FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Life’s Unexpected Happenings

Brooke Bayoude, the nine-year-old central character of Ali Smith’s quirky new novel, There but for the, is precocious, a social butterfly according to her teachers and her peers, and obsessed with history and the possibility of eventual death.  She’s also loveable—in fact, adorable—and a joy to observe as she tries to discover answers to life’s mostly unanswerable questions.  To say that she is grown up by the end of the story, when she is ten, is probably inaccurate, but Brooke by then has certainly demonstrated a mature ability to understand the confused people around her.  She is one of the few true adults in the story.  Because of the novel’s inventive structure, it takes a fair amount of time before Brooke assumes center stage.

The opening of There but for the (grace of God, go I/you) is something else completely.  Giles Garth, an unexpected guest at a dinner party in London, abruptly leaves the dinner table and goes upstairs, presumably in search of a bathroom.  Giles has tagged along with one of the host’s invited guests, but even that guest confesses that he has only recently met Giles and knows little about him.  For a while, no one pays much attention to Giles’ absence from the table, but after a lengthy period of time the hosts and the other guests (including Brooke and her parents) begin to be worried.  Is the man possibly sick?  Does he need help?

When attempts are made to discover what has happened, the story becomes a little bizarre.  Giles Garth (the unexpected guest) has locked himself in one of the upstairs bedrooms and won’t come out.  As the host explains ten days later in a message to one of Giles’ friends from years ago, “Mr. Garth has locked himself in our spare bedroom.  I am only relieved the bedroom is ensuite.  He will not leave the room.  He is not just refusing to unlock the door and go to his own home, wherever that might be.  He is refusing to speak to a single soul.  It has now been ten days, and our unwanted tenant has only communicated by 1 piece of paper slipped under the bottom of the door.  We are slipping flat packs of wafer-paper-thin turkey and ham to him under the said door but are unable to provide him with anything more dimensional because of the size of the space between the said door and the floor.”

What to do?  Well, in their desperation, the Lees (the hosts) discover an address book in Giles’ sport coat that was left at the dinner table, and in that book the name of Anna, who it turns out knew Giles thirty years ago.  But ask yourself what you would respond if someone contacted you about someone you haven’t seen in thirty years.  What could you say? Then there’s Mark, who brought Giles to the dinner party, but he knows little about the acquaintance he met days earlier.  So although Anna and Mark become the focus of two of the major sections of the novel, what they reveal about Giles Garth hardly matters, nor does Ali Smith mean them to.  Rather, all of her main characters are variations on loneliness, insecurity, and death.

Still, Gen Lee (the hostess, who is not given a major section of the novel), may have the best insights about the strange man who came to dinner and then stayed: “Did he want to know what it felt like to not be in the world?  Had he closed the door on himself so he would know what it feels like, to be a prisoner?   Was it some wanky kind of middle-class game about how we’re all prisoners even though we believe we’re free as a bird, free to cross any shopping mall or airport concourse or fashionably stripped back wooden floor of the upstairs room of a house?  Did he inhabit his cell for the good of the others, like a bee or a monk?”

Whatever, it doesn’t take long before the man upstairs becomes a cause celebre, with the media surrounding the Lee’s flat, with cameramen positioned at the back in case the mysterious man makes himself visible at a window.  Worse, the profiteers of greed, including Mrs. Lee, are soon there attempting to make a quick killing out of the man’s absurd antics. And, finally, there’s Brooke Bayoude the only intelligent observer in the group.  But that quality of the young girl you will need to discover for yourself, along with the juicy surprises of the other narrators and their own remarkable observations on life’s strange happenings.  Taken all together, Ali Smith’s There but for the is as intriguing—and clever—as its title.

There but for the
By Ali Smith
Pantheon, 236 pp., $25

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail