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1 Beaverton Literature- A to Z

There But for The

by

There But for The Cover

ISBN13: 9780375424090
ISBN10: 0375424091
Condition: Standard
Dustjacket: Standard
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Excerpt

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. 

       There was once a woman who had met this man thirty years before, had known him slightly for roughly two weeks in the middle of a summer when they were

both seventeen, and hadn’t seen him since, though they’d occasionally, for a few years after, exchanged Christmas cards, that kind of thing. 

       Right now the woman, whose name was Anna, was standing outside the locked bedroom door behind which the man, whose name was Miles, theoretically was.  She had her arm raised and her hand ready to – to what?  Tap? Knock discreetly?  This beautiful, perfectly done-out, perfectly dulled house would not stand for

noise; every creak was an affront to it, and the woman who owned it, emanating disapproval, was just two feet behind her.  But it was her fist she was standing there holding up, like a 1980s cliché of a revolutionary, ready to, well, nothing quiet.  Batter.  Beat.  Pound.  Rain blows.  

       Strange phrase, to rain blows.  Somewhere over the rainblow.  She didn’t remember much about him, but they’d never have been friends in the first place if he wasn’t the sort to enjoy a bad pun.  Was he, unlike Anna right now, the kind of person who’d know what to say to a shut door if he were standing outside one trying to get someone on the other side to open it?  The kind who could turn to that child stretched on her front as far up the staircase as her whole small self would go, the toes of her bare feet on the wood of the downstairs hall floor and her chin in her hands on the fifth step lying there watching, and straight off be making the right kind of joke, what do you call two mushrooms on holiday?  Fun guys, straight off be holding forth about things like where a phrase like to rain blows came from in the first place?  

       The woman standing behind Anna sighed.  She somehow made a sigh sound cavernous.  After it the silence was even louder.  Anna cleared her throat.  

       Miles, she said to the wood of the door.  Are you there? 

       But the bleat of her voice left her somehow less there herself.  Ah, now, see – that’s what it took, the good inappropriateness of that child.  Half boy, all girl, she’d elbowed herself up off the staircase, run up the stairs and was about to hammer on the door.  

       Bang bang bang.  

       Anna felt each thud go through her as if the child were hammering her on the chest.

       Come out come out wherever you are, the child yelled.  

       Nothing happened.

       Open sesame, the child yelled.

       She had ducked under Anna’s arm to knock.  She looked up at her from under her arm. 

       It makes the rock in the side of the mountain open, the child said.  They say it in the story, therefore the rock just like opens. 

       The child put her mouth to the door and spoke again, this time without shouting.

       Knock knock, she said.  Who’s there?

 

Who’s there?  

       There were several reasons at that particular time in Anna Hardie’s life for her wondering what it meant, herself, to be there. 

       One was her job, which she had just given up, in what she and her colleagues laughingly called Senior Liaison, at what she and her colleagues only half-laughingly called the Centre for Temporary Permanence (or, interchangeably, the Centre for Permanent Temporariness).

       Another was that Anna had woken up a couple of weeks ago in the middle of her forties in the middle of the night, from a dream in which she saw her own heart behind its ribcage.  It was having great trouble beating because it was heavily crusted over with a caul made of what looked like the stuff we clean out of the corners of our eyes in the mornings when we wake up.  She woke up, sat up and put her hand on her heart.  Then she got up, went to the bathroom mirror and looked.  There she was.  

       The phrase reminded her of something Denny at the Evening News, with whom she’d worked on neighbourhood liaison pieces and with whom she’d had a short liaison herself, had told her some time ago, on their second and last lunchtime.  He was a sweet man, Denny.  He’d stood in front of her in her kitchen, their first time, and presented his penis to her very sweetly, rueful and hopeful both, a little apologetic about his erection and at the same time proud of it; she liked this. She liked him.  But two lunchtimes was all it was, and they both knew it.  Denny had a wife, her name was Sheila, and their two girls and their boy were at Clemont High.  Anna made a pot of tea, put sugar and milk on the tray because she wasn’t sure what he took, carried it upstairs, slid back into the bed.  It was a quarter past one.  They had just under half an hour left.  He’d asked could he smoke.  She’d said, okay, since it’s the last lunch.  He’d smiled.  Then he’d turned over in the bed, lit the cigarette, changed the subject.  He’d said did she know he could sum up the last six decades of journalism in six words?  

       Go on then, she said.

       I was there.  There I was, he said. 

       It was a commonplace, he said.  By the middle of the twentieth century every important report put it like this: I was there.  Nowadays: There I was.

       Soon it would be seven words, Anna said.  The new century had already added a seventh word.  There I was, guys.  She and Denny had laughed, drunk their tea, put their clothes back on and gone back to their different jobs.  The last time they’d spoken was some months ago, about how to handle the story with the local kids giving urine to the asylum kids in lemonade bottles to drink.  

       In the middle of the night, some months later, holding her own heart, feeling nothing, Anna had looked at herself in the mirror in the bathroom.  There she was.  It was the there-she-was guise.  

       There she was again, then, two evenings ago, sitting in front of her laptop one summer evening with the noise of Wimbledon coming from neighbours’ TVs through the open windows of the houses all around.  Wimbledon was on her own TV too.  Her own TV’s sound was turned down.  It was sunny in London and the Wimbledon grass was still bright green, only a little scuffed.  The TV screen flickered away by itself beyond the laptop screen.  Pock noises and oohs and ahs, strangely disconnected from their source, accompanied the little noises she was making on her keyboard.  It was as if the whole outside world was TV soundtrack. Maybe there was a new psychosis, Tennis Players’ Psychosis (TPP), where you went through life believing that an audience was always watching you, profoundly moved by your every move, reacting round your every reaction, your every momentous moment, with joy /excitement / disappointment / Schadenfreude.  Presumably all professional tennis players had something like it, and maybe so to some extent did everybody who still believed in God.  But would this mean that people who didn’t have it were somehow less there in the world, or at least differently there, because they felt themselves less observed?  We might as well pray to the god of tennis players, she thought.  We might as well ask that god as ask any other for world peace, to keep us safe, to bring all the birds that’ve ever died, ever sunk into dust via little mounds of feather and crumbling hollow little bones, back to life, perch them all on that sill right now, the small ones at the front and the large ones at the back, and have them sing a rousing chorus of Bye Bye Blackbird, which was a song her father used to whistle when she was a little girl, and one she hadn’t heard for many years.  No one here to love or understand me.  Oh what hard-luck stories they all hand me. Was that it?  Something about hard-luck stories, anyway.  Just as she was about to look the lyrics up on the net new mail came pinging into her inbox with an electronic little trill.  

       The new mail was quite a long email which Anna nearly mistook for the please-transfer-money-to-this-account-because–I-am-dying-and-need-your-help kind. But she paused her finger above delete when something about it caught her eye.  It was addressed to her with the correct first name but the wrong surname initial. Dear Anna K.  It was both her and not her, the name.  More: something about it made her feel super-eighted, instamaticked.  It gave her a feeling something like the word summer used to.  Most of all it reminded her of an old spinebent copy of a Penguin classic paperback by Kafka, yes, Franz Kafka, which she had read one summer when she was sixteen or seventeen.

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cariola119, January 1, 2012 (view all comments by cariola119)
Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

There but for the isn't an easy book for me to write about, because it is one of those rare books that one doesn't just read but actually experiences, participates in. It's not a book to be breezed through for the plot. You have to work at it, often backing up and rereading to make connections between events, characters, and words. But often that work surprises you by becoming infinite play, even as it leaves you with some startling observations about human nature, language, memory, and the world we live in.

Taken separately, each of the words in the title seem nondescript; together, they seem empty without the expected conclusion--without, in other words, God or grace. And maybe that's exactly what Smith intended: to make us ponder the place ("there") of God and the location of grace in a society that is technologically advanced "but" individually isolating. (Think about the person with 5000 'friends' on Facebook.) It may be hard to find, but, ultimately, Smith concludes, grace is still there, within and between us.

The novel consists of four chapters, one for each word in the title, each focused on a different narrator. As many of the reviews below note, the basic premise is that a man attends a dinner party, walks upstairs between the main course and dessert, and locks himself into the spare bedroom, refusing to come out. But the real stories are inside the heads of the narrators. Anna ("There"), a fortyish single woman bored with her job, is surprised to learn that her email address has been found in the interloper's (Miles's) cell phone, pushing forth long-forgotten memories of the continental tour she won as a teenager. Mark ("but"), a gay man in his 60s still grieving the loss of his partner more than 20 years earlier, is haunted by the lyric-singing, rhyme-spouting, often-obscene ghost of his mother, a brilliant artist who committed suicide. May ("for") is a terminally ill 80-year old falling into dementia and memories of the daughter she lost, yet still sharp enough to observe and regret the changing world around her. Finally, the delightful Brooke Bayoude ("the"), who is either the CLEVEREST or the CLEVERIST, a girl who delights in the sounds and multiple meanings of words and wants to pin down the 'facts' of history, even as she comes to realize that facts, too, are mutable. Along the way, Smith deftly and subtly weaves in unexpected connections among these characters and even the novel's secondary characters.

I'm not one who generally likes fiction that philosophizes (see my recent review of Embers, for example.) Here, it takes you unawares, most often playfully, but sometimes melancholically. It's a rare book that can make you think, think about your own life, while you're being so well entertained. And as a wordsmith/word lover, I found Smith's puns, rhymes, jokes, allusions, double entendres, etc. thoroughly delightful. (Having vivid memories of riding in the backseat of the family car at about age nine, pondering the sounds of the word "jello," drawing it out in the voice in my head, I could really relate to Brooke.)

I haven't always been a fan of Smith's type of literary experimentation; in fact, the last of her works that I read, a short story collection, was off-putting simpy because it seemed to exist only for the purpose of experimentation, and while I liked The Accidental--another novel using multiple narrators--, I was somewhat disappointed in the ending. But for me, There but for the is about as close to perfection as it gets. Put aside your usual expections, open your mind, and jump in. You won't regret it
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780375424090
Author:
Smith, Ali
Publisher:
Pantheon Books
Author:
Kennedy, A. L.
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
fiction;novel;london;england;literary fiction;greenwich;21st century;literature;british;british literature
Edition Description:
Cloth
Publication Date:
20110931
Binding:
HARDCOVER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
256
Dimensions:
8.25 x 5.5 in 0.78 lb

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Related Subjects


Featured Titles » Literature
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Family Life
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Urban Life

There But for The Used Hardcover
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$8.95 In Stock
Product details 256 pages Pantheon - English 9780375424090 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "This startling lark from Smith (The Accidental) is so much more than the sum of its parts. Both breezy and devastating, the novel radiates from a whimsical center: Miles Garth, a dinner party guest, decides to leave the world behind and lock himself in his hostess's spare room, refusing to come out and communicating only by note. Four charmers with only tenuous links to Miles, nicknamed Milo by the growing crowd camped outside the suburban Greenwich, London house, narrate the proceedings: Anna, a girl who knew Miles briefly in the past; Mark, a melancholy gay man who Miles met watching Shakespeare at the Old Vic; May Young, an elderly woman who Miles helped grieve her daughter's death; and the wonderful, 'preternaturally articulate' Brooke, arguably the cleverest 10-year-old in contemporary literature. Together they create a portrait not so much of Miles — because none of them really knows him — but of the zeitgeist of their society. In a lovely departure, and in spite of the fact that there is not one ordinary, carefree character in this whole tale, all parents are literate, loving, and tolerant: though Mark is exhausted and sad, his famous mum speaks to him, in verse no less, from beyond the grave; though May is trapped by dementia, she was a kind mother to her ill-fated daughter; and though Brooke is clearly plagued by attention deficit disorder and is misunderstood and disliked at school, her parents love her dearly. This fine, unusual novel is sweet and melancholy, indulgent of language and of the fragile oddballs who so relish in it. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Synopsis" by ,
A dozen sharp new stories by one of contemporary fiction's acknowledged masters
"Synopsis" by , A. L. Kennedy's riveting new story collection is a luscious feast of language that encompasses real estate and forlorn pets, adolescents and sixty-somethings, weekly liaisons and obsessive affairs, "certain types of threat and the odder edges of sweet things." The women and men in these twelve stories search for love, solace, and a clear glimpse of what their lives have become. Anything can set them off thinking - the sad homogeneity of hotel breakfasts, a sex shop operated under Canadian values (whatever those are), or an army of joggers dressed as Santa.

With her boundless empathy and gift for the perfect phrase, Kennedy makes us care about each of her characters. In "Takes You Home," a man's attempt to sell his flat becomes a journey to the interior, by turns comic and harrowing. And "Late in Life" deftly evokes an intergenerational love affair free of the usual clichés, the younger partner asking the older, "What should I wear at your funeral?"

Alive with memory, humor, and longing, All the Rage is A. L. Kennedy at her inimitable best.

"Synopsis" by , From the award-winning author of Hotel World and The Accidental, a dazzling, funny, and wonderfully exhilarating new novel.

 

At a dinner party in the posh London suburb of Greenwich, Miles Garth suddenly leaves the table midway through the meal, locks himself in an upstairs room, and refuses to leave. An eclectic group of neighbors and friends slowly gathers around the house, and Miles’s story is told from the points of view of four of them: Anna, a woman in her forties; Mark, a man in his sixties; May, a woman in her eighties; and a ten-year-old named Brooke. The thing is, none of these people knows Miles more than slightly. How much is it possible for us to know about a stranger? And what are the consequences of even the most casual, fleeting moments we share every day with one another?

Brilliantly audacious, disarmingly playful, and full of Smith’s trademark wit and puns, There but for the is a deft exploration of the human need for separation—from our pasts and from one another—and the redemptive possibilities for connection. It is a tour de force by one of our finest writers.

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