There but for the

There but for the

by Ali Smith


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When a dinner-party guest named Miles locks himself in an upstairs room and refuses to come out, he sets off a media frenzy. He also sets in motion a mesmerizing puzzle of a novel, one that harnesses acrobatic verbal playfulness to a truly affecting story.
Miles communicates only by cryptic notes slipped under the door. We see him through the eyes of four people who barely know him, ranging from a precocious child to a confused elderly woman. But while the characters’ wit and wordplay soar, their story remains profoundly grounded. As it probes our paradoxical need for both separation and true connection, There but for the balances cleverness with compassion, the surreal with the deeply, movingly real, in a way that only Ali Smith can.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307275240
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/24/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 503,546
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.82(h) x 0.78(d)

About the Author

Ali Smith is the author of many 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 Prize. Her most recent novel, How to be both, was a Man Booker Prize finalist and winner of the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize, the Costa Novel Award, and the Saltire Literary Book of the Year Award. Born in Inverness, Scotland, Smith lives in Cambridge, England.

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.  
       Nothing happened.
       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?
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.

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There But For The 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
jjogger More than 1 year ago
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.
GarySeverance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ali Smith's novel is the type of book I look for in every genre. Whether it is mystery, romance, historical, young adult, or science fiction, a novel can be discovered that captures the life of the mind of the characters. After all, that is what the story of There but for the is all about, the rich, articulate communication inside the confines of the head and the affirmation by others of the contents.Four main characters varying in age, gender economic status, education, living style, and location have a common characteristic that is shared by the reader, a self-contained dialog. The voice in the heads of all four (five counting the reader) is not a monologue because it is spoken in sentences as if someone else can hear. Questions are sometimes answered and opinions shared as the outwardly nondescript characters speak their complex and observant language to themselves. While doing this, they maintain a largely passive countenance on the street and in the social intimacy of friends and family.Songs provide fodder for the mental conversations and, "the problem now of course is, to simply hold your horses" as the characters carefully seek (but do not always find) like-minded souls who do not mind sharing mindful information. The chance meeting of people who can trade aspects of their inner voices become the characters' (and the reader's) most important hallmarks of personal history. Often brief, the shared thoughts when they occur leave lasting traces that in retrospect are life-changing.Whether the character is young girl like 10 year old Brooke, an older woman like 80 year old May, a man in his 60s like Mark, or a woman in her 40s like Anna, there may be, if they are lucky, an internally charismatic but nebulous individual like Miles who can make statements that stimulate the characters' uttering of unedited inner observations. Whether Miles is a figment of of the characters' imaginations or they are figments of his, the communications with him face to face or symbolically are peak experiences.The story takes place in London and is told from the points of view of the four characters so vitally affected by Miles. It is a beautiful, poignant group portrait of lonely people who become remarkably courageous as they involve themselves with Miles. It is not the courage of self-serving secret criticism of other people all day while putting on good faces. It is the stepping out of the confines of the head, sending little feelers to others hoping to find kindred spirits; telling someone, There you are.But we are all at least partial shut-ins, physically and mentally. Is the shutting in an end or a beginning? For, if it is an end, then there would be no more honest conversation with others, only listening to yourself while looking out of hopeless eyes. The fact is you. Only by sharing your inner uninhibited dialog with a unique, courageous other (even symbolically like the reader of this novel) can you reveal this wonderful self-fact to the world and have that fact affirmed.
brenzi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Let me play devil¿s advocate here. Does the fact that the part that made the most sense was told by an eighty year old woman with dementia tell you anything about this book? How about the idea of page after page of stream of consciousness? Paragraphs that are pages long? How about a premise that is absolutely laughable? Here it is:A man accompanies another man to a dinner party. After being introduced to the hosts and other guests, partway through the meal, he excuses himself, goes upstairs into a spare room and locks himself in. For months! I¿m sorry, but in the U.S. anyway, the police would have been called and the guy would have been hauled away; end of story.But I have suspended disbelief before and enjoyed books with preposterous plots. So maybe I¿m being too skeptical. How is the author going to handle this? It soon becomes apparent that the people who tell the story have only a miniscule remembrance of the intruder, one Miles Garth. Somewhere in history their paths crossed, however briefly.Somehow I¿m soon drawn into the story and charmed by both the author¿s clever use of language and the star of the novel, ten year old Brooke, wise beyond her years, precocious, and utterly charming. She has only just met Miles at the dinner party but her world view and her troubles in school with a teacher, who has no idea how to reign in her galloping intellect, immediately sucked me in.Anna is originally stunned to get an e mail from the party¿s hostess, who found her e mail address in Miles¿ phone. She racks her brain trying to remember who in the world he is. Finally, she remembers how he befriended her on a school trip in 1980, when she was lonely and friendless.Eighty year old May, suffering from dementia and at the end of her days, knows Miles because he has been with her on the worst day of her life. I found her story absolutely gripping.Sixty-ish Mark, who brought Miles to the party after meeting him at a theater production, is still anguishing over the long ago suicide of his artist mother.These four narrators tell a compelling story about isolation and connections and in making the connections, as you most certainly do as the book progresses, you can¿t help but smile at the way Smith has wrapped you around her finger. Right towards the end of the book, as Brooke and Miles are discussing deep philosophical questions, the author gives us this:¿That was a very clever dream you had. Yes, Brooke said, but maybe is it too clever? No, Mr. Garth said, not at all, there¿s no such thing as too clever anyway.¿Wait, did the author just wink at me? Is she¿pulling my leg? Is she mocking her own cleverness? Oh and did I mention there¿s not a quotation mark in the whole book? So not a conventional novel by any stretch, but a book that will make you think (there are more hidden meanings than you can shake a stick at and I'm sure I only discovered half of them), and scratch your head and smile. As the crowds gather to wait to see what happens to the unwanted guest you can¿t help but think of the Occupy movement. I¿m pretty sure the book was written well before that all started but it certainly was oh, I don¿t know, prophetic, maybe. Recommended for adventurous readers.
Laura400 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an absolutely marvelous book. There is stylish, really extraordinary writing. There is hilarious social satire. There are affecting characters. There are moving stories of loss and absence, of time passing, of the secret loneliness and sorrow we all carry around. It's one of the best novels I've read this year.
jasonlf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fascinating, unique, well constructed book filled with great writing, fresh wordplay and puns.Ostensibly it is the story of Miles Garth, a guest at an English dinner party who gets up from the table in the middle of the meal, walks upstairs, and locks himself into the spare room (conveniently including a stationary bicycle and an en suite bathroom). Miles stays in the room for months, barely communicating with the outside world.But really it is a kaleidoscope of a story around this, with short vignettes around several of the guests, people they know, jumping as far back in time as World War II, often interrupting each other with long parenthetical vignettes that last for pages. It has extensive dialogue but none of it is in quotes or indicated by any other punctuation. And in some parts the paragraphs seem to never end.A dialogue in the middle of the book helps explain the concept, which revolves around adding the word "but" to the end of anything, and taking the idea in new directions (e.g., "I was invited to dinner," "I was invited to dinner but I don't want to go by myself," and "I was invited to dinner but I don't want to go by myself but I have no one to invite.")The pieces never fully come together, we never understand exactly why Miles goes up into the room or why he eventually leaves it. But they do start to converge and disparate vignettes, characters and times are cleverly connected. And some of those characters and vignettes are particularly good, especially a precocious, young, girl Brooke who is the "cleverest" (in her words) punster and jokester and historian.
karieh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I did not finish this book. I am admitting that up front for full disclosure. I thought about not writing this review because of that ¿ but I read most of the book, and I really did try to finish this book¿but it the end ¿ there was just too much.Sentences that went on too long. Paragraphs that went on for pages. Thoughts inside of thoughts inside of thoughts ¿ thoughts of characters who appear to be only tangentially connected to the story.But I¿d read many good reviews of ¿There But for The¿ ¿ and it seemed as if it was a book I would love ¿ it was right there in the interesting title. And it was about a man who went to a dinner party and then never left. And no one knew why he wouldn¿t leave.¿Did he want to know what it felt like to not be in the world? Had he closed the door on himself so he would know what it feels like, to be a prisoner?¿But after reading and reading and reading ¿ I just felt as if I wasn¿t getting anywhere. I barely knew what was going on. I¿d glimpse some flashes of aspects that seemed something like belonging to the book I¿d imagined, ¿His aunt has an ancient pug called Polly. The pug¿s face looks ruined, melted. It looks like what Mark thinks the word tragedy would look like if it were a physical reality, a thing not just a word.¿But I just couldn¿t finish. I read the back of my copy of the book again and I am sure it¿s probably just me¿but I think to understand the book I read most of¿I will have to go back and read those other reviews once more.
tangledthread on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another piece of post modern fiction. No plot, just a bunch of different point of view chapters. Reminds me of A Visit from the Goon Squad. I'm just not a fan of this style of writing.
EBT1002 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this novel. P asked if she would like it and I said that I thought not, that it was "not solely plot-driven and philosophical and in people's heads a lot." Yes, well, that's a good summary after a couple of glasses of wine. Brooke is the 10-year-old narrator at the end of the book, and her voice is perfect; her critique of all things cultural, her exposure of all assumptions made, rings true and humorous and charming. The novel unfolds in four "chapters" or segments; "but" was my least favorite until the last few pages. The only glitch in this contemporary narrative is the dialogue at the dinner party that leads to Miles Garth locking himself into a bedroom of his hosts. Boring. But it picks up again by the end of that segment, and never again lets up. This is a novel about what is real; it's about metaphor and culture and history. Ali Smith loves language and she plays with it unmercifully without losing the train of the story. I laughed out loud; in the middle of the "for" chapter, I almost cried. May Young's narrative is especially moving to one, like me, who is coming to grips with late-middle-age and the prospect of death. She describes killing a rabbit in the garden and I nearly sobbed: "The gun didn't even kick. It was more a toy than a gun. But all the same the rabbit fell on its side, lay still on its side." And, on the very next page, before one has had a chance to come to terms with the fate of the rabbit, she provides commentary on the modern: "That was them these days, spending all their time looking up things on the intimate. The great-grandchildren, even, and them hardly past babies, spent their time on the intimate. It was all the intimate, and answer-phones and things you had to speak at rather than to. Nobody there." I hate to admit it, but I wondered about the amount of time I spend on LibraryThing..... Smith is a genius with words. She is genius at expressing what each of us has thought one or more times, but she makes it beautiful: "She {May} looked at the girl in the chair and she saw what youth was. it was oblivious, with things in its ears." I doubt this review is capturing the profundity or the whimsicality of this novel. It displays both and it is a delight to read. But for that boring segment at the dinner party, and I'd be giving it five stars.
TinaV95 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I find it hard to summarize my thoughts on Ali Smith's "There But for The".... This is nothing against Smith's writing per se, and more about my difficulties in following the progression of the novel.There are many reviews of this book so I won't digress into the plot vs. no plot debate. I will say, that I felt a bit schizophrenic while reading at times. Several times I had to stop to remind myself which character was talking and what other lesser characters were involved at a particular point in the story. Suffice it to say, I had to think -- and think a LOT. That's a wonderful thing in many cases, but I found portions of the book hard to make it through. But, perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind. Or maybe I just don't have the literary brain of Smith and many other readers. :)I do need to state that Ali Smith's writing is indeed wonderful. Despite the novel's different narrators and styles, I found myself in awe at the end of the book wondering how in the world a writer could be so intelligent as to make the entire book so perplexing and thought provoking -- and yet still leave me with questions.
noveltea on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
THERE were many, many things I loved about this novel.BUT I did wish I could cut short or cut out quite a few scenes, life stories, conversations and streams of consciousness.FOR me, the first section was the best part of the book; this was the section I least wanted to trim.THE premise might not have worked for me even a year ago, but in light of the Occupy movement, I'm in awe of Smith's prescience (or lucky guess).
mrstreme on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Hold on to your thinking caps - you will need them for Ali Smith's latest novel, There But For The.  Told from four different perspectives, this novel centers around the self-imprisonment of Miles Garth. A guest at a dinner party, Miles excuses himself from the table and ventures upstairs. While his hosts assume he used the restroom and then left without saying good-bye, they are surprised to learn that Miles has locked himself into their guest bedroom.  And Miles doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon.As each narrator's story begins, their connection to Miles becomes apparent.  Each person represents a different age group: Anna in her forties, Mark in his sixties, May in her eighties and Brooke, who is 10. Interestingly, none of these narrators know Miles very well - their lives only crossing each other through small encounters.  Indeed, you learn more about the narrators than you learn about Miles.May's story was the most interesting and easiest to read.  However, the entire book is not for the literary faint of heart.  There is enough stream of consciousness to make James Joyce proud. Some sections of the story went over my head, specifically the dinner conversation during Mark's section, and the ramblings of 10-year-old Brooke tried my patience (she was a tad too precocious to be realistic).With that said, there is no denying Ali Smith and her literary gusto. There But For The may be a difficult book to read and absorb, but it definitely was a provocative story.  It left many questions unanswered and would make an excellent discussion for book clubs and upper-level English lit classes. If you aren't intimidated by literary fiction, then check out There But For The. It has some magic that will appeal to the right reader.
SamSattler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Having read two of Ali Smith¿s earlier novels, I knew not to expect anything resembling a conventional novel when I began There But For The. Smith is one of those novelists who seem to be just as concerned about style and experimentation with form as they are about plot and characters - and There But For The follows that pattern. For instance, despite that the plot is largely moved along via one-on-one conversation, not a single quotation mark will be found in this novel. Smith, too, seems to favor long, rambling, multi-page paragraphs that are as densely packed with content as their overwhelming appearance to the eye leads the reader to expect them to be. Personally, I find paragraphs of extreme length to be tiring, almost mind-numbing, after wading through anything more than a handful of pages of them. A lack of quotation marks, on the other hand, does not bother me when the author, as Smith does here, still makes it perfectly clear which character is speaking.Many of Smith¿s regular readers love her for her style. I have to say that I tolerate her style, but love her work, instead, for its memorable characters and unusual plotlines, both of which are strong points of this new novel. The story begins at a London dinner table, over which a group of near strangers are becoming better acquainted, when Miles Garth suddenly leaves the table. Only when Miles does not return within a reasonable amount of time, is it determined that he has locked himself inside one of the home¿s upstairs rooms ¿ a room he will remain inside for hours, that turn into days, and then into weeks. Desperate to rid her home of her newly acquired squatter, the dinner host first searches Miles¿s address book for someone who can talk him out of the room.That is how she finds Anna, the first of four narrators through whom we learn more about Miles Garth and how he ended up where he is. Anna, a fortyish woman who met Miles on a high school trip to France, at first barely remembers him but surprises herself by some of the things that come back to her. Mark, who is responsible for having invited Miles to the dinner party, is a gay man in his sixties. May, in her eighties, remembers the kindness shown her by Miles. And, finally, there is Brooke, a precocious little ten-year-old girl who only met Miles at the party but now feels somehow connected to him.There But For The explores some basic questions, even to the meaning of life, but its main theme involves how differently those who pass through our lives might remember the experience than we remember it ¿ and how little we really understand about ourselves and those with whom, over a lifetime, we share time. The novel¿s relatively simple plot is deceptive; there is a lot going on here.Rated at: 4.0
Helena81 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Deeply engaging and thought-provoking novel. I'm hesitant to even write a review straight after reading, because there's so much I want to mull over in the novel. I may even upgrade to 5 stars. The book reminds me of The Sound and the Fury with its multiple, difficult, narrators and central unraveling story. It's a rewarding read, and more is explained than I feared. Each section ("there", "but", "for", and "the") is a joy in its own way, especially "for". I only wish I knew more; Smith leaves a lot of connections unmade for the reader to piece together. I'm not sure, for instance, how the short interlude before the "but" section (about the boy who looked into eyes and his grandfather) fits into the overall narrative. In a novel this consciously stylized, though, plot certainties are perhaps besides the point. Deep, layered, and highly enjoyable.
Cariola on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.There but for the isn't an easy book for me to write about, because it is one of those rare books that one doesn't just read but actually experiences, participates in. It's not a book to be breezed through for the plot. You have to work at it, often backing up and rereading to make connections between events, characters, and words. But often that work surprises you by becoming infinite play, even as it leaves you with some startling observations about human nature, language, memory, and the world we live in.Taken separately, each of the words in the title seem nondescript; together, they seem empty without the expected conclusion--without, in other words, God or grace. And maybe that's exactly what Smith intended: to make us ponder the place ("there") of God and the location of grace in a society that is technologically advanced "but" individually isolating. (Think about the person with 5000 'friends' on Facebook.) It may be hard to find, but, ultimately, Smith concludes, grace is still there, within and between us.The novel consists of four chapters, one for each word in the title, each focused on a different narrator. As many of the reviews below note, the basic premise is that a man attends a dinner party, walks upstairs between the main course and dessert, and locks himself into the spare bedroom, refusing to come out. But the real stories are inside the heads of the narrators. Anna ("There"), a fortyish single woman bored with her job, is surprised to learn that her email address has been found in the interloper's (Miles's) cell phone, pushing forth long-forgotten memories of the continental tour she won as a teenager. Mark ("but"), a gay man in his 60s still grieving the loss of his partner more than 20 years earlier, is haunted by the lyric-singing, rhyme-spouting, often-obscene ghost of his mother, a brilliant artist who committed suicide. May ("for") is a terminally ill 80-year old falling into dementia and memories of the daughter she lost, yet still sharp enough to observe and regret the changing world around her. Finally, the delightful Brooke Bayoude ("the"), who is either the CLEVEREST or the CLEVERIST, a girl who delights in the sounds and multiple meanings of words and wants to pin down the 'facts' of history, even as she comes to realize that facts, too, are mutable. Along the way, Smith deftly and subtly weaves in unexpected connections among these characters and even the novel's secondary characters.I'm not one who generally likes fiction that philosophizes (see my recent review of Embers, for example.) Here, it takes you unawares, most often playfully, but sometimes melancholically. It's a rare book that can make you think, think about your own life, while you're being so well entertained. And as a wordsmith/word lover, I found Smith's puns, rhymes, jokes, allusions, double entendres, etc. thoroughly delightful. (Having vivid memories of riding in the backseat of the family car at about age nine, pondering the sounds of the word "jello," drawing it out in the voice in my head, I could really relate to Brooke.)I haven't always been a fan of Smith's type of literary experimentation; in fact, the last of her works that I read, a short story collection, was off-putting simpy because it seemed to exist only for the purpose of experimentation, and while I liked The Accidental--another novel using multiple narrators--, I was somewhat disappointed in the ending. But for me, There but for the is about as close to perfection as it gets. Put aside your usual expectations, open your mind, and jump in. You won't regret it.
My2CentsIL More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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harstan More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She is a selfish sort who likes to think she is a book reviewer...and ruins books for the rest of us.