There But For The


“Google is so strange.  It promises everything, but everything isn’t there.  You type in the words for what you need, and what you need becomes superfluous in an instant, shadowed instantaneously by the things you really need, and none of them answerable by Google….Sure, there’s a certain charm to being able to look up and watch Eartha Kitt singing Old Fashioned Millionaire in 1957 at three in the morning or Hayley Mills singing a song about femininity from an old Disney film.  But the charm is a kind of deception about 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, the pressing human dilemma: how to walk a clean path between obscenities.”

-Ali Smith, The But For The


There But For The is a novel by Ali Smith that relies strongly on word-play and a removal of the reader from directly hearing from characters in order to learn about them. Smith focuses strongly on this overarching question of what composes our identity. In the beginning of the novel, Anna is trying to speak to Miles through the door, asking “are you there?” and partaking in conversations such as: “knock knock, she said. Who’s there? Who’s there? There were several reasons at that particular time in Anna Hardie’s life for her wondering what it meant, herself, to be there” (Smith). This focus on questioning where we are and who we are in relation to the spaces we inhabit is echoed throughout the book, continuing with statements such as “I was there. There I was” (Smith). Without getting much interaction with Miles himself, his character is relayed to the readers through Anna’s perceptions of him. Smith is making a commentary here about what composes our identity, because clearly our identity is not formed solely by how we view ourselves and attempt to compose ourselves, but also relies heavily on how other’s see us and who we become when we enter certain spaces. This concept juxtaposed with Miles locking himself in a stranger’s bedroom creates an interesting creation of his character because he has placed himself in a space that he does not belong which allows him to be isolated entirely. Generally, when forced into a space with someone we consider an “Other” would cause feelings of resentment, but Miles becomes a sort of celebrity, with everyone learning about him from a removed source.

Virginia Woolf poses the same questions regarding what it means to be “there,” questioning in her essay “Street Haunting,” “Am I here or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?” Smith seems to be playing with this same question, believing that the “self” is not a stagnant being, but a fluid mixing together of multiple essences. How we act and who we are in the public space depends on which space we are in and thus which role we are assuming. However, these roles can be altered depending on which perspective one takes on the situation, whether one is the “I” or one is a third-party, looking in and available to placing judgment on this person based on prior schemas. This allows our identity to never be framed in one light, as who we are to us will never be precisely the same as who we are to those placing judgment upon us, and who we are will always alter depending on which space we enter. We find that the character who is the closest to understanding Miles throughout the novel is the nine-year-old who relays “The.” This is an interesting concept as well, because one usually associates the understanding of things and being able to relate to people with maturity; however, it is Brooke’s innocence and removal from the rest of the world that allows her to best relate to Miles.

Interesting Links:
The New York Times review of There But For The

Who is there? What makes our identity

An interview with Ali Smith


1 thought on “There But For The

  1. Laura, I think your comments on what Smith is doing by not letting us into Miles’ head, instead relying on the other characters’ perceptions of him and how that reflects how perceptions are made about ourselves and who we become when we enter certain spaces are really intriguing. We had a discussion about this at one point while we were on the trip, but I’m going to pose the question again in order to relate it to the novel. While I agree that our demeanors change when we enter different spaces depending on how comfortable we are, who’s there, and other determining factors. But does that mean that we are all floating souls with no definite personality to link to, that we’re never one single identity? Do we have a base and then add on with different “flavors” when we’re in different social situations? Is it solely other’s perceptions of us that make us who we are? You said, “This allows our identity to never be framed in one light, as who we are to us will never be precisely the same as who we are to those placing judgment upon us, and who we are will always alter depending on which space we enter.” It’s just a fascinating concept to me that we are possibly never the same person, that we always put on a slightly different persona when in different situations.

    I also really enjoyed the connection you made to Brooke and Miles. I like that she is the one that best relates to Miles and she is the child in him that I think he believes he missed out on through those unfortunate circumstances of his childhood. You raised some really interesting thoughts, nice post!

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