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There But For The: A Novel Hardcover – September 13, 2011


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon (September 13, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375424091
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375424090
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #637,345 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

A Washington Post Notable Book of 2011
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2011
 
“There but for the is a brilliant title for a brilliant novel. Ali Smith invents new forms of fiction in the interstices between parts of a sentence – commenting "but the thing I particularly like about the word but … is that it always takes you off to the side …" The story is about a man who leaves a tedious dinner party, locks himself into a bedroom and refuses to leave. His hostess calls in the press and he becomes a cause celebre. He is put together in a series of stories from different, tangential points of view. The novel is both funny and moving – it succeeds because of Smith's extraordinary skill with ordinary language.” –A.S. Byatt, The Guardian (London), Best Books of 2011
 
“To read a book by Ali Smith is to become an unabashed fan of her clever wordplay, her inventive prose, her concern for the ethical collapse of the lives of ordinary people. . . . As wickedly ingenious a novel as is likely to be found this season. . . . Exhilarating. . . . At a time when technology is separating us, changing our language and our histories, we must listen to Ali Smith. We must heed her cautionary comments on the human need to be individuals and the human need for connection. Otherwise, There but for the.” –Anniston Star

“Ali Smith’s clever, by turns whimsical and subtly wrenching fifth novel, There But For The, is another book that sends you back to the beginning once you’ve reached the end, both to connect the dots of her intricately structured story and to marvel at what she has pulled off. . . . With her penchant for wordplay on full display, the author of The Accidental switches between the perspectives of four people whose lives have been peripherally touched by her gentle shut-in, a man who, like J.D. Salinger’s Seymour Glass, has perhaps too much heart to survive comfortably in a hard world. These appealing characters include a ‘preternaturally articulate’ 9-year-old, one of literature’s most beguiling little sages since Salinger’s Esme.” –Heller McAplin, NPR “Five 2011 Books That Stay With You”

“Quirky, intricately put together. . . . A book about loss and retention: about what we forget and what we remember, about the people who pass through our lives and what bits of them cling to our consciousness. . . . Ms. Smith is brilliant at leaving things out and forcing the reader to make connections, so that, for example, the remaining words of the title phrase (‘grace of God go I’) go without saying. . . . Language here also proves itself to be dense and referential, capable of making unexpected connections and of imprinting itself feelingly on the mind in a phrase, a rhyme, a snatch of song lyric.” –Charles McGrath, The New York Times
 
“Those who have read [Smith’s] previous novels (including The Accidental and Hotel World) will tell you that she’s a rare talent, and in There but for the she stretches that talent in ways you’d never have imagined. You can almost feel Smith flexing her writerly muscles as you turn the pages. From the enigmatic opening onwards, it’s clear that this won’t be your typical novel, and Ali Smith isn’t your typical wrier. . . . As challenging as it is confounding, weaving four separate stories around the central spindle of Miles Garth. . . . It’s the kind of philosophical tour de force that we’re more used to seeing from the likes of Paul Auster, but in Ali Smith’s hands it also acquires a humanity and a tenderness that feel utterly new. Smith’s love of language shines through too, as she mixes local vernacular with higher registers, creating a vibrant patchwork of words that knits together her themes and ideas in unique fashion. . . . A fascinating read, even if you don’t want to delve into its meta-narrative, and Smith has such a way with words that even the most mundane act can become poetry in her hands. Like Miles Garth himself, her invisible hand creates ripples that will mesmerize and enthrall you from start to finish.” –Culture Mob

“A beguiling ode to human connection shot through with existential wonder and virtuosic wordplay. If you fell for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, you’ll appreciate Smith’s formal twists and turns—and there’s more where There came from.” –Time Magazine
 
“It is with this word play, repetition, rhyme, and rhythm that Smith proves herself one of the ‘cleverist’—a British author at the top of her game who combines eccentricity and originality in equal measure. And, as I discovered when I heard her reading from the opening pages last week with a cadence rarely found in a fiction writer, There but for the is a story quite literally crying out to be heard. Here we have a novel, and a novelist, delighting in the joy of language itself.” –Lucy Scholes, Daily Beast
 
“Ambitious, rambunctious, and poetic. . . . [Smith] makes use of what have become her trademarks—a narrative trickiness in which any given story may be incomplete, and a certain linguistic playfulness, which in this case includes puns, Lewis Carroll-like absurdist banter, and conversations that read like transcripts, a trick that has the interesting effect of making them sound familiar and odd at the same time. . . . Smith is good at pulling a surprise, especially a tragic one, out of nowhere, to get you in the gut. . . . Smith’s people sound real when they talk, and so do the thoughts as they flow through their heads. . . . Contains all the real, solid stuff of a novel. It satisfies, it enlightens, and there’s a surge of wonderment and poignancy beneath the narrative that continually springs up.” –Katie Heagele, Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Exceedingly clever and subtly wrenching. . . . Structurally, this novel is a marvel. Smith has interwoven multiple points of view before, but this time her shifts in perspective are just disorienting enough to keep readers on their toes. And she slyly slips in significant information, at times before we’re ready to understand its full import, an approach that makes the eventual aha moments especially satisfying. “There but for the” packs an emotional wallop in part because it engages us to read more actively. Smith prompts readers not just to connect the dots of her story but to assemble the pieces of her title and supply the implied words: …grace of God go I.’ –Heller McAlpin, The Washington Post
 
“Ali Smith’s weird and wonderful puzzle of a fifth novel is ostensibly about a dinner-party guest who locks himself in a spare bedroom and refuses to come out, inadvertently sparking a media frenzy. But the book—packed with jokes and random facts—is really about small stuff like life and death and the meaning of human existence, all told with sharp humor and real insight. The novel itself is a riddle with no solution, which is exactly the point: When you reluctantly come to the end, you can’t help going back to the beginning, trying to unravel this beautifully elusive book’s mysterious spell.” –A-, Entertainment Weekly
 
“Masterful. . . . Rapidly gains momentum, turning a simple tale into something ambitious and grounded. . . . As much as There But For The is about the 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.” –The A.V. Club
 
“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 and characters and the unfolding of its deceptively simple plot. . . . 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. . . . 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.” –Nina Sankovitch, Huffington Post
 
“Quirky. . . . As intriguing—and clever—as its title.” –Counterpunch
 
“Ali Smith loves words. She loves playing with them, calling attention to them, listening to them as if they were members of a vast extended family, each precious in its own right and she their fair-minded parent, determined not to play favorites. She can give the word ‘but’ such a star turn that you wonder why you’d ever taken it for granted. Smith’s love of language lights up all her books. . . . Smith’s wordplay never comes at the expense of the many other facets in her complicated creations—characters, places, ideas. . . . . A witty, provocative urban fable. . . . If you enjoy surprising, often comic insights into contemporary life, she’s someone to relish. . . . When the narrative turns to the elderly May, Smith’s expansive humanism returns in a wonderful, complex account of this vibrant character, one that touches on aging, family ties, death and ‘the intimate.’ . . . [A] lively, moving narrative. . . . . All the likable characters in There but for the enjoy a good verbal game, most happily with someone else. It is as though playing with language is what enables them to make their way through a complicated world. It’s a knack that might also be picked up, most enjoyably, by reading Ali Smith.” –Sylvia Brownrigg, The New York Times Book Review
 
“Sophisticated, playful. . . . Exhilarating. . . . In her astonishing, light look at the human need for separation—for a closed door—and its counterpoint, the need for connections, Smith blasts a window open in our heads.” –The Plain Dealer


"British author Ali Smith has never been what you’d call a conventional novelist. Whether she is using a hotel as a metaphor for the various stages of life, examining the impact of uninvited guests or re-envisioning a classic Greek myth, Smith has proved she isn’t afraid of taking chances or pushing boundaries. Smith’s novels tend to begin with a slightly outlandish but irresistibly intriguing premise. . . . Leave it to Smith to take a seemingly simple and straightforward (and absurd!) idea and transform it into anything but. . . . This is a novel that is deeply cerebral and is guaranteed to get your synapses firing. For those who relish a bit of an enigma and are looking for something extraordinary when it comes to fiction, There But For The delivers in spades." —Bookpage

"Exhilirating." —Marie Claire

"Like several recent novels, notably Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, this work is a collection of interlocking stories organized around a single theme and featuring multiple characters. . . . Smith…deftly satirizes our media-saturated environment, using an oddball cast of characters to point out the difficulty we have in making genuine human connections and demonstrating how beautiful and rare it is when we actually succeed. The passage of time is a constant underlying preoccupation as well, as befits the setting—home of the Royal Observatory, which established Greenwich Mean Time. . . . This is a delightful, beautifully written, touching novel that will strongly appeal to lovers of language and wordplay." —Library Journal

"With its shifting points of view, Smith (The First Person: and Other Stories, 2009, etc.) displays a virtuoso gift for channeling her character's inner voices. Happily, the book manages to wear its profundity lightly. . . . [An] offbeat exploration of the human need to connect with others." —Kirkus Reviews

"This startling lark from Smith (The Accidental) is so much more than the sum of its parts. Both breezy and devastating, the novel radiates from its whimsical center: Miles Garth, a dinner party guest, decides to leave the world behind and lock himself in his hostess’s spare room, refusing to come out and communicating only by note. Four charmers with tenuous links to Miles, nicknamed Milo by the growing crowd camped outside the suburban Greenwich London house, narrate the proceedings: Anna, a girl who knew Miles briefly in the past; Mark, a melancholy gay man who Miles met watching Shakespeare at the Old Vic; May Young, an elderly woman who Miles helped grieve her daughter’s death; and the wonderful, "preternaturally articulate" Brooke, arguably the cleverest 10-year-old in contemporary literature. Together, they create a portrait not so much of Miles—because none of them really knows him—but of the zeitgeist of their society. In a lovely departure, and in spite of the fact that there is not one ordinary, carefree character in this whole tale, all parents are literate, loving, and tolerant: though Mark is exhausted and sad, his famous mum speaks to him, in verse no less, from beyond the grave; though May is trapped in dementia, she was a kind mother to her ill-fated daughter; and though Brooke is clearly plagued by attention deficit disorder and is misunderstood and disliked at school, her parents love her dearly. This fine, unusual novel is sweet and melancholy, indulgent of language and of the fragile oddballs who so relish in it." –Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed review)

There But For The will remind you what a joyful activity reading truly is. Nobody writes with more panache. You learn so much from an Ali Smith novel, you laugh so hard and are filled with such intellectual and spiritual nourishment, and all you want to do when you’re finished is go read another one.” —Sigrid Nunez

“In There But For The Ali Smith displays her usual fizz and artistry.  She always surprises, she never disappoints.” —Kate Atkinson, author of Started Early, Took My Dog

“A British literary phenom, Smith sets her third novel at the posh London suburban home of the Lee family, who are throwing a dinner party one night when guest Miles Garth goes upstairs and locks himself in a room. While his host, her daughter, an old school friend, and the Lees’ neighbor all try to coax him out, he communicates only via notes passed out under the door, resulting in a game of words as engaging for the reader as for Miles’ unwitting hosts.” –The Millions, Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2011 Book Preview

"By times amusing, engaging and edifying, it is punctuated with Smith’s arid observational wit, her ability to dissect language, to turn it inside out and upside down." –The Irish Independent

"A tribute to persistent literary, cultural and philosophical leitmotifs. . . . Smith unleashes a quest on the nature and meaning of time, memory, history, art, culture, civilisation, death, loss, life and living — with a scintillating satire on contemporary society and a pilgrimage through popular culture." –The Indian Express

“A warm, playful, dazzlingly written modern fable . . . Memory, nostalgia, the sense of growing older, of things passing, the disappointments of adult life—the themes are handled lightly, but are built up, layer on layer, with cunning care. The increasing shabbiness of modern life is a recurring motif, the internet not least, which “promises everything but everything isn't there,” and which ends only by offering a “a whole new way of feeling lonely.”The Irish Independent
 
“You could call Ali Smith’s new novel, There But For The, a tragicomedy . . . The fun comes in the form of Smith’s satire of the media . . . of new technology users and of upper-middle-class snobbery . . . Though the locations shift and characters appear out of nowhere, Smith agilely keeps the narrative together. Everything connects—even if the people can’t. A must-read.” Toronto NOW
 
“A satire on the conflict between the bourgeois lifestyle of the Lees and the anarchic goings-on of Miles and other lesser characters. If you liked Smith’s earlier fiction, you will know she enjoys setting up a situation before chucking in a literary Molotov cocktail then describing what happens. . . . A highly original novel.”The Sunday Express
 
“The novel examines people’s perceived and inner identities, especially relating to their place in the world, and brims with playful language exploring the meaning behind words and actions, taking apart the middle-class pretensions that the characters are trapped within. It’s a strong offering that dissects the heart of modern life.”The Huddersfield Daily Examiner
 
“Off-the-wall imagination and some scintillating wordplay . . . A barbed satire on our times, the growing absence of opportunity for quiet reflection and our inability to truly communicate with one another in the age of the mobile phone and the internet. . . . Smith’s ear for natural dialogue from completely different social milieus is unerringly accurate. Those who take the plunge ready to go with the flow will not be disappointed.” —Daily Mail
 
“A virtuoso piece of writing, both funny and gripping . . . Smith is a writer with a rich array of conventional strengths . . . Her prose responds to the world with loving attentiveness . . . One of the great pleasures of her work is its harmonious mixture of pure lyricism and straightforward demotic . . .  Some of the best, or at least the finest writing in There But For The has to do with the effects on the mind of living in the Internet age.” —The Times Literary Supplement
 
“The fascination with language—a central preoccupation in almost all of Smith’s stories—is evident here . . . It is more than simple word play. The semantic and structural disruption, starting with the novel’s unfinished title, reflects its anarchic intent—to disrupt the comfortably smug, middle-class sensibility personified by Genevieve and her dinner party set, with their stultifying prejudice and snobbery . . .  Along with her cleverness and wordy wit, there is a bewitching romanticism to Smith's world, where people truly connect and leave tender imprints on each other. Both she, and they, also tell stories-within-stories.” —The Independent (London)
 
“Stylish, witty, offbeat and consummately likable, Ali Smith has perfected a narrative tone ideally suited to her wry, intelligent fiction. Yet another of the talented Scottish writers, Smith is a shrewd observer, loves facts, is playfully, if astutely, alert to nuance, and never takes herself too seriously, which explains why she can hold a reader with the lightest of touches . . .  Ali Smith . . . is always good company.” —Irish Times

"A playful yet erudite celebration of words. . . . Smith’s prose is not just supple, it’s acrobatic: one minute providing crisp realism—cocky teenagers, unspoken homophobia, university bureaucracy—the next a hypnotic stream-of-consciousness. Smith can make anything happen, which is why she is one of our most exciting writers today. . . . [Her] dizzying wordplay makes the real and surreal equally stimulating." —Lucy Beresford, The Daily Telegraph (London)

"You rarely get bombs or tornados or motorway pile-ups in Ali Smith’s books, but the results of inner turmoils within her characters can often be just as devastating. In There But For The, nuances and shades and intricacies stack on top of one another to reveal some valuable truths about the way we live now. . . . At the core of the book is a feeling that while our means of communications have become more sophisticated, shinier and quicker, true connections are harder to maintain. . . . Our physical and philosophical breakdowns are sharply satirized in this almost mythical narrative dreamed up by one of contemporary literature’s most deft and astute analysts of human nature. Another Booker nomination may well await." —Brian Donaldson, The List (UK)

"A winsome, compelling read. . . . Smith’s version [of the English dinner party] is a tour de force. . . . The prose is playful, intelligent and witty." —Lionel Shriver, Financial Times

"A seriously playful puzzle of a novel. . . . Whimsically devastating. . . . Smith is repeatedly drawn to explorations of language games, to the moment in which what we say slips free from what we think we mean, where the generic becomes the particular, where the identity of the speaker comes under scrutiny. . . . Playful, humorous, serious, profoundly clever and profoundly affecting." —Alex Clark, The Guardian (London)

"Smith fans will recognize familiar character tropes—the autobiographical free-spirited, savant child, the enigmatic stranger, the talkative dead—from Smith’s earlier works and no doubt delight in Smith’s celebratory, sometimes Rabelaisian…wordplay. . . . She’s on the money, in her satirical, at times painfully acute, observations of haute bourgeois London life and this reader delighted, too, in the vividly contrasting portrait of the high-spirited, fearless, untrammeled Brooke. . . . Her ludic delight in language and in the texture of ordinary lives are both sublimely infectious. . . . Interactive and willfully democratic, There But For The is an uncompromising and original 21st-century novel. There’s no ego here, just an invitation to join the fun. I take my hat off to Ali Smith. Her writing lifts the soul."—Melanie McGrath, The Evening Standard (London)

"This is a thought-provoking and engaging book…If there’s any justice it must be a contender for one of this year’s literary prizes."Daily Express

"Ali Smith’s dazzling, spry novels and stories are fond of such bizarre opening gambits, tested and stretched for their narrative and thematic possibilities almost as a game, or a fictional constraint: imagine if. . . . Figures of speech and verbal tics, and wordplay that startles in the way that poetry does, attentive to the minute ways words fall against each other. . . . There is something deeply democratic about [the book’s] interest in the little words, conjunctions and prepositions, and how they change the way we construe the world. . . . This is a novel deliberately informed by song. . . . A very artful and thought-provoking book." —Lucy Daniel, The Sunday Telegraph (London)

"A book full of kindness and compassion . . . The painful realities cleverly contrasted with surreal touches never fail to satisfy." —Time Out London

"A playfully serious, or seriously playful, novel full of wit and pleasure. . . . The pleasures here are in the small moments, the interest she takes in the tiniest words. . . . There are some wonderful disquisitions on our cultural idiosyncrasies. . . . Appealing and painful observations on the temporary permanence of our lives." —Sarah Churchwell, The Observer (London)

About the Author

ALI SMITH is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including the novel Hotel World, which was short-listed for both the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize and won the Encore Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, and The Accidental, which won the Whitbread Award and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Her story collections include Free Love, which won a Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award and a Scottish Arts Council Award, and The Whole Story and Other Stories. Born in Inverness, Scotland, Smith lives in Cambridge, England.


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Customer Reviews

I did not finish this book.
Karie Hoskins
In the end There But For The wasn't just an awkward title, it was an awkward book with pacing and story issues that made it much less than an enjoyable read.
Sarah J. Andrus
Author Ali Smith seems to want so badly to be "clever' in her writing, but it simply doesn't work.
Tracy L.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Cariola VINE VOICE on November 22, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
'There but for the' isn't an easy book for me to write about, because it is one of those rare books that one doesn't just read but actually experiences, participates in. It's not a book to be breezed through for the plot. You have to work at it, often backing up and rereading to make connections between events, characters, and words. But often that work surprises you by becoming infinite play, even as it leaves you with some startling observations about human nature, language, memory, and the world we live in.

Taken separately, each of the words in the title seem nondescript; together, they seem empty without the expected conclusion--without, in other words, God or grace. And maybe that's exactly what Smith intended: to make us ponder the place ("there") of God and the location of grace in a society that is technologically advanced "but" individually isolating. (Think about the person with 5000 'friends' on Facebook.) It may be hard to find, but, ultimately, Smith concludes, grace is still there, within and between us.

The novel consists of four chapters, one for each word in the title, each focused on a different narrator. As many of the reviews below note, the basic premise is that a man attends a dinner party, walks upstairs between the main course and dessert, and locks himself into the spare bedroom, refusing to come out. But the real stories are inside the heads of the narrators. Anna ("There"), a fortyish single woman bored with her job, is surprised to learn that her email address has been found in the interloper's (Miles's) cell phone, pushing forth long-forgotten memories of the continental tour she won as a teenager.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Andrew W. Johns VINE VOICE on October 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I'm not entirely sure what I expected from this book, but it certainly wasn't this. While the book is built around the framework created by odd behavior of Miles Garth, who locks himself in a spare room in a house where he is a dinner guest, this book isn't a single coherent story. Instead, it is really a set of reflections by people who are impacted by this action, even if it isn't immediately obvious how or why. While we never really get any deep insight into Miles or his action, we do learn a great deal about the people he has interacted with. But none of these people know Miles well, and while his actions cause them to reflect on their own lives, they do not have any answers to the questions raised by Miles's decision to barricade himself in a stranger's home.

Written in an almost "stream of consciousness" style, the pacing of this book was a bit uneven, with parts very readable and other portions dragging. There was a point in the middle where I wasn't sure if it was worth the effort to finish. The pacing did improve, though, and the final section proved to be the most entertaining, so it seems to have been worth plowing through.

This book is probably not for everyone, and I suspect that the response to this will be fairly polarized, with people either loving or really hating it. If you enjoy books that are full of character self-reflection, and don't mind the lack of any real plot, then this might appeal to you. However, if you need action in you books, then give this a pass.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Scottish writer Ali Smith is a veteran writer of the unwanted house guest. In The Accidental, an uninvited woman shows up at a residence and turns the family upside down. In her latest novel, Miles Garth, a dinner party guest in Greenwich, leaves the dinner table, exits upstairs, locks himself in the spare room, and declines to leave. Miles is the nominal central figure of the novel, yet it is his "absent presence" and other paradoxes of human nature that are pivotal. His silence is the roar that emanates alienation.

The main characters of the four chapters, entitled There, But, For and The respectively, experience a pressing solitude (one character describes the Internet as "a whole new way of feeling lonely"). Three have met Miles at some point in their lives, but none of them know him intimately. Anna, who is also known as Anna K (as in Kafka's The Trial; or anarchy; or "Anna Key in the UK," a Sex Pistols cover), knew Miles briefly as a teenager when they both won an academic competition to travel to various European cities. She remembers him as confident, spirited, and arch.

Anna's former job at the Center for Temporary Permanence is reminiscent of Jonas's in How to Read the Air. As senior liaison, she condensed the trauma stories of individuals so that their narratives fit onto one page of a document. "You have exactly the right kind of absent presence," her former boss tells her, referring to her forced remoteness from her clients. Temporary permanence and absent presence amplify the tragic isolation of contemporary society.
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