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52 Books #22: There but for the

July 2, 2011

Rachel Whiteread illustration, playfully recursive (or is it?) title, text left-aligned rather than justified, gleeful wordplay and bad jokes, long conversations and expository scenes in brackets: thank goodness Ali Smith is back with There but for the (Hamish Hamilton), her confoundingly-titled new novel. At a dinner party, one of the guests — a friend of a friend — excuses himself from the table, goes upstairs to the hosts’ guest bedroom, locks himself in and refuses to come out.

It’s an inversion of the scenario from her last novel, The Accidental (itself riffing on the 1960s movie Theorem), in which the four members of a dysfunctional family are brought to their various epiphanies by a mysterious visitor — Terence Stamp in that film, the equally beguiling Amber in Smith’s novel. The scope of There but for the is somewhat wider — whole communities are drawn into Miles/Milo’s saga — but the effects his actions have are broadly similar. People start thinking, potentials are realised, and a small girl teeters on the edge of annoying precocity — I don’t think anyone writes small children as well as Smith does, and she makes Brooke entirely charming. Before we get to hear Brooke’s story, we encounter Anna, who once met Miles on a trip to Europe when they were teachers, and Mark, who imagines his late mother speaking to him in rhyming doggerel; and eavesdrop on the world’s most appalling dinner party, whose awfulness prompts Miles’s retreat to the bedroom, and where Smith’s satire becomes a little too broad for my liking. Surely, I thought, no group of people could be quite this appalling and insensitive? As with much of Ali Smith’s work, however, to criticise There but for the for not being realistic is to miss a fundamental point. Realistic, maybe not; lifelike, most definitely.

Now. This is the ‘Missing 52 Books Instalment’ — don’t look like that, I know you were wondering — and is long, long overdue. There are a couple of reasons for this. I have huge admiration for Smith’s writing, and yet this book is oddly hard to get a grip on. The void at its centre — and I love the skewering of the ‘media circus’: a non-story that film crews arrive to cover, thus intriguing neighbours who spreading the story further, while the subject of this frenzy has secretly slipped out the supposedly locked room while nobody’s looking — means that the novel seems somewhat to lack a centre. And the sometimes dreamlike aura of the fantastical means that this reader sometimes feels held at arm’s length from the text: I admire, even love this book, but it’s a cool kind of love.


Other reading in Week #22:

Ruth Harris The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France (Penguin)

Oren Harman The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness (Vintage)


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