‘There but for the’ by Ali Smith is a unique read about a group of vaguely inter-related people in Greenwich. The book has achieved critical acclaim as well as garnered a wide readership who find this book anywhere from delightful to extremely irritating. The wandering prose, lack of traditional plot, very lengthy conversations that don’t further the plot in any discernible way, and the extensive philosophical consideration into what most would consider trivial aspects of words are not even at the top of the list for the causes of irritation and frustration. The overarching complaint about ‘There but for the’ is the fact that it never explains why Miles Garth, the character around which the other characters move, locked himself in an upstairs bedroom of a strangers house. In this post, I will explore this burning question.
After I finished reading this novel I found myself flipping through the last few pages of the book for several minutes, swearing that I had missed something. What I was looking for was perhaps not a clear, simple explanation for Miles’ strange behavior but maybe I would find the answer in the subtext. I couldn’t find anything that would make sense as an explanation. I then had to turn to the idea that the Miles situation is just a literary device used to explore how people are effected by such a strange occurrence. Gen and Eric Lee, after complaining about the intrusion for quite some time, eventually begin capitalizing on it and continue to do so even when they know that Miles has left. In an article she writes about the now-famous Miles situation, Gen says, “Perhaps in some ways metaphorically we are all like this man ‘Milo’ – all of us locked in a room in a house belonging to strangers”. This gives us a bit to think about but doesn’t explain anything. There are also the people who create a kind of cult of personality around Miles because they think he’s something special. They turn him into the hero of an unknown, undecided, unspoken and individualized cause. The media have a frenzy with Miles and they even change his name to Milo because “It’s catchier… Milo, where Miles sound a bit, well, wet. A bit middle class, you know?”
I searched the web for people’s thoughts on the book and I found one review that I considered particularly insightful. “Broken down into four sections titled There, But, For, and The, it tells an abstract story that questions the meaning of those words. Which may seem slight at first (Duh!), except it’s not. Like the puns that the child Brooke is obsessed with, the book convinces us that semantics matter, words matter. And what seems an unlikely story about a man who’s locked himself into a room is really a story about how we label our world. Which is really a story about how we think about the world. Which is really about if we can even think about the world (or know it)”.
We as readers are used to having everything handed to us and explained. We are used to closing a book and having a sense of closure and finality. ‘There but for the’ doesn’t provide this, it gives us more questions than answers because it’s a story about questions isn’t it? Ali Smith questions everything, even the most basic, fundamental, and overlooked part of questions: the words. It seems that while we and the characters watch Miles in an attempt to find reason so we can ‘label’ accordingly, Ali Smith is watching and questioning the spatial politics that stem from the situation and our desire to make sense of everything. Thus I also think Smith is examining and questioning human nature itself.
Ali Smith never gave us a reason for Miles’ decision to lock himself in the spare bedroom of a stranger’s house and I realize now that this is intentional. Smith doesn’t want to take us through a wandering journey of contemplation just to give us the answers in the end, she wants us to carry these burning questions with us so we don’t just observe, we actively engage with our surroundings.
Website I found the review on: GoodReads.com/AliSmithReviews