There But For The: A Novel
- Ali Smith
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Harriet Dwinell
- October 5, 2011
A dinner guest locks himself in the bathroom in this terrific and funny novel.
Reviewed by Harriet Douty Dwinell
The opening scene in Ali Smith’s terrific new novel, There But For The, is reminiscent of The Man Who Came to Dinner, matching, if not exceeding, that American play for laugh-out-loud humor written with an absolutely deadpan pen.
In Smith’s novel, between the main course and the dessert, Miles Garth, a dinner guest in the tony Greenwich (London) home of Genevieve and Eric Lee, locks himself in the upstairs guest bedroom, where he remains for months. (“I am only relieved,” the hostess remarks, “the bedroom is en suite.”) Here, except for the disruption of the two households, is where the comparison to The Man Who Came to Dinner essentially ends, for Miles Garth is as self-effacing as Sheridan Whiteside, the man who came to dinner, is overbearing. Yet, in this extraordinarily complex, funny, and heartrending novel, Miles, a cipher who absorbs everyone’s fantasies, becomes a catalyst who unobtrusively brings people together. At this point, the novel compares with a more recent American play, Six Degrees of Separation.
Every summer the Lees host an annual “alternative” dinner party to which they invite “people who were a bit different from the people they usually saw, as well as the friends they saw all the time.” This year’s alternative guests are Mark Palmer, a gay man, who brings Miles, whom he had met days earlier at a play, and Terrance and Bernice Bayoude, university professors of African ancestry, who perplex (and annoy) the others by not having moved to Greenwich from somewhere exotic in Africa but from Harrogate, and before that York. The Bayoudes are accompanied by their incredibly erudite, precocious nine-year-old daughter Brooke, a wordsmith of the first order, who has never met a figure of speech she didn’t find fascinating. Throughout the novel Brooke asks riddles, explores homonyms, recites limericks and tells jokes (“Knock-Knocks” are a favorite). Her presence at the dinner table is a delight to readers but an irritation to the controlling hostess, who ungraciously sets an extra plate for the child, an unexpected guest, and slaps down salad greens in front of Miles, an unexpected vegetarian.
The title, There But For The, is no misspelling. Its deliberate incompleteness hints at themes in the novel. Furthermore, each of the four words serves as a chapter heading, for the novel is told through the minds of four characters, two of whom are not at the dinner party but whose lives intersect with its aftermath: Anna Hardie, who met Miles 30 years earlier when both were teenage winners of a 1980 essay contest on Britain in the year 2000; Mark Palmer, the gay man, in his fifties, whose artist mother committed suicide when Mark was 13; May Young, an 84-year-old woman, desperately trying to hold on to her humanity by secreting away the ga-ga pills forced on her at the hospital, still grieving over the death of a daughter 30 years earlier; and the bold, brave, brilliant nine-year-old Brooke, who sees herself not only as the fastest but the cleverest girl in her class, until an ugly confrontation with a spiteful adult.
The story moves back and forward in time in the minds of these four characters, sometimes throwing light on the present, sometimes illuminating the past, in scenes within parentheses that are far more vivid than the events the characters consciously remember. It is an effective literary device. In Mark’s chapter, for example, set some months after the dinner party, scenes from his past intrude, including the persistent and intrusive voice of his mother interrupting his thoughts with silly and sometimes bawdy rhymed couplets. Within each chapter, lives intersect and the present advances. Each chapter is followed by a “historic” document that relates to the person whose chapter has just concluded. In the case of May Young, the 84-year-old, the document is a heart stopper. Brooke’s document kicks off the novel in a sort of prologue, the meaning of which becomes clear only at the end.
Part of the fun of There But For The lies in its social commentary. Not only does Ali Smith skewer upper middle class pretentiousness and, with Orwellian verve, place people in jobs with titles such as Ethical Consultant or at institutions such as the Institute for Measurement and Control, but she mocks our need for celebrity. However, celebrity is not Miles’s need; he is content to spend months in obscurity. It is the need of others. A whole village springs up in the Lee’s rear garden with signs, banners and tents, dispersing food and selling banners and t-shirts with slogans relating to Milo — so renamed by the crowd because “Miles” was deemed too middle class a name. Food is sent up from the garden to the guest bedroom window by pulley and people cheer as they watch a hand reach out, later sending the dirty dishes back. American and French TV cameras vie for position while a psychic positions herself to deliver “Milo Messages.”
In the course of the four chapters, the narrative progresses and comes to a satisfying end some ten months later. Before that end, however, Brooke has taken a copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent off her parents’ bookshelf and noticed to her consternation that assorted words on pages 63-245 are circled in pencil. Her parents do not know who made the marks, for they had bought the book at one of the many second-hand stores they visit. Brooke searches every which way for a key to the circled words and does not sleep for three nights worrying. Finally, her mother tells her she will just have to “put up with the not-knowing.”
Ali Smith is too little known on this side of the Atlantic, particularly for a writer still in her forties who has published nine books of fiction and has been short-listed twice for the Man Booker Prize. It may be in part because her milieu is veddy British. I don’t think that the Greenwich (London) dinner party could be replicated in Greenwich (Connecticut), as close a cognate as I can imagine. That does not mean that There But For The is difficult. Rather, it is a wonderful place to discover this clever, intelligent, and humane author.
And did I say her book is hilarious?
Harriet Douty Dwinell, a Washington writer, taught literature and writing at American University. She is director of the editorial board of The Washington Independent Review of Books.