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? (44)

There’s the premise, in a nutshell, of There but for the. A man named Miles goes to a dinner party. He doesn’t know the hosts at all, and hardly knows the person who invited him, who’s a man he met when they happened to be sitting next to each other at a play that was interrupted by a ringing cell phone. The dinner party is hilarious/awful, full of awkward moments and idiocy and stereotypes and prejudice, the kind of dinner party where you’d expect that everyone’s going to leave with the person they came with, shaking their heads and moaning on the walk/train ride/car ride home about how ridiculous it was. But that isn’t what happens. After the main course, before dessert, Miles excuses himself from the table, but then he doesn’t come back: he locks himself in the hosts’ spare room, and doesn’t come out.

But the book isn’t really about Miles and what he’s done and why he’s done it: it’s about the people around him, the people tangentially connected to him and how they’re affected by his act, but also about much bigger questions of history and memory and forgetting and epistemology, certainty and uncertainty, what we know or don’t, and connection and how to be in the world. It’s told in four sections, each starting with/sort of centered around one of the words from the title, and each centered around a different character. There’s Anna, who knew Miles when they were in their late teens (they met on a trip to Europe). There’s Mark, the man Miles met in the theater and who invited him to the dinner party. There’s May, a woman in her eighties who lives in the town where Miles grew up. And there’s Brooke, a precocious child who was at the dinner party with her parents, who are both academics. The structure of the book is wonderful, the way it follows not just different characters but different words/moods/themes. I loved this, in the “but” section of the book:

Mark: Is it always but? Can it be and?
Miles: Yeah, but 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. (116)

And I loved Smith’s style: so smart and so funny, so much wordplay, jokes and puns and flights of language and recurring phrases (“There was once,” or “The fact is”) and parenthetical asides that go on for pages. So good!

2 Responses to “There but for the by Ali Smith
Pantheon Books (Random House), 2011 (Originally Hamish Hamilton)”

  1. Gracia Says:

    “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.”


    Yes, I like this line, this idea. I will add this to my list of books to read and soon, and I will imagine opening such a door in my dreams tonight.


  2. Heather Says:

    Yay – this book made me want to read more by Ali Smith (Gracia, have you read anything else by her?) and is definitely my favorite book of 2012 so far. I liked it so much!

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