Wednesday, February 8, 2012

There But For The / by Ali Smith

At a dinner party hosted by Eric and Genevieve Lee, a seemingly ordinary middle-aged man named Miles Garth gets up from his place at the table, leaves the room and locks himself inside the home's upstairs compartment. Speaking not a word over the next few days, only submitting written notes under the door for food and ignoring all pleas from both the home's owners and the other guests to come out, Garth seems content to simply stay put. When all of Miles' friends and existing family--he doesn't have much--try and talk him out of the room to no avail, a desperate but civil Genevieve begins contacting his acquaintances (found mostly from his cell phone and derived from clues inside his jacket pockets), ultimately finding only four willing individuals who graciously agree to lend assistance. The only problem is that the called-upon parties scarcely know Miles at all, many of them having only crossed paths with him at random and in some cases unable to remember the occasion in which they met. Gradually, however, the eclectic quartet--Anna, a forty-ish woman who met Miles on a school trip nearly three decades ago; Mark, a former colleague; May, an octogenarian; and a ten-year-old boy named Brooke--all recall their time spent with Miles and, through their efforts, steadily begin to shed some light on his peculiar predicament. 

Smith has a gift for writing puns, though actually it could be said that her overall wordplay is impressive for it's nuanced approach and subtle styling. It's not like she's new on the scene; her 2005 novel The Accidental won of the Whitbred and was nominated for the Man Booker. But her talent has had a hard time getting to the forefront, maybe because she's British, Scottish actually, and her stories aren't so comparatively original as to garner prominent notice. Which might be why this book, a novel set along similar lines as Jennifer Egan's Visit From The Goon Squad or even Bed by David Whitehouse, is a bit of a hard sell to traditionalists. For one thing, there's no direct quotes; the entire narrative flows within an oddly removed, stream-of-consciousness pattern, elucidating the characters through interior monologues and exterior exposition. Conversations happen, just not in front of the reader. They're sort of in the mind's eye of the author who monitors things with a omniscient, documentary-style voyeurism, usually irregardless of time or place ("Already Anna has been goosed, for the first time in her life, by a seventeen-year-old swot (who, in twenty years' time, will have become an internationally renowned Professor of Theoretical Physics). At the time of it happening she has no idea that this is what's happening . . ."). This isn't a particularly difficult thing to get used to, in fact it's usually nice to have a narration of the actual narration, a kind of voice-over to the action taking place. But the story's pretty non-linear and there's an odd blend of details and descriptions which may distort the reader's perspective. Even this, however, shouldn't detract from the book, or the writer's overall merit. (FIC SMITH)

No comments: