There But For The

Ali Smith weaves a complex narrative from the perspective of four characters and their individual interactions with the character MIles Garth who has locked himself in the spare room of a family he doesn’t even really know and then refuses to leave.

In this novel, the quintessential English dinner party serves as a launching point for a quirky story-line that offers a lot of absurdity, wit and humor. I guess some would describe it as what is often thought of as a dry English style humor.  Kind of subtle at times and often simple in the nature of puns or joke-telling.

So, there seems to be an underlying comedic element in this theme. The idea of someone sliding a piece of ham under a door to feed an uninvited guest is funny to imagine. The puns sprinkled throughout the novel add to this: “What do you give an elephant who’s cracking up. Trunkqullizers.” Some hard hitting social commentary disarmingly disguised as humor also appears: “Brooke is thinking about a joke about Madonna taking her babies that she adopted from Africa to Oxford Street so that they can be reunited with the clothes they made before she adopted them.”

The central theme of a guest who would not leave is a narrative that is a recurring theme in literature and media. The classic play and movie The Man Who Came to Dinner is representative of this genre  A recent South Park episode involving Tom Cruise locking himself in a closet and refusing to come out is another example .

When doing a little research on this novel, I noticed that among the significant amount of praise it received there was also a recurring theme in the criticism of those who did not care for it.  That was that the novel is plot-less, that it rambles along sometimes without direction and that it can lose a reader as a result.

There is a lot of narrative detail in this novel.   From my own experience, as someone who is not a literature or English major, I find the long periods of description, detail and digression here can sometimes take away from the telling of a coherent story.  There seems to be no central plot to the story.  A lot of stream of consciousness observations and memories come from the various characters.

However, I do find the idea of four people describing their personal view of a particular individual interesting.  If an individual is seen as a blank canvass and several people describe him to someone who does not know him, what would that picture look like?  I think this may be one of the key insights to Smith’s endeavor here.  We as readers are the interpreters of who Miles is through the eyes of the others.

While the premise is interesting and the narrative and characters sometimes amusing, the novel never seems to come to a full conclusion.  The disappearance of Miles in the end and the desperate need for some characters to pretend that he’s still there, to deceive the outside world, to make money off souvenirs and trinkets sold outside his window to the throngs gathered there, seems to speak to an avoidance of closure.

There are interesting elements to it though.  The puns and odd characters can be amusing.  Also, as I noted earlier, it can be seen as an exercise in viewing a character through the disparate and different eyes and viewpoints of the ‘others’ in his life. Each of these characters created their own Miles and in the end they refused to let go when he was gone.

Most recent Ali Smith Interview:



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