Monday, July 11, 2011

There but for the by Ali Smith

A guest at a dinner party in London locks himself into an upstairs room and refuses to come out. This odd event opens Scottish author Ali Smith's darkly comic look at modern society. She captures the ingrained bigotry that is revealed in casual conversations, including thoughtless assumptions made about blacks, gays and immigrants.

By staying locked in a room for weeks and then months, Miles affects a large number of people. Each part of this story - named for each word in the title - is nimbly told from four different points of view, in limited third person. Smith is widely read and has a quick wit, so I shouldn't have been surprised by the frequency that I found serendipitous connections to other stuff I'm reading. Here are a few:

a) Precocious 10-year-old Brooke asks philosophical questions like "If you travelled to the past to make the future better, would you actually be able to?" I'm currently listening to the audiobook Blackout by Connie Willis, which is about time-travelling historians in England. Also, Blackout and There but for the both reference the last words of Admiral Nelson. ("Kiss me Hardy.")

b) Several of the protagonists are music fans, so there are numerous references to songs and songwriters and I undoubtably missed some, but I noted that 85-year-old May's internal dialogue referenced a line from 'She Moved Through the Fair.' ("I won't slight them for their lack of kind.") I'd not thought about this traditional ballad for a long time, but heard it recently performed by members of the Edmonton Opera chorus at the Devonian Botanic Garden.

c) "A lot of the people Anna had seen had trouble speaking, either because of translation problems, or because a rain of blows had made them distrust words. Or both." This could apply equally to the silent refugees in one of Cate Kennedy's stories collected in Dark Roots.

d) At the infamous dinner party in There but for the, guests debate the relevance of art to human society and it looks like two of the men might come to blows over "that pointless skull encrusted with diamonds." My nephew Graham learned this week that a piece of his artwork was chosen as the regional winner in a national art competition. It's a sculpture (and working iPod dock) of a skull covered in computer circuitry created in homage to Damien Hirst's crystal skull.

The prose is lively and insightful. Enjoy!

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