It once occurred to me that the best books are those which absolutely divide opinion. I no longer think that’s necessarily true – if I ever did, beyond finding it a neat shorthand – but it came to mind when reading Ali Smith’s new novel. Look at the Amazon ratings for her last novel proper, the Booker-shortlisted The Accidental: an almost even spread from one to five stars. Yet I was a mixed sample myself with regard to that book: defending it from those who thought it too “complex” or (the red mist word) “pretentious”; but unconvinced by those who considered Smith the great white hope of contemporary British literature.
There but for the carries its fragmented intent from the title, so no one should be misled. The broken sentence suggests its own missing parts. That in itself – something unsaid but obvious – is a pretty good indication of what to expect with Smith. Martin Amis several years ago observed, in an attempt to take possession of a critic’s dismissal, that “someone once said of my work, and I didn’t mind it at all, that I deal with banalities delivered with tremendous force,” adding, for the avoidance of doubt that he really didn’t mind at all, “That’s fine by me.” His reclamation of the insult is not very convincing, but it’s one that might be applied to Smith also. In both The Accidental and her recent Canongate myths book, Girl Meets Boy, she has a masterly control of style but an unfortunate tendency to bash the reader over the head.
By that I mean that her sentences are just so, her structure is careful and contains enough gaps to make the reader do a manageable amount of work to fit things together. However in some important respects she leaves little to the imagination and even tends to impose thoughts on the reader. To explain that I had better go into more detail about the story. It’s somewhat high-concept, and it easily summed up by the opening sentence of the first full chapter, titled ‘There’:
was once a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party.
The man is Miles Garth, and the book is structured in four parts from the viewpoints of four people who know him. There is Anna, who met him twenty years ago at university and on whom the dinner party hosts call to try to persuade him out of the bedroom. (He stays there for a long time.) There is Mark, the man who took Miles to the dinner party as his partner. (Miles is a vegetarian, but the owners of the house sustain him with slices of cooked meat under the door, as though appearing in a joke with no punchline.) There is May Young, an elderly woman nursing a decades-long trauma which Miles may have caused but also helped her recover from. (The lock-in lasts for months, with implausible levels of media interest, and reporters camped outside the house.) Finally there is Brooke Bayoude, a nine-year-old girl whose parents are neighbours of the dinner-party couple and who seems to be the wisest of all.
The book’s strengths are significant. Smith ties the stories together well, dripfeeding information through the viewpoints of her four central characters (the book’s true centre, Miles, doesn’t get a voice of his own but we learn plenty about him from the others). Her characters are sensitively drawn, though it’s an ability she is unwilling or unable to extend to the secondary cast, in particular the dinner party hosts and guests. Smith makes them ridiculous bourgeois stereotypes, working in Canary Wharf, obsessed with the fabric of their homes, insensitive to difference (homosexuality, vegetarianism); easy targets. Early on there is an email written by the dinner party host which made my toes curl with its petty mockery of the character’s language skills. It should not be beyond a novelist of Smith’s skill to extend empathy to unlikeable characters as well as likeable ones.
Her resistance to convention is her best quality. An allegorical prologue is one of the strongest scenes in the book. The story overall has a carefully implausible ring to it, and it is as futile to argue that the hosts should break down the (“18th century!”) door and remove Miles by force, as it would be to suggest that the characters in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go should have battled their fate. Their fate was all our fates, and Miles’s self-imposed isolation within a home says, “There but for the grace of God go I;” though Miles doesn’t go, he stays. Every story in the book has something to say about how we live with or without other people: we skip forward to see the effect Miles’s stand-off has on the family who unwillingly host him; we learn about Mark’s mother and the trauma she bequeathed to her household; we see May Young awaiting transfer to a nursing home, and dreaming of escape even at the far end of life.
There is also an interest in modernity, how we communicate now and the way our experiences shift as a result. The book’s present day is the last couple of years, and in the first part Anna observes the CCTV cameras everywhere and reflects on “what a paranoid, jealousy-maddened love affair just walking down any British street in 2009 resembled.” Smith’s attention to detail is her forte as a writer, and it is also evident in the production and paraphernalia of the book (the three dedications, the five epigraphs, the careful choice of types and formatting). Yet this penchant for detail might also be a weakness, if it is the cause of the coolness, and the lack of intimacy I felt at times. It is hard to locate the novel’s centre, and there is a sense that Smith is holding something back, tempering her talent in order to make her tantalising story neater and more palatable. She is at her best when giving the reader something to do, and taking risks. She should do it more, allow her delicious river of language to flow; publish and not be dammed.