There but for the by Ali Smith

One of the only faults I found with this immensely pleasurable novel is its title, which, for all its poetic incompleteness, is undeniably awkward to say aloud.

Ungainly title aside, There but for the is a delightful read. The prose is light and playful, embodied in many ways by a charming nine-year-old character named Brooke, whose enjoyment of language is catching and whose curiosity is unparalleled. Several nested stories unfold as Smith maneuvers around the book’s central issue: Miles Garth, towards the end of an unpleasant meal at the home of the aptly named Gen & Eric Lee, wordlessly leaves the table and disappears into an upstairs bedroom and refuses to leave or even speak… for months. The premise calls to mind Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s La Salle de Bain (1985; here’s a review of the English translation), whose narrator listlessly retreats to his bathroom and remains fully clothed in the tub for days on end. Whereas Toussaint’s narrator is weary and defeated, however, Miles Garth is energetic and enigmatic, and seems to be judging the foolishness of the world around him.

One image I loved was that of May Winch (a subplot and two degrees of separation from Miles Garth) remembering a night when, as a young woman, she had been riding her bicycle in the dark when she hit something and flew over the handlebars into the road. She is fine but shaken, mainly due to the nature of the accident:

It was the dark taking shape, going solid out of nowhere in front of her. It wasn’t like when the bomb hit the ball-bearing factory next door to the shop and she’d been blown across the room backwards and hit the wall behind her. That had been different. This had come out of nowhere and it had no sound, just the muffled thump of May being hit by the dark. The difference was that she’d just gone headlong with her eyes wide open into it, that she’d done it herself somehow, hit the dark. (164)

May’s reaction to this moment of “hitting the dark” suggests that the fears that affect us most deeply are those that are invisible and internal, when we cannot point to an explosion or any other external cause and know what caused us pain. These kinds of truths can easily feel tired or facile, but Smith introduces them with grace and a lightness of touch that imbue them with freshness.

This lightness is the book’s hallmark, in the prose as in the characters. Smith creates a small circle of witty, like-minded characters whose paths cross throughout the stories; whenever two of them meet, you can almost see the glint in their eyes as they recognize themselves in one another. Both Brooke and Miles are among them. Brooke in particular is an improbable child of pure joy and intelligence, brilliant with language and wordplay and surprisingly attuned to the world around her. Puns send her reeling with pleasure, and she is obsessed with knowing and recording the facts of her own story. The last section of the book consists of Brooke’s internal monologue, and Smith does an excellent job of it, retaining just enough of a childlike quality to the language while also conveying Brooke’s tack-sharp curiosity and creativity.

There are many more characters and storylines that unfold like the origami plane described in the book’s preamble (“Outside, on its top, it looks like a plain folded piece of paper. Inside, underneath, it is packed tight into itself with surprising neatness like origami, like a small machine” [xiii]), and the whole thing holds together beautifully. I’ll definitely be adding Smith’s earlier novels to my reading list.


(Still) Tackling Infinite Jest

Shortly after David Foster Wallace’s death in 2008, I picked up a copy of Infinite Jest, something I had been meaning to do for years. I am quite sure that I was not alone in the timing of this attempt; the Infinite Summer project was started when it was at least partly due to many people’s rekindled desire to read and understand Wallace after his suicide. But for me, reading a book like this due to any kind of external stimulus, and particularly such a bleak one, is far from the best way to get the most out of it.

I knew that Infinite Jest would not be an easy book, but I wasn’t intimidated. A few weeks and some 200 pages in, though, I got stuck. Over the next couple of years, the book sat next to my bed, reminding me that I had failed. Every time I would try to get back into it, I would give up not long after, defeated again, and incredibly bothered by the fact that this book that I should like so much was causing me such difficulty.

I love Wallace’s writing. This piece from the Times made me watch tennis in an entirely new way, and made me love Federer above any other player. Part of his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005 may well be part of the reason I finally started this blog in the first place:

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

So many of his short pieces enthrall me. His precise observation of the water we all swim in, and his ability to craft that observation into remarkable prose, is incredible. And yet, I kept putting down Infinite Jest.

I finally picked the enormous novel back up a couple of weeks ago, and something about it feels different this time. It might be that I’ve sat with ONAN and the Great Concavity and the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and Lyle the cross-legged sweat-nourished guru in the boys’ locker room for long enough that they’ve gotten into my head. I started where I left off, not being able to bear starting at the beginning yet again, and I have a feeling that when I finish I will return to those early pages one more time to read them in a new way.

It’s going to take me awhile–the amount of time I spend reading is less than it used to be, and I feel that I read more slowly–but I’m looking forward to sharing some thoughts on it once I make it through.