‘There was once a man who, one night between the main course and 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…’
As the hours turn into days to weeks to months and the consequences of this stranger’s actions ripple outwards, touching the owners, the guests, the neighbourhood, then the whole country, so Ali Smith draws us into a beautiful, strange place where everyone is so much more than they at first appear.
A few weeks after I first read There but for the by Ali Smith, I went to listen to a talk she gave at my university. Afterwards, as is often the case, we were invited to go to a signing in the tiny Waterstones next door to the lecture theatre. I should mention at this point that I attended the lecture alone. I wandered down to the bookshop, copy of There but for the in hand, grabbed my free glass of book signing wine and took my place in the queue… Only to realise that a boy I had maybe sort of ghosted a few months previously was in line in front of me with his new girlfriend.
By the time I reached Ali I was in a state of extreme stress. The boy and his new girlfriend had gone by then – thank the lord – but the awkwardness would take me a few days to recover from.
I don’t remember what Ali and I talked about in the 60 seconds I had with her, only that she was very kind. Which, if you’ve read There but for the – and if you haven’t, you absolutely should – you probably had already figured out.
This all happened exactly 2 years ago. This time I returned to the book having lived through a couple of weeks that made me seriously consider the possibility of locking myself in a stranger’s guest bedroom for an extended period of time.
As covered in the summary, There but for the begins with a man, Miles Garth, locking himself in the spare bedroom of the home of a family to whom he is a virtual stranger. The story is started by him, but not really about him, ultimately. There but for the is split into four parts, each named after a corresponding word of the title, and narrated by an individual impacted by an interaction with Miles. The narrators are Anna, a woman Miles met as a teenager who has just quit her job vetting refugees at what she calls the Centre for Temporary Permanence (or, interchangeably, the centre of permanent temporariness); Mark, who invited Miles to the fateful dinner party after an encounter at the theatre, Mark, who’s long dead mother berates him in rhyme in his mind (if I had known, when I was twenty-four, that you’d grow up into such a godawful bore/ well – what rhymes with back-street abortionist?); May Young, an old lady with dementia who’s connection to Miles takes a while to become clear, but when it does, is the most devastating of all; and Brooke, 9 years old, Cleverist and the owner of all the best lines of the novel.
There but for the is a meandering, clever book in which Smith plays with language and metaphor, never committing to a specific meaning. In fact, in having almost everyone but Miles ponder his decision, Smith seems to reject the idea of specific meaning altogether. Instead of a concrete metaphor, it is a tangle of ideas.
There’s a George Orwell quote at the start of the book that says ‘The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly discourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.’
I was preoccupied by this quote through much of my reading. The question of a person’s preparedness for being, as Orwell says, defeated and broken up is something that the characters all appear to be calling into question.
It’s a truly terrible dinner party, full of the worst sort of people. White people asking black people where they’re from from, straight people furtively asking gay people about AIDS and what it was like before it was legal. Heavily rehearsed, aggressive discussions regarding the pointlessness of modern art. How are you supposed to prepare for other people – who you have been taught from day one to fasten your love upon, who you desperately wish to fasten your love upon – being so utterly disappointing? Even if you lock yourself away, at a certain point you come to realise – spoiler alert – that you can’t stay in there forever.
How do you go on, despite all the relentless disappointment? How to you agree to be defeated and broken up, and to continue in that defeated and broken up-ness?
That’s the question everybody in this book seems to be asking.
It’s a question I have been asking myself a lot in the past few months. It’s a question I didn’t actually have the words for yet, but was experiencing a vague sort of anxiety about that night two years ago when I, the ghost girl, was attempting to make conversation with the boy’s new corporeal girlfriend.
There but for the is a beautiful story that I can’t recommend enough.