Unamazing Grace Friday, Apr 21 2006 

Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife

One of the chief benefits of keeping track of all the important literary prizes, is that it introduces you to many new writers / poets. I’d never heard of Claudia Emerson till she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry five days ago, and on the whole am grateful to the Pulitzer for introducing me to her work.

Emerson’s Late Wife is a collection in three parts – the first part describes the sadness and eventual break-up of a marriage, the second (somewhat less focussed) handles getting over that break-up, and the third is an exploration of being in a second marriage and dealing with the memory of her new husband’s late wife (hence the title). It’s a short collection – each section has maybe a dozen poems, the entire book is only a little over 50 pages long.

But Emerson manages to pack a lot into those pages. Late Wife is a study in quiet elegance; Emerson’s poems here have a dignified, almost formal beauty that modulates and enhances the grief she is writing about, making it almost elegaic. Her descriptions are exact and lucid, and she has the true poet’s knack for bringing her poems to a close with that one glowing line that makes the entire poem come alive. Consider:

“The waxwing
accepted us as given, and with us
our seized, repressed sky, glassed light,

narrow stairway. So when we let it go,
when it refused that atavistic
sky, remained instead for a full

month in the hickory tree that loomed
over the house, I asked you why
we’d fed it. What had we saved

for a world so alien, the waxwing
must have believed it had died in those rooms
where for a while we went on living?”

– from ‘Waxwing’

Much of the book reads like this – verse after careful verse revealing, gradually, the shape of the poet’s conceit, the single metaphor often stretching across the whole poem.

And that, I think, was the problem I had with the book. Adept as she is, Emerson is also, I feel, unsurprising. Emerson does vary form and metre a little, but the overall tone of her poetry never changes, so that the poems blur together and you have the impression of reading one long-ish poem rather than several. And even within that poem, even within the 20 pages of each section, there’s a sense of predictability. The ideas / metaphors themselves are not strikingly brilliant, and there are few startling images. If these poems are compelling at all, it is because they have a classical aestheticism to them, not because they are particularly moving. There are some marvellous poems here, but on the whole it seems to me that Emerson is more a highly accomplished poet than a breathtaking one.

Among the sections, I liked the third one (late wife) the best, with its mournful but consoling sonnets exploring the memory of a husband’s former wife (dead of cancer). There are some lovely poems here, and the overall effect is sharpened, I think, by the fact that the reasons for the sadness are so much more specific. In a poem about finding a glove of the ex-wife, Emerson writes:

“It still remembered
her hand, the creases where her fingers

had bent to hold the wheel, the turn
of her palm, smaller than mine. There was
nothing else to do but return it –
let it drift, sink, slow as a leaf through water
to rest on the bottom where I have not
forgotten it remains – persistent in its loss.”

– from ‘Driving Glove’.

At one level, this section is a fascinating study in the transference of grief, an exploration of the idea that loving someone means mourning for their losses. As the new wife, the ‘I’ of these poems can have no real memory of the person whose loss grieves her – this is a second-hand mourning and Emerson’s calm, almost bloodless style seems particularly appropriate.

The same can’t be said for the first section. On the whole the poems here are as good, but the section overall strikes me as unconvincing, simply because it seems too detached in its sadness. Perhaps it’s just that in the world after Plath and Sexton, we’ve come to expect poetry to be rawer and more personal. With many of the poems in the first section of Late Wife (divorce epistles), one feels that they could just as easily have been written in third person.

This is not really an argument against the poems themselves, of course – it is an argument against the larger structure of the book. It seems to me that by framing the book so explicitly into three stages, Emerson does her own poetry a disservice. The poems work well enough by themselves, but when you start thinking of them as being poems written by someone in a particular frame of mind / at a particular stage in her life, they begin to disappoint. Take the third section. Is all Emerson can find to say about her new marriage that she mourns the loss of her husband’s former wife?

Overall, then, it seems to me that Late Wife is a niche book. Emerson takes two basic poem ideas – a bitter-sweet look back at a failed marriage, and an elegy for a loved one’s former wife (who is also, of course, a stand-in for the poet’s own former self, the fact that this self died of cancer only makes that idea more complicated and interesting) – and spins them out into a series of variations. There is little range here, but a great deal of formal depth.

An Unnatural Act Saturday, Apr 15 2006 

Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box

“Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet’s energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he’s up to and what he’s saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances”

– Elizabeth Bishop [1]

As those of you who read my other blog know, I’ve had fairly mixed feelings about Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, a collection of unpublished (and often unfinished) work by Elizabeth Bishop that was released this month. It seemed to me that Bishop should have the right to decide what among her writing she wanted to publish and what she wanted to suppress, and to try and second guess her now, more than a quarter century after her death, is not simply to invade her privacy, it is also to insult her astuteness as a judge of good poetry. This is especially true for Bishop (in a way that it would not be true, should the question ever arise, for someone like Bukowski) because the whole point of Bishop’s oeuvre is that she writes slow but very, very fine. Intense, almost obsessive quality is a hallmark of Bishop’s poems as it is of few other voices in our century. So that to publish, in her name, a collection of poems that she never got to polish to that kind of perfection would seem to be entirely contrary to her artistic principles.

Having managed to get my hands on the book [2], and read it through, I can’t help feeling that I was right. There are some real gems in this collection, but they are few and far between. Most of the poems here are too crude, too raw to be properly considered Bishop’s poems. Oh, there are sparks of brilliance a plenty, glimpses of the greatness that these poems could have achieved if Bishop had only found the time and patience to work on them (“crab-apples/ ripen to rubies / cranberries / to drops of blood”), but there are also lines that make you wince (‘ “Tweet”. Loud and coarse / the equivalent of “Dry Up!”‘) and a lot of stuff that seems pleasant enough, but has that rough-edged artificiality of first drafts. Many of these poems would be really good poems if they were submitted to a college magazine, but as pieces by so careful and preeminent a poet as Bishop they are a disappointment.

Should you even bother reading this book then? Once you come to terms with the fact that you’re not going to be getting truly Elizabeth Bishop quality, there are a number of reasons why the collection may still be worth it. First, while consistently great poems are rare here, there are a number of poems that have stanzas of incredible power, which the rest of the poem is unable to live up to. This, for instance:

“The walls went on for years & years.
The walls went on to meet more walls
& travelled through night & day.
Sometimes they went fast, sometimes slow;
sometimes the progress was oblique,
always they slid away.”

(and later, in the same poem)

“the floorboards had a nice perspective.
They rose a little here, sagged there
but went off alas under the wall.
Did they flow smooth on or meet
in the next room in a crash of splinters.”

– ‘The walls went on for years and years…’

or this, from the poem that gives the collection it’s title:

“As easily as the music falls,
the nickels fall into the slots,
the drinks like lonely water-falls
in night descend the seperate throats”

or this, from a poem called ‘The moon burgled the house – ‘, a delicate vision of the world going out with a whimper instead of a bang:

“the whole world turned like a
fading violet, turned in its death
gently, curled up but didn’t stink at
all but gave off a long sigh – sweet sigh -“

The other exciting thing about the collection, is the glimpse it gives you into another side of Bishop, into poems that sound accomplished, but strangely unlike her. I’d posted an example of one such poem on 2x3x7 earlier, but here are some others:

“Close close all night
the lovers keep.
They turn together
in their sleep,

close as two pages
in a book
that read each other
in the dark.

Each knows all
the other knows,
learned by heart
from head to toes.”

and this:

“Don’t you call me that word, honey,
Don’t you call me that word.
You know it ain’t very kind & it’s also undeserved.

I could take that to court, honey,
I could certainly take that to court,
But maybe I misunderstood you, and besides life is much too short.”

and this:

“I see a postman everywhere
Vanishing in thin blue air,
A mammoth letter in his hand,
Postmarked from a foreign land.

The postman’s uniform is blue.
The letter is of course from you
And I’d be able to read, I hope,
My own name on the envelope

But he has trouble with this letter
Which constantly grows bigger & bigger
And over and over with a stare,
He vanishes in blue, blue air.”

Finally, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box is worth reading for the insight it gives into the process by which Bishop wrote. Copious notes aside, the book includes images of a number of actual drafts, complete with scribbles in the margins, corrections, crossed out stanzas. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the black-box of poetry. And while Alice Quinn tries to make as much sense of Bishop’s scribbles as she can, she chooses (wisely enough) not to edit things that Bishop has not explicitly edited herself [3], so that every now and then, you can see Bishop trying out alternate phrasings. Consider this example:

“We all need the horizon, so it hardens
in its definition: the horizon,
(if it hadn’t, as they say, we would imagine it;
rather, my dear, you, being practical, would have.)

Other things that you & I imagined
were not often so obliging.
Still the horizon is unbroken.

We needed the horizon, so it hardened
to horizon, into faultless definition.
(If it hadn’t


Other spoken
were not often so obliging.
Still, the horizon is unbroken.”

– ‘Crossing the Equator’

It seems obvious to me that this fragment is really two alternate startings to the same poem (the verse itself, ironically enough, hardening into ‘faultless definition’) , even though Quinn includes it as the continuation of a single poem. It’s watching this process of the poem being born that makes much of this book so fascinating. Though it’s not clear to me that someone as fastidious as Bishop would have appreciated us all crowding around to watch.


[1] The source of this quotation is a delightful fragment of an essay on poetry which is one of the most pleasurable finds of the book. Bishop discusses (in a sort of verbal shorthand) her views on what makes a good poem, quoting (from memory) copious amounts of Herbert, Hopkins and Auden. Great stuff.

[2] A freak chance that. I was in the library and decided to check out the new arrivals section (a weekly habit) and found it just lying there. So maybe there’s something to this Early Birds and Worms thing.

[3]As a matter of fact, Quinn seems to include words / phrases that Bishop has crossed out in her drafts, but not really replaced – Quinn puts these in square brackets.

A few petty squabbles Friday, Apr 14 2006 

Rachel Cusk’s In the Fold

Let me put it this way. If you’re the kind of person who has a happy family life – a healthy relationship with normal parents, a happy marriage, promising children – and you feel that you’re missing out on all this domestic strife you keep hearing about, read Rachel Cusk’s In the Fold. This is a book that delivers perfectly that sense of tiresome pointlessness, of misery celebrated for its own sake, that comes with true domestic unhappiness. There’s the same sense of cliche, the same atmosphere of petty concerns and directionless repetition.

Nominally, In the Fold is a novel about the fading of youthful dreams, of a young man’s belief in the adult world. The narrator, Michael, is invited to his flatmate’s family farm / house for a party while at college. Here, he is introduced to the Hanbury’s (his flatmate’s family) who impress him with their sophistication and give him an ‘intimation’, a vision of what adulthood will look like. This is the youthful dream part. And it all happens in Chapter 1.

All the rest of the book is dedicated to the slow curdling of this vision, to the souring of everything Michael once dreamed of. Michael is older now, in a loveless marriage with a neurotic wife who feels stifled by the ordinariness of her existence [1] and blames Michael for it, and a son who doesn’t speak. As a way of getting away from the trauma of his own life Michael goes to spend a week with his old college mate Adam, whom he hasn’t seen in ages, drawn (it doesn’t take much to figure out) by the unspoken lure of that vision from his youth.

Predictably enough, the vision proves to be a mirage. Things at Egypt (the Hansbury family home) are not as they seem, all the prosperity and happiness of the Hansbury’s is an illusion, and as the novel progresses Michael finds himself in the middle of an anxious, squabbling family drawn together by greed and recrimination, returning from this delightful set-up to his beloved wife thoroughly disillusioned, only to continue the arguments with her. (Oh, there’s also some stuff about lambing ewes in between, though I never quite figured out where Cusk was going with that).

You probably think I’m being needlessly nasty. I assure you I’m not. Or not very much. The truth is that reading In the Fold is like watching someone pick at their own scabs – because that’s exactly what most of the characters in this mercifully short novel are doing most of the time. Cusk, I suspect (though it may be my own bias) would like to be Iris Murdoch. The house in the novel, Egypt, bears a strange country resemblance to the house in The Good Apprentice and the general direction of her plotting – the complicated pairings, the action consisting of conversations about life and philosophy between unhappy people – suggests more than a passing familiarity with Murdoch’s work. Unfortunately, Cusk does not seem to have either the facility of Murdoch’s inventiveness nor the depth and intelligence of her conversations. Many of the conversations in the book seem contrived and obvious. For instance:

“Something happened to me almost as soon as I got there”, I said. “I had an …intimation”

Of what?” said Charlie.

“That my life was going to expand and expand and become beautiful.”

A silence followed this disclosure. The gaze of the two women grew so discomfiting that I added, “It was a quality they had. The Hanburys.”

“And what was this magic quality?” said Charlie.

“They made it seem as though all you had to do was something other than what you thought you should do.”

See what I mean? As conversations go, this is about as eloquent and profound as Cusk gets.

The problem, I think, is that the whole novel seems too artificial, too desperately contrived. Cusk seems to believe that a dozen unhappy relationships are better than one, so that in the bleak world of her novel, all marriages are bitter and almost certain to fail, all children are ungrateful and a disappointment to their parents (if not subject to serious disorders), even all friendships are slowly drifting apart. Ok, so most people live lives of quiet desperation, but do all of them have to? Would it have killed Cusk to include at least one happy person in the whole set-up? Or at least one relationship that wasn’t acrimonious?

Nor does Cusk use a more sparing hand when doling out symbolism. Metaphor is spread thick all over this novel. Michael’s collapsing home life is conveniently and faithfully mirrored by the collapse of a part of his house. The contrast between Egypt and the small suburban house in which Adam now lives (without a view of the sea even) becomes a metaphor for the stifling nature of the world, the way it closes in on us. Even Paul the great patriarch is kind enough to have an operation for prostate cancer as a symbolic gesture of his failing sexual potence and gender dominance. Cusk’s characters aren’t exactly startlingly original (unless you’ve managed to avoid stories about unhappy spouses your entire life – in which case, why start now?), so you would think that we could figure out what motivates them, but Cusk is taking no such chances. One character has issues because of her deeprooted Catholicism, we are told. Another character might as well have the words Electra Complex written above her in neon letters.

The trouble with all this is that it’s really hard to feel an emotional connection to any of Cusk’s characters – they seem less like real people and more like puppets Cusk made up so she can be clever about them. But the artifice is so transparent, the cleverness so trite, and the overall effect so profoundly unmoving, that when the novel ends you just shrug your shoulders and move on.

To be fair, Cusk does have some gift for detail. Some of her descriptions are exceedingly well-written, and the dialogue between the characters (except where she’s trying to drive home her ‘message’, as above) seems authentic enough, if only because, like most people, most of the time they don’t say anything significant or interesting.

That said, In the Fold is a disappointing novel, one that, like many of its characters, seems to exult in its own unhappiness, insisting on its own unhappiness and that of its readers. Avoidable.

[1] I don’t blame her – if I were a character in this novel I would feel stifled and frustrated too.

Inheriting the World Thursday, Apr 13 2006 

James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love

There is a sense in which the history of the last century is the history of, well, History. Never before has History been so self-conscious, so active a presence on its own stage. As Camus argues in The Rebel, when God died it was History who stood up to take his place, it was the historical imperative that we made our master, it was in History’s name that thousands were sacrificed. The idea that present suffering could be justified in the name of the future persisted – only the location of that future shifted from some mythic Otherworld to an equally mythic Future. This is not an idea that has left us: when supporters of the war in Iraq speak of the ‘verdict of history’ it is this deified version of history that they are speaking of.

This is the idea that James Meek’s superb novel The People’s Act of Love sets out to explore. At the heart of the novel is the contradiction between acts done for other people and acts done for the People, the interests of Man vs. the interests of men. Meek’s point seems to be that at the heart of every revolution is this fundamentally self-destructive urge, this almost cannibalistic urge to be cleansed through one’s own destruction. “How couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes?”, Nietzsche writes. But can we justify arson on those grounds? Is crime justified if it is committed with good intentions – for love, perhaps, or out of nobility, or revolutionary zeal? How does ideology come to overwhelm common sense, common decency? What does it mean that rules and beliefs can almost take our humanity away from us? Is it just that we are malleable? Or is there, hidden deep within us, this urge to destroy what we most cherish, consume what we would most want to keep?

Meek’s answer in the book is an optimistic one. “Busy remaking the world, man forgot to remake himself” is the quotation the book opens with. And that, in a nutshell, is Meeks’ point – that you can’t take the human out of people, that our attempts at renouncing the self and becoming purely a part of the People will always fail, because we are not strong enough for so total a surrender. And that this is a good thing, because without it life would become unlivable and we would all end up destroying each other. Old affections will always have a hold on us, old loyalties will always reassert themselves, old habits of thought and action will never quite die. The killer will never completely abandon compassion, the coward will find his courage again. And that is what will save us, that is why the ending will be a happy ending, whatever price may be paid on the way.

If all this makes the book sound distressingly serious – I assure you it’s not. People’s Act of Love is a gut-spilling, heart-pounding romp of a novel, that reads like a cross between Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky and Alistair MacLean. The book I was most reminded of, reading it, was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian [1]. Like McCarthy, Meek has a taste for the macabre: blood is an almost constant presence in the book and descriptions of wounds are delivered with relish (“Strnad took so many bullets in the neck that his head popped back like the stopper on a beer bottle”; “another horseman leaned over and with the sharp tip of the sabre drew a line from the man’s forehead to his waist, the line thickened in a second and he fell down with the two sides of the line not together”; “The human talon closed around the food and snatched, severing an artery in the arm as it pulled back through the jagged hole in the window”). And in its clever use of suspense, its unflagging and hot-blooded action, in the very roughness of the Siberian life that it portrays The People’s Act of Love is a superb adventure story. Some of Meek’s characters seem stereotypical, but the interaction between them is brought about with great imagination and sensitivity, and there’s a constant sense of revolution being in the air, of dramatic violent changes taking place all around.

What makes The People’s Act of Love an exceptional novel is the way Meek connects and merges these two very different books – the Siberian crime / action thriller and the novel of ideas. It’s not just that the two are juxtaposed. It’s that the two are necessary to each other, that in many ways they mirror each other, reinforce each other. The desperation of the people of the town of Yazyk, who struggle to survive even as their world is torn asunder by the competing claims of religion and state and land and ideology and History and plain old human decency, becomes a microcosm for the forces tearing Russia apart at the inception of the Soviet Union. Here again, in the end, it is personalities that will matter, it is the interpersonal dynamics between the characters that will save the day, not the labels they give to themselves.

Bottomline: Reading The People’s Act of Love is a bit like riding a wild stallion. All the time you’re actually on the ride, you’re just holding on breathlessly, letting the story carry your forward at breakneck speed (and enjoying every minute of it). It’s only when you’ve got off the horse and stop to think do you realise how amazing the view has been all through, how incredible the trail that has led you, twisting and turning, to this point. Either way, it’s an experience you’re not likely to forget in a hurry.

Second thoughts: “Some of Meek’s characters seem stereotypical”, I said. I take that back. It’s not so much that they’re stereotypes as that they’re archetypes – ideas and ideologies masquerading as human beings. It’s a tribute to Meek’s talent that he makes these characters engaging at all, but eventually their role as ciphers shows through.

[1] And that, coming from me, is high praise.

Insecurity and Punishment Sunday, Apr 9 2006 

Graham Swift’s Shuttlecock

“Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?”

– Psalms 139: 5-7

The first thing you should know is this: I have nothing but the sincerest admiration for Graham Swift. Of all the novelists in that first Granta list, he remains one of my favourites (I would have said favourite, but this is a list that included Salman Rushdie. And Martin Amis). Other people can have their Barnes, their Barkers, their Ishiguros. I pick Swift [1].

I first read Swift in 1996, when Last Orders won the Booker. Impressive as Last Orders was, my personal favourite remains Ever After, a brooding adagio of a novel, a slow, sublime exploration of the thoughts of a man living with that most hopeless of all defeats – a failed suicide attempt. But I also loved The Sweet-Shop Owner, and enjoyed Waterland and Out of this World. And while I think The Light of Day was a slighter book than some of the others, there are sections of it that are sheer poetry, entire chapters so achingly beautiful that you have to shut your eyes half way through so as not to be overwhelmed by the writing.

What I love about Swift is the elegance of his writing – the calm, almost elegaic tone that echoes through much of his work. His prose has a rich, cello like quality – at its best it would make Forster nod in approval. Even when violent things happen in his novels (and they happen often enough) they happen quietly, so that you experience them not as acts blazing and outlined, but as echoes reverberating in the caverns of the soul, disturbances stirring the deepest, most secret waters of the heart. Swift’s is an underwater world, the world of emotions where everything slows down and becomes more graceful, and where the living world exists only as a reflection dimly seen on some distant surface. Every now and then his novels will break through that surface, gasp down a lungful of action, just to keep going. But action is not their natural habitat, feeling is.

Shuttlecock, Swift’s second novel, is an unusual read therefore. It’s a more self-conscious novel than anything else that Swift has written – more contrived, but also starker, more abrupt. Swift is more forceful here, more intent on telling a story rather than just letting his characters evolve, harsher with them than he is elsewhere. It is, perhaps, a necessary harshness, because by inflicting the rigours of the plot upon them, Swift manages both to convey the essential suffocation of their situation, and to set the stage for the denouement that is to follow – their escape back into simplicity. On the second page of the novel, Swift’s narrator remembers his pet hamster:

“You see, I used to torment my hamster. I was cruel to Sammy. It wasn’t a case of wanting to play with him, or train him, or study how he behaved. I tortured him. Not at the very beginning. I loved the tiny thing that the man at the pet shop took from a warm heap of its fellows and installed in an aluminium cage for us. I wondered anxiously over the pale huddle of fur which for several days did nothing but whimper, cower and coyly excrete in its new home. But at some time after Sammy’s arrival I made the discovery that this creature whom I loved and pitied was also at my mercy.

When did the torturing begin? I used to turn my hamster on its back and pin it down with a finger across the belly while it made frantic wriggles to be free. I simulated a bird of prey, holding my hand two feet above it like a claw while it crouched, mesmerized, in a corner. I cupped it inside my closed hands with scarcely space for air to enter, and then, slowly, made a gap between my thumb and finger – not enough for it to extricate itself, but enough for it to squeeze its head through in straining, strangulated efforts. Once, I opened our oven door…

And what was all this for? Will you believe me if I say it was all, still, out of love and pity? For love and pity hadn’t disappeared. I needed only a new means of eliciting them. Love ought to be simple, straightforward, but it isn’t. All these cruelties were no more than a way of making remorse possible, of making my heart melt, of earning the doubtful luxury of putting my hamster away at the end of the day, a nervous jelly in its cage, and saying, my voice tight with contrition: “I didn’t mean it, Sammy. I didn’t mean it. I love you, Sammy. Really…”

This then, is the central theme of the book. That it’s not power that corrupts us – we seek power because we’re already corrupted. Threatened and insecure, we crave control, if not over our own lives than at least over those of others. Love and power are merely the means by which we establish our ascendancy over those around us, this heirarchy of cages that we use to disprove the allegations of inadequacy that we feel are being made against us. This is not unfamiliar territory for Swift – guilt and inadequacy are constant presences in his work. What is new is the calculating, almost sadistic nature of the response, the way the tortured soul makes amends for his own failures by making other people suffer rather than himself.

The narrator of the novel is a man more sinning than sinned against. An average, no account government employee, working in an obscure department that maintains historical police records, living in his ordinary suburban home with his ordinary wife and ordinary kids, the narrator is tortured by the phantom of his father – a World War II hero, a daring secret agent whose exploits against Nazi Germany have been published in a best-selling memoir (gripping ‘extracts’ from which are contained in the novel), a book that the narrator reads over and over , as if revelling in his own mediocrity. Haunted by the image of this father at home and dominated by an overbearing boss at work, the narrator becomes a despot to his own family, punishing them as a means of proving his own strength.

As the story progresses, the novel evolves into something like a pyschological thriller, with the narrator being drawn into a Le Carre like web of mystery and intrigue, ending in a showdown that will change the narrator’s entire view of his life [2]. But this detective work is merely a byplay [3], the real agenda of the novel is the exploration of the links between insecurity and power – how we punish others in order to overcome our own guilt, our own mediocrity, but this only serves to make us feel more guilty, more inadequate. Swift does an incredible job of laying out this pathology.

Perhaps too good a job. The trouble with the novel is that it seems, overall, too clinical, to contrived. Almost like a bare bones sketch of a novel, rather than a novel itself. It’s as though Swift were so afraid that his audience wouldn’t understand him that he feels the need to spell everything out, lay on the metaphors with a shovel, just so that there’s no possibility that you might miss something. So just in case we didn’t get that the narrator’s father was a silent, judging presence in his life, Swift has the narrator physically visit his father in a nursing home (where he’s been put after some sort of mental episode robbed him, conveniently, of the power of speech) twice a week and actually say things to him like “Why don’t you tell me? Why don’t you speak?” and later, “I hate you”!

The book is full of such ridiculously literal contrivances. Not that any of them are poorly imagined, or badly described – they are woven into the novel with consummate skill – but after a point such insistent obviousness begins to feel ham-handed. A little more subtlety would have gone a long way. And the worst part about all this is that the narrator actually understands it all, can actually verbalise his own predicament. He’s not unconsciously channeling his awe of his father into his sadism towards his own children – he’s doing it consciously! He can actually come up with a conscious statement saying, effectively, that if he didn’t have to live in his father’s shadow he wouldn’t have to be nasty to his children. This is what makes the book so chilling, but it also makes it more awkward.

In the end, Shuttlecock may not be Graham Swift’s finest work, but it is still a splendid novel by a young writer struggling to trust both his own abilities and those of his audience. As an almost Dostoyevskian study of the ways in which our own insecurities and weaknesses can make us act in ways that are exacty opposite to our intent, it is a compelling read, as well as being a textbook example of tightly controlled plot development and the way that a myriad little incidents and details can all reflect and reinforce each other. If this stunning story is told too directly, is spelled out too much, we must forgive Swift for being young, and rest easy in the certain knowledge that true mastery lies ahead for him.


[1] Which is not to say, of course, that I don’t enjoy all these other authors. Just that in my opinion Swift is in every way their equal, if not their better.

[2] Though here again, Swift’s sense of British decorum reasserts itself. The final confrontation to this ‘thriller’ occurs between two middle aged bureaucrats sitting on a summer lawn, sipping gin and tonic. No weapons of any kind are involved, the cut and thrust, the parry and counter are all accomplished with words, with logic.

[3] Part of the problem may be that Shuttlecock is a really short novel. This works well overall, I think, but it keeps the ‘mystery’ from becoming too intriguing – by the time we begin to be involved it’s almost over.