The Word Smith – Ali Smith and There But For The

July 22nd, 2013 by Kay Weiss · No Comments · Uncategorized

There But For The How to describe Ali Smith’s There But For The? For me, the trick to describing or defining Ali Smith’s writing is simply not to. It’s more fruitful and pleasurable to just sit back, accept her simply but dynamically drawn characters, let the language and wordplay wash over you, then in the end enjoy the slightly stunned and world-tilted-a-few-degrees-more-than-you-recall feeling that only a really good writer can provide.

The AccidentalSmith’s specially, first demonstrated to me with The Accidental, is to create a series of characters whose stories interlock—and not always in obvious ways—so that when the story is presented through all their prisms, you see the story as a whole and their individual stories in a completely different light. Or, as Smith might put it—but better, as her wordplay is more sophisticated than mine—you see the holes in their wholes and how it’s actually all those holes that form the true whole, a wholly new story.

That is the case as well with There But For The, in which what can best be described as the central action is a dinner guest who surprises his host—who doesn’t really know him—by locking himself in a bedroom. For months. We also never learn much about the guest, Miles, although eventually—between the stories of the other guests, other neighbors, and the assortment of people drawn to whatever they believe Miles’s “protest” represents (think “trail of runners following Forrest Gump on his cross-country run”)—we do learn a little bit more. But what we really learn is more about everyone else, and perhaps a little about ourselves.

Narrator Anne Flosnik

Narrator Anne Flosnik

If this sounds all too difficult and even uninteresting—that is the surprise and joy of Smith’s writing: all you really need to do is sit back and relax, and the more you do (or the more you don’t do), the more you will enjoy and gain. Especially when you have a narrator such as Anne Flosnik reading for you, the subtleties of the stories are nearly polished and presented for you on a silver platter. The wordplay in particular, which on a page can perhaps seem studied or forced—more wordwork than wordplay—when read to you the meaning(s) shine through. This novel is truly an instance where listening to the audiobook beats reading the written work.

I will admit with The Accidental, much as I enjoyed Smith’s ability to deliver the story, I disliked many of the characters. I personally prefer to have at least one character in a story that I can root for. That issue is definitely addressed here. There’s Anna, the social worker; Mark, who brought Miles to the dinner; May, an elderly woman with dementia; and Brooke, a very clever and sweet little girl—and the big lover of wordplay—who is secretly struggling with a dark issue.

No, Ali Smith is not for everyone and neither is this novel, There But For The. But it’s very fitting “background music” for something like a long meander up Pacific Coast Hwy 1 or a walk or run along the coast in Oregon—or wherever the mental equivalent of those would be for you. If those are the sorts of roads you like to travel, take There But For The along for the ride.

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