There But For The is a compassionate, often witty, and sometimes frustrating puzzle of a book.
Ali Smith is known for her love of words and wordplay, and the strangely fragmented title is already a word puzzle exercise left for the reader to interpret. The words “there but for the” is a truncation of the quote there but for the grace of God go I, which connotes, in its most secular interpretation, the idea that our fates are not our own.
But rather than attributing fate to divine whimsy, the book seems to suggest instead that our fates are inextricably tied to other people – hence the truncation that elides the mention of God, but retains the semantic significance of the expression by preserving its recognizable stem.
And the title cleverly encapsulates the key theme of the book. There But For The is a book about the connections, both tangential and profound, that tie seemingly disparate narratives and lives in surprising ways.
The novel is in fact composed of four narrative strands, each named after one of the four words of the title. Each strand is a vignette featuring a single point of view character, and each is distinct and standalone, but they are tied together by a single character, whose life and actions provide the connective tissue that binds them together.
That single character is Miles Garth, who, in the course of attending a particularly obnoxious dinner party, suddenly decides to ensconce himself in one of the guest rooms, and refuses to come out. As hours turn into days and then months, the story of his self-imposed imprisonment spreads throughout the country, and he becomes a minor tourist attraction of sorts, with people coming far and wide to camp out at the lawn and derive whatever meagre titillation or fulfillment they can get from the feeling of being associated with the event.
But the characters featured in the book’s four vignettes have a more profound connection to Miles, although those connections range in time and space. And it is through those stories that we slowly piece together the story of Miles and how he relates to the people around his life.
Smith uses the narrative hook of Mile’s story as a platform to launch into meditations on a variety of themes across the four vignettes: memory, isolation, loneliness, time, history and grief. Of the four vignettes, the second is probably my favorite. It features Mark, an elderly gay picture-researcher for a magazine who constantly imagines his deceased mother speaking to him in rhyme, and who spends much of the vignette thinking back to his past and reflecting over his childhood and romances as a gay youth.
Mark’s connection with Miles? He meets him at a theater performance and they bond over their diametrically opposed reactions to a cellphone going off a the climax of the show. Following which, Mark brings Miles as his companion to the dinner party in which Miles begins his bizarre self-imprisonment.
Probably my favorite sequence of the book is the extended conversation at that dinner party, narrated through Mark’s perspective: a fast-paced stream of discourse that adroitly paints scintillating word-pictures of its various participants, serving to gently mock their pretensions to culture by calling them out on their conscious and unconscious prejudices. The sparkling verbal dance interweaves with Mark’s own continuous interior thoughts about the dinner, the guests, slowly revealing the complex web of interconnections between the assembled guests. And then, in the midst of the contrived dinner, Miles up and goes to lock himself in the guest room, precipitating the entire sequence of events that acts as the book’s central narrative prop.
The other three vignettes are self-contained stories in their own right – featuring characters like Anna, who is befriended by Miles when they are teenagers on an overseas study trip, May, the dementia-ailed mother of a long deceased friend of Miles’, who he visits annually, and Brook, a precocious child with whom Miles forms a bond when he meets her at the dinner party. The vignettes are a platform for Smith to deliver thematic nuggets and other delectable fragments – from the banally clever to the profound. Smith indulges her love for wordplay through the stream-of-consciousness punnery of Brook; she meditates on age and loss through putting the reader in May’s faltering shoes, she expounds on the shackles that the past has on the present through Mark’s sympathetic but relentless pining.
Miles himself is presented as a character quirky and multifaceted enough to be at the nexus of these connections. He’s the quirky theatergoer with whom Mark forms a bond, the mentor to Brooke, the grieving but loyal millstone around May’s neck, sharing her grief over her lost daughter while his repeated visits reminds her of what she has lost, the only friend to Anna in her time of loneliness. Miles has special significance to all of them; he is the source of many of Smith’s pearls of wisdom. And it is through the mediating lens of his presence in their lives that they, and we, the readers, by extension, begin to apprehend them as characters and understand their thoughts and preoccupations.
In the end, we are never actually told why Miles did what he did. And initially, it can come across as frustrating when one reads to the end of the book and fails to achieve that catharsis that comes with understanding. But somehow, with reflection, the why of things, as in many of these kinds of books, is not as important as the what that they inspire. And the weird, complex web of connections that Miles’ actions create, both backwards and forwards in time and space, is fertile ground from which variegated and scintillating stories can grow, unfettered by the traditional strictures of narrative temporality.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 exercise bikes