Miles, a man nobody knows well, goes to a dinner party and locks himself in the hosts’ guest room for months, and nobody knows what to do. There But For The’s premise is slight, even silly, but in Ali Smith’s masterful hands, it rapidly gains momentum, turning a simple tale into something ambitious but grounded.
The story is structured in four acts, each corresponding to a word from the novel’s title. Each also uses a different point-of-view character, a person who knows Miles, but not well. The first and most affecting story comes from Anna, a woman who traveled with Miles through Europe after they won a trip from a Britain-wide contest. She’s a young woman coming into adulthood in part thanks to a well-timed, almost forgotten conversation with Miles.
All the sections relate to the nature of meetings, coincidence, serendipity, and the memories attached to those things. Anna barely remembers Miles when the story starts, but realizes the importance he played in her life. His presence at crucial points in the protagonists’ lives is mirrored by his increasing importance in the community, as he becomes a local celebrity. Smith uses this fame to bring up the ideas that Miles’ voluntary imprisonment is a metaphor, but she never clarifies or defines it: She leaves it for readers (and within the book, Miles’ fans) to judge.
Yet as much as There But For The is about connection and memory in a narrative sense, its love of language is even more impressive. Smith uses a constant internal monologue to depict her characters, without external narration, and they jump from word to word, pun to pun, or in one case, conversation with the imagined dead to conversation with the living. The wordplay is often a delight on its own, but Smith also uses it to great effect for revelations in the story: A child, for example, is the first to mention race in a conversation that, in retrospect, was dripping with unspoken racial connotations. And in the end of the novel, with meaning deliberately obscured, just leaves behind the characters and the words they string together to tell their stories. There But For The makes the compelling case that it’s all we ever have.