The man who came to dinner
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The man who came to dinner

A linguistic adventure around a curious incident, Antara Das writes.

books Updated: Jul 30, 2011 11:49 IST
Antara Das
Antara Das
Hindustan Times

There But For The
Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton
Rs 550 pp 357

The action has already risen by the time we start reading Ali Smith’s latest novel, There But For The. Miles Garth, who had accompanied Mark, a casual acquaintance, to a dinner hosted by Eric and Genevieve Lee, has managed to slip away from the rest and lock himself in a room in the Lee residence. The Lees, reluctant to break down their 18th century door, try every trick in the book to be rid of the guest who has overstayed his welcome, for days, and then weeks and months — from slipping him wafer-thin ham slices under the door well aware that he is a vegetarian, to contacting random persons listed in his address book who might offer a clue to such inexplicable behaviour. The central character, around whom the drama unfolds, being absent, the perspectives offered by the cast surrounding him must provide the commentary on the unusual interplay of life and emotions on display here.

The influence of the ‘Absurd’ is evident, and Smith admits being in its growing thrall in an email interview. “I remember being taken to see Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist when I was about 16 ... and loving (and not being able to believe) the number of things the comic form can do, and the possible interlayering,” she writes. Comedy can rip apart our fragile veil of social pretensions: Mark, for one, realises in the middle of the withering social satire that is the dinner that he has “made the terrible mistake of not just seeming to be but actually being sincere”. It can conjoin our notions of time and linear sequencing such that the precocious Brooke Bayoude, all of nine, instructs her classmate that there is a whole other range of numbers that come after 29: twenty ten, twenty eleven and so on. It can make the voice of a dead mother, speaking to her grown-up son say that she would have preferred a back-street abortionist if “I had known, when I was twenty-four/that you’d grow up such a godawful bore”.

And what of the person, the “absent presence” called Miles Garth who has retreated behind the door? One of the characters, Anna, wonders how shutting oneself up would affect language: “Would words just stop being useful? Would you lose language altogether? Or would words mean more...” Not surprising then that Smith’s book, too, remains centred around the “sensitivities and insensitivities of language”, about “words and how we use them and how they use us”. Puns find extensive rhetorical usage, used with the most devastating effect by Miles, when he sums up the dinner-table conversation as “nasty, British and short”.

As the writer of “a book very rooted in books”, Smith relishes her language and and expects her reader to let the words do the thinking. There is no authoritative denouement, though George Orwell’s ample quotation at the beginning of the novel, about how the essence of being human means “one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life”, might work for most readers. But then as Miles had himself remarked about the nature of communication, or the lack of it: “Reason not the need. Need not the reason. We don’t know. We simply don’t know.”

First Published: Jul 30, 2011 00:24 IST