by Ali Smith; Pantheon, 2011; 236 pages; $25.
To read a book by Ali Smith is to become an unabashed fan of her clever wordplay, her inventive prose, her concern for the ethical collapse of the lives of ordinary people.
The First Person and Other Stories, her recent collection, uses words in unimaginably surprising ways. The Accidental, her novel in which a complete stranger quietly transforms four members of a vacationing family, is a cheeky prelude to There but for the, itself as wickedly ingenious a novel as is likely to be found this season.
There is a set piece at the center of this novel, a set piece that is reminiscent of one of the drollest films of the 1970s. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, director Luis Buñuel plops six people down at a dinner party at which everything — and nothing — is discussed. Smith’s dinner party near the middle of There but for the is as surreal — and revealing — as Buñuel’s.
It may be Greenwich, the posh London suburb, instead of Buñuel’s Paris, but the conversation around Smith’s table is just as telling as that around Buñuel’s. Fed up, really, by the pretense he encounters, Miles Garth, the unexpected guest of one of the invited diners, abruptly stands up, leaves the table, and locks himself in an upstairs room. Despite all entreaties, he will not leave. The curiousness of Miles’ act attracts a multitude of onlookers, turning Greenwich from ‘burb to circus.
Tangential events are related by four people, who, interestingly, have had only the most peripheral of contact with Miles. Anna, 40, has glancing memories of Miles from her youth. Mark, the man, who, on impulse, invites Miles to the dinner party after meeting him after a play, is 60. May is a woman in her 80s, stricken with dementia and in a nursing home. Brooke is the 10-year-old daughter of a couple that brings her, uninvited like Miles, to the dinner party.
And there it is.
So what, exactly, makes There but for the so exhilarating?
Language for one thing. Smith has an inherent mistrust of words because words are inadequate for expressing what we feel, what we sense. (“It is important to know the stories and histories of things, even if all we know is that we don’t know.”)
History, for another, history that must be embraced. (“The fact is, history is actually all sorts of things nobody knows about.”)
Communication, too. We can’t really know each other, says Smith, so life becomes an attempt to explain the “stuff” of living. And when we can’t, we resort to sometimes the most ridiculous of methodology. (Miles, who basically disappears from the book once he locks himself in the room, becomes pretty much an entertainment for the curious.)
At a time when technology is separating us, changing our language and our histories, we must listen to Ali Smith. We must heed her cautionary comments on the human need to be individuals and the human need for connection. Otherwise, There but for the.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.