Shuttlecock Summary
by Graham Swift

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Shuttlecock Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Shuttlecock is the odd, tense narrative of a man known only as Prentis, a senior clerk in an obscure government agency which collects and preserves information pertaining to closed cases and unsolved crimes. Prentis, the son of a British war hero, lives in the shadow of a past commemorated in his father’s memoirs about the war, Shuttlecock: The Story of a Secret Agent. Over his family’s objections, Prentis goes every Sunday to visit his father in the mental institution where Prentis, Sr., resides as a catatonic after a mysterious breakdown. Since his life at home is unsatisfying and filled with conflict (his sons dislike him as a result of his abusiveness; his wife is a willing but passive “victim” of his frequent sexual advances and is uncommunicative in other matters), Prentis, who is in line to take over Quinn’s position upon the chief’s retirement, becomes obsessed with his job and the business of keeping secrets. His narration of a series of events involving his father’s past and his own complicity in the family history stands in the form of a confession as Prentis exorcises his guilt for terrorizing his sons and turning his wife “into a whore.” In this psychoanalytic parable disguised as a mystery story (much as one of Western culture’s first mysteries, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, c. 429 B.C., is disguised), the narrator-protagonist of Shuttlecock gains entrance into a form of adulthood by recognizing and, paradoxically, repressing the sins of the father.

The mystery is initiated when Prentis notices that Quinn is holding back some vital information concerning three vaguely related “cases,” of “X,” “Y,” and “Z”:

  X (now deceased), a former civil servant, sacked for alcoholic incompetence and later arrested for a number of petty frauds and sexual offences, who had made allegations against a certain Home Office official, Y—allegations subsequently investigated (without Y’s knowledge, either of the allegations or the investigation) and found to be false. X died of a heart attack while undergoing trial . . . and . . . another Home Official, Z, apparently unconnected, professionally or personally, with Y (or X), who had committed suicide (by stepping in front of an Underground train) shortly after the secret investigations on Y.

As Prentis is accustomed to Quinn’s enigmatic ways, he does not, at first, pursue the missing pieces of the puzzle of X, Y, and Z, and he hands over to the chief the fragmentary information he has retrieved during his investigations. Quinn, however, quite intentionally, has planted the seeds of curiosity and suspicion in Prentis’ mind. On his own, Prentis pursues the investigation while obsessively rereading his father’s memoirs, sensing, unconsciously at first but with ever-increasing awareness, that there is some connection between his father’s internment in a German prisoner-of-war camp and the fates of the three government bureaucrats. Prentis becomes an armchair detective as he attempts to ferret out of the more figurative passages of the memoirs clues concerning a “plot” which seems to involve his father and X, Y, and Z; meanwhile, Prentis becomes more alienated from his family, to the extent that his son, Martin, begins “spying” on him by following Prentis home from work at a distance, never talking to his father and never admitting that he has tracked him.

Thus, Prentis’ pursuit of the truth of his father’s past is doubled by his son’s pursuit of his father: The distance in the first case is temporal, as Prentis (the son) must reestablish his relation to his father through the interpretation of a text; the distance in the second instance is spatial and personal, as Prentis (the father) must reestablish his relation to his son precisely through the psychological rediscovery of his own father.

Eventually, Prentis discovers that his father was being blackmailed by X (who was also blackmailing Y and Z) yet this discovery comes about in a...

(The entire section is 1,012 words.)