There But For The by Ali Smith is a marvel of a novel, sweeping in purpose (what is the meaning of life, of history, of our presence or our absence) and magnetic in both the presentation of its cast of characters and the unfolding of its deceptively simple plot (a man goes into a room and will not come out).
The writing in There But For The is lovely, the imagery sharp and moving, and the flow unstoppable. I simply could not put this book down, other than to place it on my lap while I worked out the pieces of the puzzle, each chapter being one piece of the whole but fitting together not necessarily sequentially. In fact, in order to draw out my pleasure with the book (I didn't want it to end), after reading through the entire novel I went back and dipped in and out of it, reading the chapters out of order, and the work still made sense to me, in its entirety, as a kind of postmodern ode to life.
Life as presented by Smith is not pretty, but it is beautiful. Cruelty abounds, selfishness reigns, misunderstandings stand in for communication. And yet there is beauty, as in the sudden friendship between a young girl and a broke (but not yet broken) 40-something; or in the memories held by a 60-year old man of the mother he lost when he was just a child (and who torments him now with rhymes -- or are they songs, meant to keep him close, his heart beating in rhythm even while her own is stilled forever?); or in the teenager who helps an old lady escape from hospital; or in the gestures of kindness and generosity, revealed slowly to be the acts of our self-imprisoned hero.
Smith is unsentimental about the state of the world (where weapons of mass destruction can be manipulated like toys in the sky, unmanned and inhumane) and quite disdainful of technology (enslaved as we are by the "intimate", as one woman calls the internet). And yet Smith is also unabashedly aware and even proud of the quirks and thrills of the human mind, of how we can make up songs and puns and jokes, create connections out of chance meetings, and care, really really care, about both our history and our future. We may not get any of it right, There we are then, but we try, and for the wonder of it all, and it is in our wondering where the best and cleverest things happen.
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