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Ali Smith: There But For The

The Man who Came to Dinner is a film I have seen several times and always enjoyed, not least for Monty Woolley’s acerbic performance. It tells the story of a radio personality who slips on the steps of the house of a well-to-do Ohio family and breaks his leg. He insists not only that they put him up (over the Christmas period) but essentially takes over the house. I do not know whether Ali Smith had this film in mind when she wrote this book but I would not be surprised if she did.

Genevieve (Gen) and Eric Lee live in Greenwich, just outside London, in a posh house. They like having posh dinner parties. However, every year, they have an alternative dinner party, when they invite a few close friends but also various people whom they would not normally invite. At the latest one, Miles Garth came with Mark Palmer, a friend of a friend. During the meal, Miles got up to go to the toilet but did not return. He seemed to have locked himself in the toilet and would not come out or explain himself. They left him there and when they went up later, he seemed to have gone.

However, the next morning, their daughter pointed out that the door of the spare room was locked and Miles had left a note. It seems that he had locked himself in the spare room (which, fortunately, was en suite) and asked to be given food (vegetarian). All that would fit under the door were turkey and ham slices so that is was he got. He did not respond to repeated knocking and entreaties. The police advised caution. The door was eighteenth century so Gen did not want to damage it.

Miles had left his jacket downstairs and his phone was in the pocket and, seemingly, not password-protected. She found an email address for someone called Anna K on his phone and contacted her. Anna knew Miles many years ago, when they both won a prize as teenagers for a bank-sponsored European trip. They had not seen each other since and Anna was surprised that he had her email as there was no email then. Nevertheless, she tried to help but he would not respond to her, either.

The book is divided into four sections. These are called There, But, For and The, each of these words being the first word of the first sentence of the appropriate section. We are presumably meant to think of the phrase There but for the grace of God go I which is somewhat appropriate when it comes to guests overstaying their welcome. As the phrase is incomplete we are presumably also meant to think of unfinished business, which is fairly relevant to this book.

The first section – There – is devoted to Anna Hardie. Anna K is what Miles had called her and one of the clues that Smith gives us as to whom she likes (and whom she does not) is that the good guys play word games, use puns and tell silly jokes. Miles does and this is one of them. Anna soon meets Brooke Bayoude, a ten year old girl who lives nearby and whose parents are close friends of the Lees. Brooke will turn out to be the most important character in the book after Miles. Though we meet her in each section, the The section is hers. She likes terrible jokes and puns as well.

Anna. tells her story. As mentioned, she met Miles as a teenager on a European holiday. Anna is the only Scot on the trip and felt a bit left out of things till she met Miles. They had briefly kept in touch but had had no contact for many years. Miles had been in a band called The Shakespearos which any punk aficionado would recognise as a line from The Stranglers No More Heroes:

Whatever happened to
All of the heroes?
All the Shakespearoes?

Smith likes her in-jokes.

Like some of the other characters, Anna had what seemed to be an unusual job: what she and her colleagues laughingly called Senior Liaison, at what she and her colleagues only half-laughingly called the Centre for Temporary Permanence. She has recently quit as she hated it.

Mark is But. He is gay but seems to have no partner or, indeed, many friends. His mother, Faye, talks to him in rhyme, even though she has been dead for forty-seven years. She was a famous artist who killed herself when he was eleven. He had only recently met Miles at the theatre (The Winter’s Tale) and invited him to accompany him to the Lees’ dinner party. More unusual jobs: Mark is a picture researcher while Miles is an ethical consultant.

For is May Young, an elderly woman who has dementia and who has had limited contact with Miles. The final part, as mentioned, is Brooke who had briefly met Miles as he arrived and acts as something of a conduit to him, sneaking up to the room and putting notes under the door.

While these people, who all had very limited contact with Miles, are introduced, we also follow the main story. In particular, we follow the dinner party, where we see at least some of Smith’s intent. Smith, in her writing, has always taken the side of the ordinary person, the downtrodden, the working person and mocked the chattering classes. At the dinner party, we see this with the chatter, which is both pretentious and, at times, nasty.

Mark and Miles stay more or less out of it but are both inadvertently dragged in because of their differences. Mark is patronised (But of course you must have seen some terrible times yourself, Mark, if you were gay before it was legal to be gay, were you?, there is racism and homophobia. Terence, Brooke’s father, loves musicals, and is mocked for it (Room’s full of pansies, Richard says not quite under his breath.) Miles come to the fore, as he is a vegetarian and Gen was not aware of this and has not prepared anything for him. He will soon leave the room.

During the meal, there is one voice of (more or less) reason and that is Brooke who has sort of invited herself. Have you not met any or very many black people before or are you just living in a different universe? she asks Hannah and this is not the only remark of this kind she makes, being naturally unaware of how to behave at a posh dinner party.

The plot element also continues in the various section as we follow up the story of Miles’ stay. It becomes news, on the TV, in the papers and on the internet. People come and hang around the house, to the annoyance of the Lees and their neighbours. Gen herself, however, profits from it, selling food and souvenirs while others also profit, including a psychic who claims to be in touch with Miles. One of the dinner party guests even does a one-man show about it. Smith eagerly mocks the capitalists profiting from the misfortunes of others.

As always with Ali Smith, this is a very original book. Yes, there is conventional satire and she might have been influenced by The Man who Came to Dinner but her story is certainly different. The four people whose stories we hear all had very limited contact with Miles Garth, with Smith using them not just to advance the plot but also to tell their stories. Miles Garth, however, remains a mysterious but shadowy central character, about whom we learn relatively little and it is this that helps make the book original. Smith is not interested in giving easy explanations for his behaviour, with all of those hovering around wondering why, while the ten year old Brooke is the only one who takes him for what he is.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Hamish Hamilton