A book written by an author with your initials: There but for the by Ali Smith
I read somewhere that Ali Smith is considered a “writer’s writer.” This statement is meant to be a compliment; it means even the snootiest, most educated literary scholars can sit down with your book and enjoy it without analyzing the fun right out of it because it holds up to our literary measures. It’s true, we do that, and it’s not entirely our fault–we were trained to do it, after all. I find the best books are the ones where, even for a brief moment, I forget to take the pen in my hand and underline/analyze/converse. The books that give me just a few seconds of that pure joy from just enjoying a book end up being my favorites. That nostalgic feeling of holding a book in your hands and being transported to a time and place beyond yourself, where you forget yourself and become lost within the story. THOSE are the best writers and they are rare. I don’t come across them often.
Ali Smith is a phenomenal writer. However, she does not transport me to that special place mentioned above. She does not make me forget that I am reading a book. If anything, I am hyperconscious of my literary analysis brain hard at work throughout the entire scope of this novel. This is a beautiful piece of writing, but the entire time I read it, I kept thinking of the technical reasons WHY this writing was so good, so beautiful, and so well composed.
I can liken it to visiting an art museum. You come across a painting that just sucks you in. You’re not even thinking about the manner in which the artist must have painted it because you are just so drawn into the content of the painting. You don’t care about how painstakingly he or she must have worked hours and hours to create this perfect image–the scale, the color, the shadowing, etc. You just love the painting.
Then you go to a very technical painter. Let’s say you’re looking at art from the pointillism genre. Sure the painting is beautiful, but you just can’t get past the technical aspect of how many damn dots that artist had to execute in precisely the right way to make the broader image work. You get sucked into the detail. That is what reading is like for literary scholars most of the time. You’re so fascinated by the how that you can’t always enjoy the what.
Ali Smith is a technically beautiful writer. The narrative structure of There but for the is gorgeous. The novel is not a linear sequence of events; rather, one event occurs, and we see the rippling of how it affects four other characters that are all related to the event but in marginal ways. The structure itself is a commentary on the fragmented yet beautiful manner in which human relationships of seemingly little importance can have an unfathomable impact upon us.
The event occurs at a dinner party. A guest at the party gets up, goes upstairs, and locks himself in a spare bedroom. He refuses to come out for several weeks. Smith divides the narrative into four parts–we see the perspective of four people remotely related to the event and/or to Miles, the infamous dinner guest. Each perspective touches in some way on a relationship to the character involved in the event. We briefly visit the minds of these four people, experiencing their connections via stream of consciousness that can be exhilarating and frustrating at times, but always witty and full of hilarious puns.
The first perspective is from middle-aged Anna, a woman who knew Miles very briefly in her youth. The host of the party is desperate to get Miles out of her home after several days and she finds Anna’s name and contact information in Miles’ phone. She contacts Anna as a desperate plea to see if perhaps she can influence Miles to come out of the bedroom. Although Anna barely remembers Miles and has no idea why he would still have her name in his phone, she attempts to help the hostess, to no avail. This is the narrative on the surface, but in between these points of contact we see Anna’s thoughts as they race from her experiences with Miles, her unhappiness in the present, and the hope for her future.
The second perspective is from Mark, an acquaintance of Miles’. Mark is a gay man in his sixties who is lonely after losing his long time partner. He meets Miles, has a wonderful conversation, and invites him to this dinner party. Through his perspective, we see the dinner party and how it transpires. Under the surface, we have access to the thoughts of Mark regarding the banality of the other dinner guests and his reaction to their not-so-thinly veiled judgement of his lifestyle. He has a compassionate tone toward’s Miles’ escapades after being subjected to the idiocy of the other dinner guests. You sense that Mark sympathizes and almost wants to lock himself away from these awful people.
The third perspective, and my personal favorite, is from 80 year old May. We see May as she lies deteriorating in a hospital. Her stream of thought is the most difficult to follow as she jumps throughout time and conversations with various people in her life. We learn that her daughter died at the age of 15 and Miles was her daughter’s boyfriend. Miles has been to visit May on the anniversary of her daughter’s death every single year since her death. This year, he has locked himself in the bedroom and cannot visit her, so he sends someone in his place with a letter.
The fourth perspective is Brooke, a ten year old girl that lives next-door to the hostess and who is also at the dinner party with her parents when Miles locks himself in the bedroom. Brooke is a highly observant, extremely intelligent child. In the end, she gets Miles to let her into the room and we are privy to a conversation between the two.
Each of these perspectives converge to show the effects that an event can have on the lives of others even when they are remotely related to our own lives. It suggests the importance of human relationships and the interconnectedness that comes from living within a society. You cannot escape those connections even when you attempt to alienate yourself. No man is an island.