Celebrity and Surveillance in ‘There But For The’

Heidi Yeandle

 

Ali Smith’s There But For The (2011) is about a man who locks himself in the spare room during a dinner party, and stays there for several months. As a plus one guest, Miles Garth’s act of seclusion provides the catalyst for Smith’s ‘scathing social satire’ (Tancke 85) of the Lees and their suburban lifestyle, with, as Ulrike Tancke notes, their main concern relating to the preservation of their ‘beautiful and authenticated c17th door’ (Smith 107, Tancke 85). I argue that Smith’s novel parodies celebrity culture and raises concerns about contemporary notions of surveillance. Smith’s satirical ‘reflections on the way we are now’ (Churchwell n.pag.) question what “celebrity” is and draws attention to what the media conceals, while also commenting on the theatricality of the modern world. These concerns are particularly apt in relation to the recent media frenzy surrounding the birth of Princess Charlotte.

 

3324818011_da8488d75c_o

Smith's novel parodies celebrity culture and raises concerns about contemporary notions of surveillance. 

[Image by id iom under a CC BY-NC license]

 

Miles’ residence in the Lees’ spare room blurs the boundary between the public and the private, as he is simultaneously isolated from the outside world and at the centre of the media circus that the Lees generate. As a result of Mrs Genevieve Lee’s column ‘REAL LIFE: An Uninvited Stranger Lives In My Spare Room’ (Smith 103), a crowd has gathered around the Lees’ house. They have developed a pulley system to deliver Miles’ food every afternoon, and the excitement centres on waiting to see the blind move and ‘the hand come out’, but never his face (188). Thus, the furore surrounding this daily movement is not related to Miles himself: his identity, like his face, is obscured. Miles is also renamed Milo on the basis that ‘it’s catchier’ (191). The fact that his “real” name is Miles is redundant, demonstrating a sharp division between the celebrity as a person and the celebrity culture surrounding them; the Miles versus Milo distinction illustrates the difference between the “real” person and their illusory celebrity status.

The fascination with the Lees’ unwanted tenant grows, as Miles/Milo becomes the central character in a global media frenzy. Journalists and television cameras from around the world gather outside the Lees’ home, and there is ‘Milo footage on YouTube of when the blind in the window moves’ (311). A key aspect of Miles/Milo’s celebrity status is that he is both visible and invisible, present and absent. As Brooke, a ten-year-old girl who also attended the dinner party with her parents, comments: ‘Roll up! Roll up! Come And See Invisible Man In Room!’ (311). Miles’s invisible visibility – he is hidden from view while simultaneously under the media’s gaze – illustrates a ghostly representation of the contemporary celebrity, as he is both there and not there. Mrs Lee similarly describes Miles as a ghostly ‘Other’ in her Real Life article, saying that the silence in the spare room ‘sounds uncanny’, comparing the stranger’s residence in their home to what ‘being haunted must feel like’ (106). Smith’s depiction of the haunting and invisible celebrity demonstrates Todd Gitlin’s discussion of the celebrity as a ‘familiar stranger’ and ‘a world populated by figures who were not physically at hand and yet seemed somehow present’ (Gitlin cited in Turner 3). The oxymoronic concept of the ‘familiar stranger’ and the ability to be both present and absent defines Miles, while also illustrating the distinction between Miles and Milo; Miles is the absent stranger while Milo is present and familiar – and, importantly, fictional. Thus, Smith’s portrayal of contemporary celebrity culture focuses on the “reality” of the celebrity, as the ‘Real Life’ column indicates. Smith exposes the artificiality of celebrities, emphasising the cultural construction of Miles’s fame by isolating him from the media machine.

While Anna, an acquaintance of Miles, questions whether Miles wanted ‘to know what it felt like to not be in the world’ (Smith 66, original emphasis), Mrs Lee exploits Miles’ celebrity status, recognising its money-making potential. Mrs Lee invests thousands of pounds on ‘Milo Merchandise’ including ‘T-shirts and badges and flags saying MILO-HIGH CLUB and SMILE-O FOR MILO’ (314), once again emphasising the lack of concern for Miles’s “true” identity in his re-naming. I would argue that Smith’s portrayal of Mrs Lee’s marketing adds to her commentary on the contemporary celebrity. As Turner notes, ‘the celebrity is also a commodity: produced, traded and marketed by the media and publicity industries’ (9). Mrs Lee recognised the potential to make Miles a commodity, and to generate media interest and a financial gain from her home-owning position. She realises that twenty-first century celebrities do not have to have a particular talent or skill, and that ‘the modern celebrity may claim no special achievements other than the attraction of public attention’ (Turner 3) – attention, in Miles’s case, that he is ostracised from.

 

2838004050_afe712dc29_o

In C21Britain, the average person is caught on CCTV seventy times a day, according to the BBC

[Image by Steve Rotman under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

 

Brooke’s interest in accumulating and writing ‘The fact is’ notes about Miles draws attention to the blurring of fact and fiction in the novel, and the lack of concern for authenticity surrounding Miles’s celebrity status. As Brooke notes, ‘anybody who is anybody in this history knows what the real fact is about Mr Garth’, which is that the Milo Merchandise ‘will soon maybe not be worth money any more’ (317, emphasis mine). A few months into Miles Garth’s residence in the Lees’ spare room, Brooke ironically reveals that ‘the fact is, the room is completely totally empty and nobody is in it! The fact is, Mr Garth has gone’ (319). Brooke’s emphasis on the real and the factual illustrates Smith’s parody of Miles’s celebrity status, and what the media attention surrounding Miles has masked. While the Lees and their dinner party guests know that Miles has vacated the spare room, ‘Mrs Lee has sworn them all to secrecy’ (318) because she wants to maintain the hysteria surrounding Miles. Smith’s satire is amplified by Mrs Lee taking on the persona of Milo and moving the blind in the spare room, in order to preserve the illusion that Miles is present in his absence. Brooke highlights the irony of this, noting that ‘it would be amazing if Mr Garth was, right this minute, standing outside in the crowd himself and looking at the window he is meant to be behind’ (349). Smith’s depiction of contemporary celebrity culture therefore suggests that fame outlives the celebrity. However, Miles’s absence is not the only fact concealed from the outside world, as Brooke reveals that ‘Mrs Lee’s husband [Eric] isn’t living at the Lees’ house any more’ and that Hugo, who was a guest at the dinner party, has moved in (293), suggesting that Mrs Lee’s focus on and investment in making Miles famous has led to the breakdown of her marriage. Thus, while facts and ‘Real Life’ are key aspects of the novel – indicated by the ‘the fact is’ notes and Mrs Lee’s newspaper column – facts and reality are masked, highlighting the manipulation of the media and the construction of news headlines.

Smith’s satirical commentary on the contemporary celebrity voices broader concerns surrounding surveillance in the technological age. The media attention on Miles becomes symbolic of the prevalence of closed-circuit television (CCTV) in today’s society, and of the inability to escape being under the gaze. One example of this is when Anna notices, ‘without even trying, three CCTV camera points from where she was sitting’ (62). She goes on to note: ‘how like a brand new, insane sort of narcissism it would have seemed, this mad filming of ourselves all the time, had we had a preview of it even just twenty or thirty years ago’ (62). Smith draws attention to how ‘insane’ and ‘mad’ contemporary surveillance is, and questions the impact being perpetually filmed has on human identity by portraying it as potentially narcissistic. Similarly, Smith discusses the madness of living under constant surveillance in interview with Tory Young, saying: ‘I remember thinking that when I was working on There But For The that in cameras and surveillance there’s a revelation of a mad state (or State). It’s like being stalked by some mad jealous person. That’s what the State’s like all the time, watching all the moves’ (Smith in Young 145).

The notion of a psychotic, gazing state is discussed at the beginning of the novel when Anna suggests that ‘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’ (8). As Miles’ circumstances and Anna’s discussion of CCTV indicate, being under constant scrutiny is now the norm, whether you are famous or not. Smith, however, discusses the implications of not being watched, questioning whether ‘people who didn’t have it [TPP] were somehow less there in the world, or at least differently there, because they felt themselves less observed?’ (8, original emphasis). Smith problematically suggests that being watched is central to human existence in today’s society, and that without an audience of some kind, humanity is diminished. But as her portrayal of Miles illustrates, it is possible to be both there and not there, both watched and unwatched.

 

2371783536_3c35408d17_o

Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment suggests that one can exist in two states simultaneously, given certain circumstances.

[Image by Jie Qi under a CC BY license]

 

Smith’s representation of the theatricality of living under surveillance succeeds in blurring the division between the public and private spheres. This is particularly apparent when Hugo stars in a monologue called ‘Miles To Go Before I Sleep’ (291), a play based on Miles’s residence in the Lees’ home. Brooke notes that Mrs Lee ‘goes to see it every night and matinee because she has something to do with it’ (292), suggesting that she has invested money in the performance, adding to Miles’ celebrity value. The lack of distinction between “reality” and performance is depicted by the inability to detect when the play begins; ‘when the play began, you couldn’t tell that it had begun, and then suddenly it just had’ (291). Moreover, the spare room is the only set in the play, positioning the room as a literal stage. This allows Mrs Lee to (re)enter her spare room, as she emphasises ‘how realistic it all was’, enabling her to imagine that ‘she was in the actual real room in her house’ (292). The metaphorical invasion of Miles’s space and reclaiming of her own space voices the spatial conflict as well as depicting the theatricality of the media, and emphasising the artificiality of Miles’s fame. Mirroring Mrs Lee’s portrayal of Miles by moving the blind, Hugo performs the role of Miles, and suggests that Miles’s act of barricading was carried out as a narcissistic attempt to be in the spotlight: he ‘did a lot of talking to himself and to the audience about how he had shut himself in the room because he wanted to be an actor and be on TV and the Stage but he had Failed in his life’ (291). Brooke’s point that Hugo does ‘not look anything like Mr Garth’ (291) is irrelevant, because the “real” Miles is unknown; despite being in the spotlight, the crowd’s knowledge of Miles is based on a fabrication of his identity.

Overall, Smith’s portrayal of Miles lends itself to parodying contemporary celebrity culture and satirising surveillance in the modern world. The ghostliness and artificiality of Miles’s celebrity status and the suggestion that Miles’s fame can survive without Miles puts forward a notion of contemporary celebrity that can be compared to Schrödinger’s thought experiment, which allows us to consider two states at once. Like the cat, Miles’ existence in the spare room blurs binary divisions, as he is both there and not there, both visible and invisible. The outside world believe that Miles is in the room, despite the fact that his presence cannot be known, and that Mrs Lee can perform the role of Miles. Thus, Miles’s ghostly fame symbolises the manipulation of the media, drawing attention to financial profit rather than the authenticity of the celebrity.

 

CITATION: Heidi Yeandle, "Celebrity and Surveillance in 'There But For The'," Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 3 (2015): n. pag. Web. 26 June 2015,  http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.3.04

 

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/HeidiYeandle.jpeg[/author_image] [author_info]Dr Heidi Yeandle's PhD, which she was awarded in January 2015, focuses on Angela Carter’s engagement with Western philosophy. Her research interests include Contemporary Women’s Writing, feminism and queer theory, and dystopian literature. She has recently had a paper published in Contemporary Women’s Writing on Carter and America, and has a forthcoming chapter on Carter’s Heroes and Villains in Faces of the Apocalypse: Change and Adaptability at the End, published by Inter-Disciplinary Press.[/author_info] [/author]

 

Works Cited:

Churchwell, Sarah. “There but for the, by Ali Smith – Review”. The Guardian [online] 05 June 2011 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jun/05/there-but-for-the-review [accessed 02 May 2015]

Smith, Ali. There But For The. London: Penguin, 2012.

Tancke, Ulrike. “Narrating Intrusion: Deceptive Storytelling and Frustrated Desires in The Accidental and There but for the”. Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Ed. Monica Germanà and Emily Horton. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 75-88.

Turner, Graeme. Understanding Celebrity. London: Sage, 2004.

Young, Tory. “An Interview with Ali Smith”. Contemporary Women’s Writing. 9.1: 2015. 131-148.

 

 

Please feel free to comment on this article. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.