Last year’s Man Booker judges took a largely deserved kicking when they said they were looking for ‘readable’, ‘enjoyable’ books that ‘zip along’. But I felt some sympathy for Chris Mullin when he complained that the London literary world – ‘those who know best’ – had told him and his fellow panellists, from the outset, which books they ‘must’ include on the shortlist, and had reacted with fury when they were ignored. I felt especially sympathetic because one of the books whose absence was most complained of was Ali Smith’s There but for the. Jeanette Winterson said that Smith’s novel, about a dinner-party guest who hides in his hosts’ spare bedroom and refuses to come out, was a ‘wonderful, word-playful’ book left out because it didn’t fit the judges’ philistine criteria. There but for the later emerged as one of the most named novels in that orgy of groupthink and logrolling, the Christmas books of the year selections. Apparently it’s ‘a soaring, swooping novel of belonging, community and alienation’; it seethes ‘with inventiveness, humanity, wit and language fit for the Big Rock Candy Mountain, indomitable and adroit, full of angelic swagger and pretend pratfalls’.
It’s easy to imagine Mullin, or any other interested general reader, looking at There but for the and concluding that, if book professionals regard this as top quality fiction, they must have rather lost their minds. Ali Smith is a writer capable of good things, such as her earlier novel The Accidental, about a family holiday turned upside down by the unexpected arrival of a stranger. This one, though based on a promising conceit, and regularly interrupted by interesting ideas, arresting images and passages of good writing, doesn’t deserve anything like the same level of praise, even allowing for the grade inflation endemic on the books pages. Whimsical, tepidly experimental and desperately predictable in its sympathies, it is also fantastically irritating – at least to those with a low tolerance for precocious, compulsively punning ten-year-old heroines.
These two books were constructed in very similar ways. They take an intriguing premise, something that seems more like a fable than a traditional novel plot. They start somewhere in the middle – of the story, of a sentence. The new story begins:
was once a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party.
Both novels divide the main action up according to a playful scheme. The Accidental has three sections: ‘The beginning’, ‘The middle’ and ‘The end’. This one has four: ‘There’, ‘But’, ‘For’ and ‘The’ (the novel is a kind of search for the missing grace of god). A few mysterious fragments are spliced in between the main acts, rather like video art installations: The Accidental begins with an account of the narrator’s conception, in a cinema in 1968, intercut with a description of the cinema’s later destruction in a fire. There but for the also opens well, with a man sitting on an exercise bike in a spare room, his eyes and mouth covered by grey rectangles, ‘like the censorship strips that newspapers and magazines would put across people’s eyes in the old days’.
The two books have essentially the same story and theme. A charismatic, inexplicable, slightly threatening presence appears in the lives of some bourgeois people. All sorts of revelations follow: the failures, miseries and pointless obsessions of ordinary life are exposed and split open. In the latest book, the immediate targets are a ghastly pair called Gen and Eric, whose spare room in Greenwich is invaded by Miles Garth, a man they hardly know, after they invite him to dinner. The action, in both novels, tends to be seen from the point of view of outsiders, particularly children, who are above or outside the adults’ cheap compromises (children ‘are so true’, a character in the new book thinks, ‘like little truth detectives’). In a signature Smith episode from the earlier book, the family arrives back from holiday and finds that absolutely everything in the house has been stolen. Astrid, who is 13, describes it:
It was amazing to see the floorboards. It was amazing to see the walls. It is still amazing to think about. Getting home and walking in through the front door and it all being bare was like hearing yourself breathe for the first time. It was like as if someone had turned your breathing volume level inside you up to full.
Her mother, meanwhile, cracks up when she sees that the doorknobs have been taken.
Then she started crying.
They were arts and crafts, she was saying. She kept saying it, like an insane person. The doorknobs were arts and crafts.
It was doorknobs that were the end for her. The end is presumably different for everybody. Astrid thinks now that this is rather a disgusting end, doorknobs. It’s the end, her mother kept saying after that. The absolute end.
This is very typical of Smith: the repetitive, slightly unidiomatic syntax; the other-worldly perspective; an adolescent focus on the Big Picture while the adults rage about material possessions. Also typical is the slight tendency to abstraction. The cover of the new book is a roughly painted sketch of a door on graph paper by Rachel Whiteread, and Smith’s books often recall Whiteread’s plastercasts of the inside of ordinary rooms. They tend to body forth abstract figures from everyday life (frequent references are made to time and physics) and to ask the reader to experience wonder at seeing the familiar made strange: to think about how amazing it all is. In this, The Accidental, which is original and enigmatic, largely succeeds. There but for the, which is a mess, falls flat.
One of the reasons for this is that the comedy here is much broader: the business with the doorknobs in The Accidental is amplified several times over. We come into the story via Anna, an old acquaintance of Miles, who is summoned to Greenwich by an email from Gen and Eric. ‘To cut a long story short Mr Garth has locked himself in our spare bedroom. I am only relieved the bedroom is ensuite,’ Gen writes. The entire email is given over to their Pooterish preoccupations: they haven’t removed Miles partly because their doors ‘are believed 18th century although the house itself dates from the 1820s you can understand my concern and the hinges are on the inside side’. Miles’s car, they complain, was left ‘I’m afraid illegally in a Residents Permit Space’.
The central section is devoted to the dinner party, a set-piece in the mode of Abigail’s Party. Gen and Eric are giving one of their ‘alternative’ dinners, in which they invite minorities they despise or distrust for the amusement of their friends, two equally awful couples. In this case they have invited Mark, a gay picture researcher, and Miles, whom they wrongly assume to be his lover, along with the Bayoudes, a black couple who live nearby. You can tell the characters you’re not meant to sympathise with: Richard, one of Gen and Eric’s friends, makes surveillance drones for a living (the horror of CCTV is a recurring Smith theme). He also declares his enthusiasm for using drones to kill people with as little mess as possible, because it’s a ‘nasty old world out there … No point in pretending otherwise.’ When he meets Mark, he says, ‘Oh, yeah. I remember now … You’re the, uh, Hugo and Caroline’s friend,’ before going on to launch a series of homophobic taunts (‘Room’s full of pansies’). Inevitably, he himself is secretly gay. Later, his wife ‘asks the Bayoudes if they’ve ever seen a real tiger at home. Not in Yorkshire, they say.’
Smith’s dinner party was repeatedly praised by reviewers for puncturing middle-class philistinism and smugness. That’s nonsense: her characters are so stupidly tactless and frequently evil that their values come entirely pre-punctured. It’s not all as bad as this – the descent into drunken hysteria is well paced, and there’s an amusing rant about the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy – but in general the sequence isn’t funny enough to work as comedy, and far too crude to work as anything else. Smith works in a certain amount of protective self-consciousness: Gen and Eric are obviously meant to be a ‘generic’ couple. But does that help the reader, really – knowing that the author knows her targets are obvious?
In The Accidental, Smith writes very well from the adolescent perspective, only occasionally giving rise to the suspicion that the teenagers are finger puppets for her own concerns. In There but for the, this suspicion becomes impossible to ignore. In the last 80 pages, Brooke, the Bayoudes’ daughter, takes centre stage. By now Miles has become a cause célèbre, a symbol of these recessionary times: an Occupy-style encampment has sprung up outside the house. But this is seen only tangentially, through Brooke’s breathless stream of consciousness, and Smith insists on attributing to a ten-year-old many thoughts which transparently derive from the mind of a middle-aged novelist with an interest in wordplay and esoterica:
The Shepherd Galvano-Magnetic clock is a slave clock. A slave clock is a clock driven by a master clock, whose mechanism is elsewhere from the slave clock. The Shepherd Galvano-Magnetic Clock also has 23 hours marked on it instead of just the normal 12.
Then Brooke found this thing: from p. 63 to p. 245 in this particular book there were pencil circles round certain words. Ostentatious. Transcendental. Ergo. Maculated. Physiognomy. Propensity. Pensively. Finessing.
There are also a great many groan-inducing puns. One of the peculiarities of this novel is that the good characters are united by their love of gamesome wordplay. Anna thinks of Miles: ‘they’d never have been friends in the first place if he wasn’t the sort to enjoy a bad pun.’ The Bayoudes are punsters too.
Virtuoso, Brooke’s father said. Virtue so-so, Brooke said. Her parents laughed so much that she thought about saying it again but people tend not to laugh so much the second time you make a joke. It wouldn’t be virtuoso of her if she did. It would actually be a bit virtue so-so if she did!
Then, for some reason that is historical, London stopped being a port that was important – ha! the important port stopped being important.
It’s hard to share the Bayoude family’s glee at all this. And it is hard to feel much enthusiasm for Brooke’s heartfelt gush, such as this lament for the dead:
all the people who died in Haiti when their houses fell on them, just collapsed out of nowhere, and all the people who died in the tsunami, who got swept away, children as well, and the people whose aeroplane crashed into the sea, and the boy who was ten who was executed because he stole a loaf of bread because he was hungry, and the boy who was stabbed to death outside a school just because he was black, and the girl whose body was dug up in a back garden who had been murdered by the man, and all the people killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Darfur …
Smith is sentimental about the basic purity and goodness of children, those little truth-seekers. And too much of the novel happens at this level of crude, childlike sympathy for the oppressed and rage towards the oppressors: Anna has a job interviewing asylum seekers for the ‘Agency’, where her superiors reject applicants’ heartbreaking accounts of torture as ‘not credible’ but praise her for writing reports that are ‘95 per cent word-length perfect’. Brooke’s teacher, meanwhile, resents her and treats her badly because he thinks she’s too clever by half.
There’s enough in There but for the to remind the reader why people take Smith seriously. The construction is nifty; there’s a bracing meditation on what happens if you type the words ‘something beautiful’ into Google. (The internet, Mark concludes bleakly, gives us ‘a whole new way of feeling lonely, a semblance of plenitude but really a new level of Dante’s inferno, a zombie-filled cemetery of spurious clues, beauty, pathos, pain, the faces of puppies, women and men from all over the world tied up and wanked over in site after site, a great sea of hidden shallows. More and more it was becoming the pressing human dilemma: how to walk a clean path between obscenities.’) But in general, the effect is fairly dismal. It’s good to see the novel shaken up by an innovative writer. But if the result is simply to rain down simple-minded pieties on the unfortunate reader, it hardly seems worth the effort.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.