If you are the type of reader who thinks that the mark of a good book is a plot, then step away from this book: you'll hate it. Ali Smith's intricately clever and often funny "There but for the" is very much at the literary end of the fiction spectrum. Not in terms of the language used though - Smith uses simple language, and a LOT of puns, and if anything, as the title suggests, she's more interested in the little words. It's playful and strangely affecting, while at the same time a little affected and often slightly irritatingly free flowing.
Reading the publisher's blurb you will discern that at the heart of the book is a man, Miles, who is invited to a middle class dinner party and, between the main course and the desert, mysteriously removes himself from the frankly awful company and locks himself in the hosts' spare room from where he refuses to budge. But other than this happening, it's not so much a plot device as just something that occurred. The book itself is split into four parts, named "There", "but", "for" and "the", each focusing on someone who vaguely knew Miles although none knew him particularly well. This follows on from a bemusing introduction whose meaning only becomes clear at the end. It's almost like four short stories.
"There" concerns a girl, Anna, or Anna K (punning on anarchy) who met Miles briefly when they both won a writing competition in 1980 to describe life in 2000. Time is a recurring image in the book, which is set almost wholly in Greenwich. Anna is called in by the hostess, the awful Genevieve, known as Gen (her husband, Eric gives us another pun to discover: Gen - Eric) because Miles phone has her details stored in it, but she isn't a great deal of help as she was only "there" with him for a while. While visiting Gen, she also meets the precocious Brooke, a ten year old girl who is both charming and annoying in almost equal measure. More of her in a minute.
The second part is Mike's story. He is responsible for bringing Miles to the dinner party in the first place and we get the story of the events of that night as well as his meeting with Miles at the theatre. Mike has only met Miles for a few hours before the fateful night so doesn't really know him either. Having met Gen in the opening part, I was wondering why Miles would want to stay in the same city, let alone house, as this horrible woman. But once you meet her guests at the dinner party, she is comparatively charm personified. The party is excruciatingly awful. At one point I had to put the book down just to get away from them. The characters are variously homophobic, hypocritical, dull, money-driven, vacuous and spiteful. The exception is Brooke and her parents, two university lecturers.
"For" is the most strange of the lot in terms of its relation to Miles which only becomes suggested at the very end of the chapter. It is a beautifully written piece told from the point of view of an elderly woman suffering from dementia in a care home who is eventually taken on a trip to Greenwich to the camp of followers of "Milo" which has developed outside the house where Miles has taken unwelcome residence.
"The" is Brooke's time in the spotlight and is a rapid fire, almost stream of consciousness piece full of puns and bad jokes which sort of brings things together, but not entirely. It remains somewhat mysterious. We sense that she is picked on at school for being "too clever". She, like Smith, is obsessed with words and asks what is the point of fiction. It's probably lucky she hasn't read any Ali Smith because that would really have confused her! She is the voice and spirit of the book though.
Any literary fiction of this level of knowing cleverness treads a path between being brilliantly clever and a case of "the Emperor's New Clothes". Where that line is depends on the reader's own tastes. For me, Smith just about keeps on the right side, although there are a few wobbles along the way which prevented me from classing this as brilliant.
The idea of an outsider intruding is not new to Smith - she used a similar device in "The Accidental". What she does superbly is to play with language and themes. Songs and music are repeating motifs, as are the use of certain words and phrases. This if often quite subtle in effect. If pushed to identify what the book is about, it's difficult to say with any degree of confidence. She's fond of a metaphor, and perhaps describing the book like one of those Russian dolls is as good a metaphor as I can come up with. There are issues of time and memories, and in the whole worship of Milo thing, there are suggestions that there are comments on the current celebrity culture. Equally it is a celebration of language and linguistic games.
It's undoubtedly clever, and often both entertaining and amusing. I could understand it irritating some readers to the point of distraction, and at times it is frustratingly difficult to get hold of the storyline. It's a book that you have to let flow over you somewhat and, if possible, not judge until the final pages. Ultimately I enjoyed it but I'm not entirely sure why. As Brooke's mother tells her though, sometimes you just have to not worry about these things.