If you look really closely, this book does have a plot; it would go something like this: Man withdraws from dinner party to barricade himself in a guest room at his hosts’ house, stays for several months, then leaves without telling anyone. Which, no matter how you view it, really is not much in the way of a plot – but then plot is not what Ali Smith’s novel There but for the is about.
What the novel is about is history, both public and private, about knowledge of the world, of ourselves and of other people, about how people are mean to each or kind to each other, and about how to cope. It is also about it five protagonists (as well as a host of secondary characters), four of which narrate one of the four sections of the book (each of the sections named after one of the four words of the title, and also being about that word in some way), the fifth being the person locking himself away in the guestroom. He is something like the empty centre of the novel, and each of the narrators stands in some kind of relation to him. The narrators not only have distinct personalities but also a distinctive voice of their own (although there also is an auctorial voice slipping in some passages in between parentheses) and one of the many things that make this a remarkable novel is the apparent with which Ali Smith manages to make each of her narrators sound like her or (in one case) his own individual while still maintaining her own unique writing style. The author’s mastery is also very much in evidence in the many descriptive passages in the book that can range from the hauntingly beautiful to the scathingly satirical, and while this is definitely not a realistic novel, it is still very evocative of places and atmosphere.
The narrators are spread across the whole human age range – 40, 60, 80 and 10 years old respectively. This not only gives the author the chance to illuminate the experience of present day life from all sides, so to speak (and indeed, considering its emphasis on seeing the same things from various perspectives and angles as well as its almost total absence of plot and its many descriptive passages I’d almost feel inclined to call There but for the a Cubist novel) but also shows a nice example of the way Smith throughout the novel builds structure and symmetry without becoming repetitive and predictable but instead uses them in surprising and significant ways. The above sequence of narrator ranges suggests death and rebirth to me – and indeed, in the books final section there is (something like) an opened tomb with the stone moved aside and (something more or less like) an angel announcing that the place is empty. There is also at least a hint of a cyclic movement involved which mirrors the circular structure the novel achieves (in what I thought was a very clever twist) at its end.
The novel is not just a formal exercise, though, far from it – not only is it politically very aware, taking a firm stance against racism and middle class hypocrisy but it also is emotionally very involving, delivering a very sympathetic portrait of its main characters, making the reader feel with and for them. It is a very touching novel without being manipulative and without making any compromises with conventional narrative structures.
There but for the is a great novel that is unflinching in the pursuit of its artistic vision and dares to stray off the beaten path and do something that is entirely its own, and does so with a rare and delightful mastery of language and imagery, an exuberant inventiveness in structure and composition while being at same time emotionally involving and enjoyable to read. By now it’s probably obvious to everyone that I loved this book, and am definitely going to read more of Ali Smith’s works.