Book review: ‘There but for the,’ by Ali Smith

September 23, 2011

At the heart of Ali Smith’s exceedingly clever and subtly wrenching new novel, “There but for the,” is a dinner party guest who locks himself into his hosts’ spare bedroom between the main course and dessert and refuses to come out — for months. Miles Garth, like J.D. Salinger’s Seymour Glass, is a gentle, playful soul who connects most readily with bright children who haven’t yet been “onced by life.” But he’s also a man whose past tragedies have stayed with him, a man with perhaps too much heart to survive tranquilly in a hard world. While Salinger’s Seymour blows his brains out, in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Miles retreats into the guest room of Genevieve and Eric Lee’s suburban London townhouse and unwittingly becomes a cause celebre who creates a media frenzy.

Spun out from his self-incarceration are stories of four people who know Miles only glancingly, yet who have been touched by his kindness:

Thirty years earlier, Miles reached out to shy Anna Hardie on a grand tour they both won in a teen writing contest. She has all but forgotten him, until the frantic Lees find her name in his cellphone.

May Young, an elderly woman suffering from dementia, hasn’t forgotten Miles because he’s never forgotten her: She’s heard from him every year for more than three decades on the anniversary of her daughter’s death.

Mark Palmer is a newer acquaintance, a gay photo researcher mourning his partner’s death and haunted by his mother’s suicide 47 years earlier. Mark asks Miles to the Lees’ “annual alternative dinner party,” which purposely includes people outside their usual ethnic and sexual circles — though it turns out that Miles isn’t gay.

Another unexpected guest on that hilariously awkward evening is “preternaturally articulate” 9-year-old Brooke Bayoude, brought along by her professor parents. Brooke is a wonderful character and blessed with some of the most appealing parents in literature. Obsessed with history, this enchanting little punster forges a special connection with Miles and his friends. But as a black girl, too clever, too different from her classmates, she has troubles of her own to deal with at school.

There’s quirkiness and whimsy aplenty in Smith’s prose, including Brooke’s verbal playfulness (“arte-fact,” “arty-fact”; “Virtuoso,” “Virtue so-so”) and May’s misconceptions (young people are always “looking up things on the intimate”). Smith also milks the satirical angles of reactions to what Genevieve Lee calls “oh you tea . . . Our Unwanted Tenant.” But her overall aim is deeper and more complex.

“There but for the” revisits from a new angle the theme of the stranger who comes to stay, featured in Smith’s previous novel “The Accidental” (2005), which, like “Hotel World” (2001), was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize. Structurally, this novel is a marvel. Smith has interwoven multiple points of view before, but this time her shifts in perspective are just disorienting enough to keep readers on their toes. And she slyly slips in significant information, at times before we’re ready to understand its full import, an approach that makes the eventual aha moments especially satisfying.

“There but for the” packs an emotional wallop in part because it engages us to read more actively. Smith prompts readers not just to connect the dots of her story but to assemble the pieces of her title and supply the implied words: “. . . grace of God go I.” Yet, as Brooke charmingly reminds us, try as we might to understand everything, mysteries will remain in both life and literature: “It is important to know the stories and histories of things, even if all we know is that we don’t know. The fact is, history is actually all sorts of things nobody knows about.”

THERE BUT

FOR THE

By Ali Smith

Pantheon.

236 pp. $25

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