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There but for the, by Ali Smith

Hmm… Hmm… This is the latest novel by Ali Smith, Ali word-Smith, so packed with puns, knock-knock jokes, limericks, Morse code, rhyming couplets, song lyrics, literary references, with "Words words words. Words words words. Words words words," that … hmm… I'm allowed to transliterate the sounds of my rumination.

The title, of course, is the expression that ends "… grace of God, go I," meaning there is nothing that separates us from the wretched of the world – "the people in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Darfur and Sudan" or the refugees whose stories are so appalling they are judged "not credible" – but God (or Fate or Chance). Around these four words, and around four points of view, the novel is structured, around a place – 0º longitude, the Prime Meridian at Greenwich – and a person.

In "There," unemployed Anna Hardie, formerly of the refugee board, receives an e-mail from Gen Lee. Anna is the sole contact listed in the address book of Miles Garth, who has locked himself in Gen's guest bedroom after a dinner party. The door is 18th-century and the Lees are loath to smash it in and forcibly remove Miles. Though Anna barely remembers Miles from a school trip in the 1980s, she goes to the Lees, tries and fails to talk Miles out, then meets the truant Brooke, a 10-year-old girl whose perspective takes up the very entertaining last "the" section of the book.

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"But" is told from the point of view of Mark Palmer, whose hilariously acerbic dead mother speaks to him in rhyming couplets – he's the man who brought Miles to the dinner party – and "for" by May Young, the elderly hospital-bound mother of a long dead girl Miles went to school with, whom Miles has visited every year on the anniversary of her death, except for the year he was seconded to Canada, and this year, 2009, when he sends a proxy because he is still in Gen Lee's guest room.

Meanwhile, outside an enormous crowd has formed and people are camping out, waiting to get a glimpse of the celebrity shut-in rechristened Milo.

This is pure Smith. At least three of her novels could be said to be about the connections between strangers, familial and otherwise. The Accidental also involved the arrival of an enigmatic character who changes everything. For Miles is an enigma. The why of him is less important than what he seems to represent to the crowd outside Gen Lee's window, and to Anna, Mark, May and Brooke, whose experiences of Miles have all been marked by some act of kindness. "How to walk a clean path between obscenities," in the Google Age, might sum it up.

Smith does offer a very detailed account of the dinner party that sends Miles fleeing upstairs, 56 pages, much of it conversation between the other guests, who, through the course of the evening, prove themselves to be cloddishly stupid, elitist, warmongering, hypocritical, racist, sexist and homophobic, except for Mark, who is gay, and the extremely precocious Brooke and her parents, who are black.

This is why I … hmm … ruminate. In dragging out this tedious, dated conversation – our only insight into Miles's actions – is Smith trying to make the reader feel what Miles felt? Is it satire? Are the other guests merely symbolic of the world's evils? Smith is a deeply moral writer who can't always resist moralizing, but the truth is the job of revealing truth is better done with rounded, surprising characters, such as Michael Smart in The Accidental – the student-bonking professor who teaches a seminar on cliché – and not these wearying stereotypes.

But everything else I expect from Ali Smith, and love, is here: the helium quality of her prose, its playful grab-bagginess (it includes a pair of cryptic stories separate from the main narrative, as well as instructions from the author to the typesetters), how she manages to write so lightly about subjects that are by no means trivial – time, memory, history and their relationship to language. And also what perhaps sums up her whole oeuvre, from her novels to her many collections of highly inventive short stories, the long answer to this short question: "What's the point of human beings? I mean, what are we for?"

Caroline Adderson is the author of two short fiction collections and three novels. The most recent, The Sky Is Falling, was a Globe Top 100 Book of 2010.

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