Graham Swift Long Fiction Analysis
Graham Swift is one of a number of British writers who emerged in the early 1980’s to revitalize the English novel by experimenting with new thematic concerns without sacrificing the genre’s roots in realism. Among these are Peter Ackroyd, Julian Barnes, A. S. Byatt, and Penelope Lively. Swift’s work shares with theirs a concern for the relationship between fiction and history, between memory and the reconstruction of the past. His novels almost exclusively employ one or more first-person perspectives, and the reader is left to contemplate the “gap” between what one might consider objective reality and how that reality is constructed or refracted by the respective narrators. These narrators are not so much unreliable as they are both the creators and the products of their own pasts. Swift’s novels as a whole are marked by the absence of communication, and it is never clear to the reader to whom the narrators’ words are directed. In this sense, they often read as internal and reluctant confessions, marked in many instances by the desire for personal exculpation.
The Sweet Shop Owner
Swift’s early work draws on a number of modernist techniques, such as stream of consciousness, shifting perspectives, and a concern for the experience and passing of time. This is particularly true of Swift’s first novel, The Sweet Shop Owner, which offers a single June day in the life of Willy Chapman. The allusion to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and more distantly to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), is no accident. The Sweet Shop Owner opens with Chapman contemplating a letter from his daughter severing ties between them. Subsequently, it develops in two directions: following Willy through this, the last day of his life, and tracing the events of the previous forty years leading up to this point. As in subsequent novels, Swift is concerned here with the breakup of family structure and the barrenness of modern life, isolation punctuated occasionally by poignant connections and missed connections.
These themes are taken up in Shuttlecock, in a rather more pointed way, particularly in terms of epistemology (the way in which we understand or make sense of the world). The narrator, Prentis, works in an obscure government archive office under the watchful eye of his boss, who often requests files and reports that are missing or incomplete. The paranoia this creates in the narrator reaches a climax when these requests seem to bear on the past of Prentis’s own father, known to all as a war hero. Ultimately Prentis is, like the reader, faced with two profound and contemporary questions in terms of the problems of knowledge and textuality: Is his father’s heroic memoir fictional or true? Given the opportunity to discover the truth, should he do so or not?
The Light of Day and Tomorrow
The questions raised in Swift’s second novel are reminiscent of those posed by detective fiction, which is preeminently concerned, of course, with epistemological certainty, with solving mysteries, with determining the truth. Similar elements are found in Swift’s later novel The Light of Day, in which the narrator is a detective. In typically Swiftian fashion, however, the structural components of the detective-story genre are thoroughly subverted, to the extent that solving the apparent crime is one of the least significant of the novel’s concerns; rather, the narrator of The Light of Day fuses past and present to create an extended meditation on the nature of love and human relationships. Tomorrow also generates suspense toward some unstated (until the end) climactic event; the narrator reflects late one night on a family secret that will, when revealed to the children in the morning, profoundly affect their lives and the family as a whole. Notably, Swift employs a female narrator-interior monologuist for the first time in Tomorrow and, again, his ability to create a genuine and credible narrative voice is evident.
Out of This World and Ever After
If in Shuttlecock the narrator is confronted with a profound dilemma—to know or not to know the truth—Swift’s ensuing novels explore the characteristic postmodernist epistemological concern of whether such knowledge is even...
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