I have had an interesting relationship with Ali Smith before leading up to reading ‘There But For The’. I really liked her last novel ‘The Accidental’ (pre-blogging days) though was also delightfully puzzled by it, I loved ‘Girl Meets Boy’ and thought ‘The First Person and Other Stories’ was a lovely collection. However I really didn’t get on with ‘Hotel World’, to the point where I didn’t finish it and one of her other short story collection I simply didn’t get. So I was intrigued to see which way my experience with ‘There But For The’ would go, I admit I was rather worried that the title might mean it was going to be a little experimental.
The premise of ‘There But For The’ is a rather simple one. Imagine throwing a dinner party and having one of your guests vanishing after the starter to lock themselves in your spare room for months. This is the very position that Jen and Eric (can you see what Smith has done there?) find themselves in after they invite Mark, a ‘homosexual’ they hardly know, who brings Mike along with him as his plus one even though he isn’t and he barely knows him. It is Mike that disappears and starts the lock in, with no seeming cause as to why.
What I really liked about how Smith wrote this was that she tells the story through people who know Miles and not through him himself. Most of them hardly know him that well at all, or have for certain small parts of his life up to the dinner party. I won’t say anything about them as it might give some of the joy of the ‘discovery’ aspect of the book away. This provides little insights and a certain distance which rather than alienate the reader actually creates intrigue and a little bit of mystery. I wanted to read on. It was a risk but its one that I thought Ali Smith pulled off successfully and it certainly kept me reaching for the book at any opportunity. I think I ended up reading this in about five sittings.
The other master stroke, which I know other people have questioned a little (and you can see in the comments of John Self’s post on ‘There But For The’ we have had a discussion about it), was the characters of Jen and Eric ‘The Hosts’. I don’t know if it was intentional, I can’t speak for Smith on this one, but it was like she poured everything that’s horrible about those smug middle class people who have dinner parties and invite diverse people (sexuality and religion wise) they don’t know simply to almost see what happens, like they are an addition to the nights entertainment. I found this really comic and it added to the book’s fun feel.
As soon as you mention the word ‘fun’ in a novel people will mark it as not having enough literary merit. Not that I am saying that’s what I search for in books. I would heartily disagree with this, and in fact use ‘There But For The’ as a prime example of a book that is fun and is full of literary merit. Smith plays with words and the formation of language (typesetting etc), you can’t get more ‘literary’ than that, and has fun with it, the reader is made to engage with different forms of prose you might be reading a newspaper cutting about Mike and then when Mark’s dead mother speaks in his head, brilliant character quirk, it is always in a rhyme.
Her characters are also very quirky and fully formed. One of the highlights of the book is where over about 40+ pages we are at the dinner party with all the guests on the evening everything happened.. This could have been really dull because it’s full of random conversation pieces, bits of politics, buts of ‘world issues’, drunken embarrassing over sharing and accidental stereotyping. It’s entertaining, its maddening, its funny, its sad, most of all its insightful – especially in how much is said by what’s unsaid. I had a feeling of ‘uh-oh’ when it started but I utterly loved it. I don’t think I have read anything quite like it. It’s a piece of writing that some authors would have given their writing arm to, well, write. It’s intricate.
“Out of nowhere Caroline starts crying and laughing at the same time. She says she wants to make a confession. Her confession is that she’s frightened of flying in aeroplanes. Hannah reaches across the table, knocks over an empty water glass and pats her hand. Jen starts shouting about CBT. Six sessions of CBT will sort you out, she says, only she shouts it, like a mad person, and she shouts it over and over, she has said it about six times, Mark thinks, either that or he is very drunk himself, which can’t be possible since he’s only had one glass and it was only half full. Hannah is shouting too, about how she has rights, and that one of her fundamental rights is the right to be able to take cheap flights, because her parents didn’t have that right, and that flying doesn’t harm the environment nearly as much as they claim. At this point, Hugo and Richard start free-associating a fantasy – Mark watches them slip into cahoots as if they’d not been being the least bit acrid with each other all night, as if cahoots is exactly the same as loggerhead”
I think ‘There But For The’ is a great novel and so far it’s my favourite of Ali Smith’s works to date that I have read. She has taken bits of her earlier work; great characters, observations, comedy, unusual narratives, prose and pacing and put them all together. It’s a tour-de-force as opposed to a hotch-potch. I don’t want to say this is her most accessible book, even though in many ways it is, because that makes it sound like its not experimental and it is. It’s just honed down, controlled and done without ego. I am very excited to see what she will come up with next. 9.5/10
This book was kindly sent by the publisher.
It’s interesting looking at ratings of her other books that she gets a full variation of opinion from great to not so. Who else is a fan of Ali Smith’s novels? Who isn’t? Why?