What would happen if you did just shut a door and stop speaking?

Dear Ali,

The prologue of your novel There but for the (2011) is, simultaneously, a paper folding and a story within another story. There, we are asked to imagine a man whose eyes and mouth are covered, on a stationary bike, inside a room. Suddenly, a boy appears, and, with the help of a dinner knife, removes the flaps covering this man’s eyes and mouth, and instructs him to make a paper airplane. This little origami is the emblem of the playful development of this novel.

The plot presents some of your recurring themes: the absurd whose truth seems convincing; an intelligent child with the gift of playing with words; the dead who insists on not be silent; the re-encounter with a past and lost identity; and, as in your previous novel, The Accidental (2005), the character who, unasked, meddle up in the lives of those around him.

In There but for the, this character is Miles Garth, an enigmatic man in his late 40’s. One night, during a dinner in Greenwich, between the main course and dessert, he absents himself from the room without being noticed, goes upstairs and locks himself indefinitely in the guest room. Miles had been invited by an acquaintance, Mark, to accompany him to a dinner to which Mark himself was not so keen to attend, in the house of a couple he did not exactly knew, whom he did not exactly liked. Miles, until then a stranger to his hosts – an English middle class family – refuses to leave the room. “I would prefer not to,” he says, in the manner of Bartleby, when he was asked to leave the guest room. Be it an attempt to escape from a boring party, or an escape from something more serious, the act of staying proves to be, in fact, a strange – but effective – way to go away.

This was not the outcome that the hosts, Gen and Eric Lee (Gen-Eric, a really generic couple) had in mind, when they organized this “alternative” dinner at home, and purposely invited guests who were a little different from the couple’s normal circle of friends. Miles slips notes under the door, ensuring the family that is he well served by water in the room’s bathroom, but then asks to be fed vegetarian meals. In order to force the departure of the stranger, the hosts feed him with ultra-thin slices of ham. Instead of calling the police, breaking down the door or hiring a locksmith to open it, Gen contacts the press, and writes, in the supplement of a newspaper, a column about the unpleasant experience of having a stranger at home. Miles becomes a minor celebrity tabloid. Soon, hordes of devotees of Milo (as Miles is now popularly known) are surrounding the house. Crowds light candles, hawkers sell souvenirs and delegations brandish banners with the words “Milo for Palestine” and “Milo for Israel’s Endangered Children.”

The story of the guest who refuses to go away is transformed quickly into a satire of manners that oscillates between burlesque and caricature. Brief remarks on memory, history, time, epistemology and narrative are interspersed with language games, poems and songs excerpts. Milo, the character who serves as a catalyst for change in the other characters lives, is, in fact, absent from the novel. All we know about him comes to us only filtered through the perspective and the stream of consciousness of the other characters. Miles turns, albeit subtly, the lives of everyone around him, and he does so through his absence and deliberate seclusion: he is the “absent presence” around which the imagination and the inner monologues of the other characters start moving, as if in concentric circles.

“What would happen if you did just shut a door and stop speaking? Hour after hour after hour of no words. Would you speak to yourself? Would words just stop being useful? Would you lose language altogether? Or would words mean more, would they start to mean in every direction, all somersault and assault, like a thuggery of fireworks? Would they proliferate, like untended plantlife? Would the inside of your head overgrow with every word that has ever come into it, every word that has ever silently taken seed or fallen dormant? Would your own silence make other things noisier? Would all the things you’d ever forgotten, all layered there inside you, come bouldering up and avalanche you?”

There For The Mas is not, however, Miles’s story – invisible to most of the characters, he remains to be a sphinx to the reader. I guess you do not intend to explore in detail the psychological background of Miles attitude; but you expose his attitude through the disparate perspectives of the other four characters, who are themselves also injured or harassed; marked, at some point, by Miles, but only indirectly connected to him, in an tenuous way. The novel is divided into four parts: each is narrated from the point of view of one of these four characters. None of them knows him well, but each had, in his own way, at some point, and by chance, a crucial meeting with Miles. Each part of the book begins with one of the title words (There – But – For – The), which will assume a special significance for the character highlighted in that part.

There /
In the first part, we are stuck in Anna Hardie’s mind. She is a Scottish woman who had a brief encounter with the young Miles, thirty years ago, on a tour to Europe. Sometimes referred to as Anna K (a reference to Kafka?) or Anna Key, the character is in a stagnant phase of life, and has just quit her job as “senior liaison” (a word play?) in a relocation center for refugees called “The Centre for Temporary Permanence”. “You have exactly the right kind of absent presence,” says one of his supervisors at work. “Temporary Permanence” and “absent presence” sound like two leitmotifs that connect your characters.

Gen had found Anna’s email address in Miles’s cell phone, and had then asked the girl to help her persuade him to leave the room in which he remained locked. From then on, Miles serves as a catalyst for the conflict between Anna’s past and present identities. For her, the word there assumes double importance: it is the emblem of a tension between past and present (there and here); and it composes one of the phrases with which Miles addressed Anna, thirty years ago, in their joint trip to Europe: “There was once, and there was only once, once was all there was …”

but /

In the second part, we have the internal monologue of Mark, a man of about 60 years, homosexual, who invited Miles to the fateful dinner. His mother, an artist who had committed suicide when Mark was a child, intrudes on this character’s monologue, and talks with him in rhymes and puns. “Say que the berries on a tree fermented / que say some birds until Them got drunk demented / Could Not fly straight flew straight into instead / wall of an office block and fell down dead / down on the pavement people undeterred / stepping over the mound of broken bird”.

In this part, the personal story of Mark is intermingled with the description of his first meeting with Miles, as well as the description of the dinner. But is the word that assumes importance in the narrative provided by Mark,  “but the thing I particularly like about the word ‘but’, now that I think about it, is that it always takes you off to the side, and where it takes you is always interesting”.

for /
In the third part, we follow the stream of consciousness of an elderly woman who suffers from dementia. She is apparently dying in a hospital bed. Determined not to end her days in an asylum, May Young (whose name is also a joke) clings to the shreds of her personal memory, through which she tries to remain aware of the reality around her. Mingled with observations of her present situation, something more is revealed to us: May’s personal tragedy, which connects her tenuously to Miles. Here the writing style is as foggy and fragmented as the very mind of that character. When recalling a conversation with her daughter, for many years, May is both attracted and repelled by the word For:

“No listen. I need to ask you this question. What are human beings for? Jennifer says.

For? May says. What you mean, for?

What’s the point of human beings? I mean like what are we for? She says”

The /

Finally, we have the internal monologue of a 10-year-old girl. She is the daughter of a couple of intellectuals who attended the fateful dinner at Gen and Eric home. Brooke is a precocious child, passionate about the ideas of time and history, as well as about puns and language games. This curious, talkative and somewhat annoying girl (one who, with a somewhat comical solemnity, makes the most inconvenient questions in the most strategic moments) is the only one to have had any direct contact with Miles since his the confinement. She is also the one who seems to better understand him. One of Brooke’s concerns is the idea of metaphor: “just a way of saying something that is difficult to say”. As an early budding writer, Brooke is the unofficial chronicler of Miles confinement. One of her obsessions is to think of the words implied in some sentences – as the article The, for example. It is hers the expression with which the prologue of the novel begins: “The fact is, imagine a man …”

It makes Brooke feel strange in her stomach. It is like the feeling when she reads a book like the one about the man with the bomb, or thinks a sentence, just any old sentence like: the girl ran across the park, and unless you add the describing word then the man or the girl are definitely not black, they are white, even though no one has mentioned white, like when you take the the out of a headline and people just assume it’s there anyway. Though if it were a sentence about Brooke herself you’d have to add the equivalent describing word and that’s how you’d know. The black girl ran across the park.”

All characters (Anna, Mark, May, Brooke) are marked by some form of loneliness and incommunicability. Like Miles, they are confined – not in a room, but in their minds. With some stylistic daring, punctuated by thunderstorms, semantic lapses and an unconventional story, you deliberately leave some gaps in the plot and language. One of these gaps marks the very title of the work, an incomplete reference to the saying “There but for the grace of God go I” – which, as an expression of humility, transmits, more generally, the sense that our destiny it is not entirely in our own hands.

Excess of stream of consciousness narration, as well as fragmented narrative, in which almost nothing happens, can be quite frustrating to many readers. However, the playful experimentation with language – as if you were playing with words like one who does paper folding – is your novel’s touchstone: you explore, to the point of exhaustion, the loose ends between what we actually say and what we mean by what we say. The book is filled with puns, gags, rhymes, puns, literary references, poetry and pop songs excerpts. Incidentally, this is a novel deliberately driven, in each of its parts, by different songs, which imprint their peculiar rhythm in each character’s memory.

The pleasure of reading this book is hidden in your verbal acrobatics. Such as Miles, who disturbs the day to day of their hosts; such as the novel’s social satire, which disturbs the comfort of a somewhat snobbish British middle class; also your small linguistic foldings cause, in the home of our everyday language, mild semantic and syntactic disorders. For those who can overcome the desert of a non-linear and blurred plot, full of digressions, the reading pleasure lies in the marginal characters, in the small details, in a sentence cut in half, in the little words – in general, conjunctions and prepositions – which are able to completely change the way a character tells us about their affection or their pain.

“Well, truth’s like the sun,” thinks May. “Look right at it and that’s your eyes ruined for life.”

Your book can successfully and unpretentiously mimic the way we let ourselves go by the flow of reflections and scattered memories. Sentences broken in half reflect broken characters and brittle stories. Miles’s silence becomes noisy inside the minds of the other characters, whose experiences, in turn, are captured and shaped by an extremely fallible network: language, its misunderstandings and gaps.

Yours truly,

J.


Francesca Woodman, "Caryatid", 1980
Francesca Woodman, “Caryatid”, 1980

“What would happen if you did just shut a door and stop speaking? Hour after hour after hour of no words. Would you speak to yourself? Would words just stop being useful? Would you lose language altogether? Or would words mean more, would they start to mean in every direction, all somersault and assault, like a thuggery of fireworks? Would they proliferate, like untended plantlife? Would the inside of your head overgrow with every word that has ever come into it, every word that has ever silently taken seed or fallen dormant? Would your own silence make other things noisier? Would all the things you’d ever forgotten, all layered there inside you, come bouldering up and avalanche you?”
― Ali Smith, There but for the

“Winter. It made things visible.”
― Ali Smith, There but for the

“Well, truth’s like the sun. Look right at it and that’s your eyes ruined for life.”
― Ali Smith, There but for the


About the book

  • Hamish Hamilton, 2011, 357 p. Goodreads
  • Penguin Books, 2012, 357 p. Goodreads
  • Originally published in 2011
  • Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Longlist (2012)
  • My rating: 4 stars
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