade herself, right now, to put up with the not-knowing, or she would have to make the active decision to rub out the circles that made the words stand out for whatever their unknowable reason.”
Readers of There But For The have a similar choice to make. They can either be frustrated by the willful withholding of answers and the narrative diversions, or they can surrender to Ms. Smith and let her unique, infectious writing style wash over them.
The next morning, Brooke finds an eraser.