In the years 2009 and 2010, in a chichi house in the historic borough of Greenwich, London, the Lees are hosting a party for acquaintances. Mark asked Miles, a casual acquaintance to join him in this dinner party that Mark himself doesn’t really want to attend. Between main course and dessert Miles slips upstairs on an excuse to use the bathroom and locked himself in the spare room and refuse to emerge for weeks. For the time he is there the Lees resort to feeding him food through the door and contacted all his other acquaintances and even the press to help get Miles out of the house. Dubbed ‘Milo’ by the press, he becomes a 24-hour rolling news sensation with growing crowds camped outside his window waiting for the merest glimpse of a twitched curtain or an extent of Miles’ hand. Sometimes his host, wearing out of patience will slip a ham under the door. Miles is a vegetarian.
The book is broken up into 4 parts according to the book title There, But, For, The:
In the chapter There then continues the story of Anna whose email address kept in Miles wallet. As Anna memory return, she remembers at 17 at the school trip Miles drew Anna out of her shyness and reconnected her with her tour group, resulting Anna enjoying the rest of her Europe trip. Remembering that Miles said to her:
There was once, and there was only once; once was all there was..
In the chapter But and For, we are introduced to an elderly May Young, an elderly widow, closing in on death amid a slow demented haze, recalls her years as a WWII Intelligence agent and her daughter Jennifer. She also remembered every year she gets a visit or a postcard from a boy who is Jennifer’s friend. One day, she decided to ask a girl on community service to help her take her to Greenwich and ended up “soiling” the girl’s male friend new car.
The whole point is, we can forget. It’s important that we forget some things, otherwise we’d go round the world carrying a hodload of stuff we don’t need. – page 116
In the chapter For and The, we saw Mark, a gay man trying to wriggle himself out of embarrassing conversation and a precocious 9-year-old Brooke Bayoude, a highly intelligent but truant-happy girl obsessed with intricate wordplay, fascinated with history of time and ask lots of questions. Brooke chronicle Miles’ confinement and is the only one who has any contact with Miles.
I especially love the pun and wordplay that Brooke always seems to come up with.
Why is the theatre always sad? Brooke said.
Because the seats are always in tears, her father said. – page 293
The fact is, every tree that ever lived or lives has a history just like that tree has. It is important to know the stories and histories of things, even if all we know is that we don’t know.
The fact is, history is actually all sorts of things nobody knows about. – page 295
Mum, she says.
What now? May says.
No listen. I need to ask you this question. What are human beings for? Jennifer says.
For? May says. What you mean, for?
What’s the point of human beings? I mean like what are we for? She says
Um, May says. The point of human beings. Well, it’s for looking after each other. We’re here to look after each other. – page 258
The thread of the stories and characters around Miles who chose to self-incarcerated reminded me of the movie Crash (2004 film) that all of us are joined by a six degree of separation and that we are somehow related to one another. At the core of the book is a feeling that while our means of communications have become more sophisticated, slicker and quicker, true connections are harder to maintain. The problem for me was that the book started out strong but by the last 50 pages it was filled with lots of disjointed ideas and historical anecdotes that I lost some interest and resort to skimming it through.
I only ever read one book by Ali Smith – Girl meets boy which I enjoyed a lot. This novel is quirky, thought provoking and I had a few laughs but it is rather obscure and it is not until I step out and find out what the expert said about the book that I totally get it.
From the Guardian UK:
There but for the, Ali Smith deploys the conceit to satirise contemporary culture – and to ask difficult questions about history, time, epistemology and narrative. The result is a playfully serious, or seriously playful, novel full of wit and pleasure, with some premeditated frustrations thrown in for good measure……
That sense of atomisation is at the novel’s absent centre, around which orbit its fleeting, appealing and painful observations on the temporary permanence of our lives.
If in doubt, I’ll refer you to the first quote from the first page of the book:
The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. – George Orwell
One of the rare occasions I couldn’t remember a book title easily (because it makes no sense!). A book with noble intent, but fails to hold my interest at the very end.
Longlisted for Orange Prize 2012.
Hardback. Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Imprint of Penguin) 2011; Length: 357 pages; Setting: London. Source: Co-worker Aisling. Finished reading at: 16th March 2012, Friday.