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.

Notes:

[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.

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