There but for theby Ali Smith
At a dinner party in the posh London suburb of Greenwich, Miles Garth suddenly leaves the table and locks himself in an upstairs room, communicating only through notes slipped under the door to his/b>/b>/i>/i>
From the award-winning author of Hotel World and The Accidental, a dazzling, funny, and wonderfully exhilarating new novel.
At a dinner party in the posh London suburb of Greenwich, Miles Garth suddenly leaves the table and locks himself in an upstairs room, communicating only through notes slipped under the door to his involuntary hosts, the Lee family. In an act of desperation, Genevieve Lee summons Anna, a woman Miles knew briefly as a teenager, in the hope that she might be able to lure him out. Anna quickly finds herself thrust into the chaotic and surreal world of the Lees: their precocious nine-year-old neighbor, Brooke; their dinner guest Mark; and May, an elderly woman living nearby. Though each of these characters knows Miles only slightly, his self-imposed isolation will serve as the central event linking them to one another and to their own pasts.
Brilliantly audacious, disarmingly playful, full of Smith’s trademark wit and puns, There But For The is a deft exploration of the human need for separation—from our pasts and from one another—and the redemptive possibilities for connections. It is a tour de force by one of our finest writers.
Charming and intelligent, Miles Garth is in many ways a desirable guest. And when he accompanies handsome 60-year-old Mark Palmer to Genevieve and Eric Lee's annual "alternative" dinner party in Greenwich, it is assumed Miles is the older man's new lover. He is not, and has in fact just met Mark at a theater performance. Halfway through the meal, Miles heads upstairs ostensibly to use the bathroom, and does not come back down.Sequestered in the Lees' extra room, he offers no explanation but does pass a note requesting vegetarian meals be sent under the door. At a loss over what to do, Genevieve tracks down Anna Hardie, a Scottish woman who met Miles briefly when they were teenagers. As Anna recalls his kindness to her during a school trip, she begins to come to terms with her own past and uncertain future. Miles has that affect on people. Anna also befriends Brooke, a precocious, lonely 9-year-old neighbor girl who met Miles at the party as well. Meanwhile, news of Miles' weird sit-in ripples throughout the community, and people begin to think of him as some kind of folk hero with almost mystical powers. That Miles is both more and less than he appears to be is part of the fun in this witty, deconstructed mystery. With its shifting points of view, Smith (The First Person: and Other Stories, 2009, etc.) displays a virtuoso gift for channeling her character's inner voices. Happily, the book manages to wear its profundity lightly.
Offbeat exploration of the human need to connect with others.
The New York Times
—Publishers Weekly [HC starred review]
A Best Book of the Year
The Washington Post
The Boston Globe
“A witty, provocative urban fable. . . . If you enjoy surprising, often comic insights into contemporary life, [Smith is] someone to relish.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A beguiling ode to human connection shot through with existential wonder and virtuosic wordplay. If you fell for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, you’ll appreciate Smith’s formal twists and turns—and there’s more where There came from.” —Time Magazine
“Brilliant. . . . Both funny and moving—it succeeds because of Smith’s extraordinary skill with ordinary language.” —A.S. Byatt, The Guardian (UK)
“Weird and wonderful. . . . Beautifully elusive. . . . It is really about small stuff like life and death and the meaning of human existence, all told with sharp humor and real insight.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A marvel. . . . Exceedingly clever. . . . [It] packs a wallop in part because it engages us to read more actively.” —The Washington Post
“Quirky, intricately put together. . . . A book about loss and retention: about what we forget and what we remember, about the people who pass through our lives and what bits of them cling to our consciousness.” —Charles McGrath, The New York Times
“Ambitious, rambunctious, and poetic. . . . Contains all the real, solid stuff of a novel. It satisfies, it enlightens, and there’s a surge of wonderment and poignancy beneath the narrative that continually springs up.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“By turns whimsical and subtly wrenching. . . . With her penchant for wordplay on full display, the author of The Accidental switches between the perspectives of four people whose lives have been peripherally touched by her gentle shut-in, a man who, like J.D. Salinger’s Seymour Glass, has perhaps too much heart to survive comfortably in a hard world.” —NPR, Five 2011 Books that Stick With You
“Sophisticated, playful…exhilarating. . . . Smith blasts a window open in our heads.” —The Plain Dealer
“A story quite literally crying out to be heard. . . . It is with this word play, repetition, rhyme, and rhythm that Smith proves herself one of the ‘cleverist’—a British author at the top of her game who combines eccentricity and originality in equal measure. . . . Here we have a novel, and a novelist, delighting in the joy of language itself.” —The Daily Beast
“A virtuoso piece of writing, both funny and gripping. . . . Smith is a writer with a rich array of conventional strengths. . . . Her prose responds to the world with loving attentiveness.” –The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Exhilarating.” —Marie Claire
“A marvel of a novel, sweeping in purpose (what is the meaning of life, of history, of our presence or our absence) and magnetic in both the presentation of its cast and characters and the unfolding of its deceptively simple plot. . . . The writing in There but for the is lovely, the imagery sharp and moving, and the flow unstoppable.” —The Huffington Post
“There is a bewitching romanticism to Smith’s world, where people truly connect and leave tender imprints on each other.” —The Independent (London)
“There but for the will remind you what a joyful activity reading truly is. Nobody writes with more panache. You learn so much from an Ali Smith novel, you laugh so hard and are filled with such intellectual and spiritual nourishment, and all you want to do when you’re finished is go read another one.” —Sigrid Nunez
“In There but for the Ali Smith displays her usual fizz and artistry. She always surprises, she never disappoints.” —Kate Atkinson, author of Started Early, Took My Dog
“A playful yet erudite celebration of words. . . . Smith’s prose is not just supple, it’s acrobatic: one minute providing crisp realism—cocky teenagers, unspoken homophobia, university bureaucracy—the next a hypnotic stream-of-consciousness. Smith can make anything happen, which is why she is one of our most exciting writers today. . . . [Her] dizzying wordplay makes the real and surreal equally stimulating.” —Lucy Beresford, The Daily Telegraph (London)
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.42(w) x 9.54(h) x 1.13(d)
Read an Excerpt
was once a man who, one night between the main course and the 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.
There was once a woman who had met this man thirty years before, had known him slightly for roughly two weeks in the middle of a summer when they were both seventeen, and hadn’t seen him since, though they’d occasionally, for a few years after, exchanged Christmas cards, that kind of thing.
Right now the woman, whose name was Anna, was standing outside the locked bedroom door behind which the man, whose name was Miles, theoretically was. She had her arm raised and her hand ready to – to what? Tap? Knock discreetly? This beautiful, perfectly done-out, perfectly dulled house would not stand for noise; every creak was an affront to it, and the woman who owned it, emanating disapproval, was just two feet behind her. But it was her fist she was standing there holding up, like a 1980s cliché of a revolutionary, ready to, well, nothing quiet. Batter. Beat. Pound. Rain blows.
Strange phrase, to rain blows. Somewhere over the rainblow. She didn’t remember much about him, but they’d never have been friends in the first place if he wasn’t the sort to enjoy a bad pun. Was he, unlike Anna right now, the kind of person who’d know what to say to a shut door if he were standing outside one trying to get someone on the other side to open it? The kind who could turn to that child stretched on her front as far up the staircase as her whole small self would go, the toes of her bare feet on the wood of the downstairs hall floor and her chin in her hands on the fifth step lying there watching, and straight off be making the right kind of joke, what do you call two mushrooms on holiday? Fun guys, straight off be holding forth about things like where a phrase like to rain blows came from in the first place?
The woman standing behind Anna sighed. She somehow made a sigh sound cavernous. After it the silence was even louder. Anna cleared her throat.
Miles, she said to the wood of the door. Are you there?
But the bleat of her voice left her somehow less there herself. Ah, now, see – that’s what it took, the good inappropriateness of that child. Half boy, all girl, she’d elbowed herself up off the staircase, run up the stairs and was about to hammer on the door.
Bang bang bang.
Anna felt each thud go through her as if the child were hammering her on the chest.
Come out come out wherever you are, the child yelled.
Open sesame, the child yelled.
She had ducked under Anna’s arm to knock. She looked up at her from under her arm.
It makes the rock in the side of the mountain open, the child said. They say it in the story, therefore the rock just like opens.
The child put her mouth to the door and spoke again, this time without shouting.
Knock knock, she said. Who’s there?
There were several reasons at that particular time in Anna Hardie’s life for her wondering what it meant, herself, to be there.
One was her job, which she had just given up, in what she and her colleagues laughingly called Senior Liaison, at what she and her colleagues only half-laughingly called the Centre for Temporary Permanence (or, interchangeably, the Centre for Permanent Temporariness).
Another was that Anna had woken up a couple of weeks ago in the middle of her forties in the middle of the night, from a dream in which she saw her own heart behind its ribcage. It was having great trouble beating because it was heavily crusted over with a caul made of what looked like the stuff we clean out of the corners of our eyes in the mornings when we wake up. She woke up, sat up and put her hand on her heart. Then she got up, went to the bathroom mirror and looked. There she was.
The phrase reminded her of something Denny at the Evening News, with whom she’d worked on neighbourhood liaison pieces and with whom she’d had a short liaison herself, had told her some time ago, on their second and last lunchtime. He was a sweet man, Denny. He’d stood in front of her in her kitchen, their first time, and presented his penis to her very sweetly, rueful and hopeful both, a little apologetic about his erection and at the same time proud of it; she liked this. She liked him. But two lunchtimes was all it was, and they both knew it. Denny had a wife, her name was Sheila, and their two girls and their boy were at Clemont High. Anna made a pot of tea, put sugar and milk on the tray because she wasn’t sure what he took, carried it upstairs, slid back into the bed. It was a quarter past one. They had just under half an hour left. He’d asked could he smoke. She’d said, okay, since it’s the last lunch. He’d smiled. Then he’d turned over in the bed, lit the cigarette, changed the subject. He’d said did she know he could sum up the last six decades of journalism in six words?
Go on then, she said.
I was there. There I was, he said.
It was a commonplace, he said. By the middle of the twentieth century every important report put it like this: I was there. Nowadays: There I was.
Soon it would be seven words, Anna said. The new century had already added a seventh word. There I was, guys. She and Denny had laughed, drunk their tea, put their clothes back on and gone back to their different jobs. The last time they’d spoken was some months ago, about how to handle the story with the local kids giving urine to the asylum kids in lemonade bottles to drink.
In the middle of the night, some months later, holding her own heart, feeling nothing, Anna had looked at herself in the mirror in the bathroom. There she was. It was the there-she-was guise.
There she was again, then, two evenings ago, sitting in front of her laptop one summer evening with the noise of Wimbledon coming from neighbours’ TVs through the open windows of the houses all around. Wimbledon was on her own TV too. Her own TV’s sound was turned down. It was sunny in London and the Wimbledon grass was still bright green, only a little scuffed. The TV screen flickered away by itself beyond the laptop screen. Pock noises and oohs and ahs, strangely disconnected from their source, accompanied the little noises she was making on her keyboard. It was as if the whole outside world was TV soundtrack. Maybe there was a new psychosis, Tennis Players’ Psychosis (TPP), where you went through life believing that an audience was always watching you, profoundly moved by your every move, reacting round your every reaction, your every momentous moment, with joy /excitement / disappointment / Schadenfreude. Presumably all professional tennis players had something like it, and maybe so to some extent did everybody who still believed in God. But would this mean that people who didn’t have it were somehow less there in the world, or at least differently there, because they felt themselves less observed? We might as well pray to the god of tennis players, she thought. We might as well ask that god as ask any other for world peace, to keep us safe, to bring all the birds that’ve ever died, ever sunk into dust via little mounds of feather and crumbling hollow little bones, back to life, perch them all on that sill right now, the small ones at the front and the large ones at the back, and have them sing a rousing chorus of Bye Bye Blackbird, which was a song her father used to whistle when she was a little girl, and one she hadn’t heard for many years. No one here to love or understand me. Oh what hard-luck stories they all hand me. Was that it? Something about hard-luck stories, anyway. Just as she was about to look the lyrics up on the net new mail came pinging into her inbox with an electronic little trill.
The new mail was quite a long email which Anna nearly mistook for the please-transfer-money-to-this-account-because–I-am-dying-and-need-your-help kind. But she paused her finger above delete when something about it caught her eye. It was addressed to her with the correct first name but the wrong surname initial. Dear Anna K. It was both her and not her, the name. More: something about it made her feel super-eighted, instamaticked. It gave her a feeling something like the word summer used to. Most of all it reminded her of an old spinebent copy of a Penguin classic paperback by Kafka, yes, Franz Kafka, which she had read one summer when she was sixteen or seventeen.
Meet the Author
ALI SMITH is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including the novel Hotel World, which was short-listed for both the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize and won the Encore Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, and The Accidental, which won the Whitbread Award and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Her story collections include Free Love, which won a Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award and a Scottish Arts Council Award, and The Whole Story and Other Stories. Born in Inverness, Scotland, Smith lives in Cambridge, England.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Worst. Book. Ever. I wish I could have the time back that I spent reading this book! My book club chose this book on the strength of the "Entertainment Weekly" review which described it as the kind of book you wanted to read all over again right after finishing it. Actually, it's the kind of book that I wanted to throw across the room, or bestow upon someone I didn't like very much. It's that bad. I feel so duped by that good EW review! I wish I could un-read the review AND the book. Don't waste your time!
An enjoyable book, better if you can read it and talk about it with someone else. The characters were quirky/interesting/recognizable/surprising; well-crafted. The stream of consciousness in the final chapters was lost on me, it neither furthered nor deepened my understanding of the youngest main character or the plot or the subtext.
I hated this book more than I can possibly explain. The style of writing made it very difficult to read, the 63 pages I managed were ones that I had to force down like slimy vegetables. Save your money and your time and move on to a better book.
In Greenwich, England, charming Miles Garth, a guest at a dinner party hosted by Gen and Eric Lee, rises from the table in between the main course and dessert. He goes upstairs and locks himself in a spare bedroom. In spite of coaxing from the bewildered hosts and other confused guests, Miles refuses to leave the room and only responds by notes he delivers under the door. Rather quickly a crowd surrounds the house curious in a macabre way to observe what Milo, as the watchers have named him, does next. Fortyish Anna Hardie knew Miles when they met as teens in 1980 during a European Grand Tour. Homosexual sexagenarian Mark Palmer, whose late mom speaks to him in verse, met Miles at a Shakespearean event and invited him to this gala. Octogenarian dementia sufferer May Young, who Miles helped with her grieving of her late daughter, tries to return his kindness. Finally tweener Brooke the attention deficit student disliked by her peers does not know him at all as they just met at dinner. As weeks pass, these five and others forge a family of sorts. There But For The is a fascinating parable that takes a close look at time, which never stops. The four players intermingling with the legendary squatter represent different eras in the lives of people as does the location. Filled with metaphors and quirky characters, Ali Smith provides a profound tale of mortality as the Steve Miller band said: "Time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin' Into the future." Harriet Klausner
She is a selfish sort who likes to think she is a book reviewer...and ruins books for the rest of us.