Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Graham Swift’s ‘England and Other Stories’ provides vignettes of ordinary life

Graham Swift’s new collection of short stories (twenty-five stories in 238 pages) provide what Lucy Sholes, writing in The Guardian (8/3/14) calls snapshots:

Reduction in all its forms is something of a theme in Graham Swift's collection, both in form and content. Over 25 stories he reduces his characters' lives to these snapshots; a freeze-frame suspended image of a moment that distils the essence of the life in question, reduces it to
something small and, to an unknowing observer, seemingly inconsequential.

But, as Sholes concludes, they are not unconnected:

As a collection, these initially disparate-seeming stories come together to build a coherent and coesive whole; whether the same can be said for the lives depicted, Swift seems less sure. “What a terrible thing it can be just to be on this Earth,” thinks a lonely widower who discovers a dead body on a solitary country walk. “First on the scene” for the only time in his life – but having dialled the emergency services, he's lost for words.

Valerie Martin, writing in The New York Times (5/20/15, was a little less kind:

England and Other Stories comprises 25 stories. Some are very slight, barely sketches, bits of conversation or ­reflection caught in passing; they slip by as strangers do in a populous, busy world, or as ­doodles on the margins of a ­narrative. Others are more complex and deeply engaging. These stories exemplify the ­pastry-chef theory of realism in ­fiction, which holds that reality is a pie; you can slice it. In each slice is the essence of pie. Pie has no plot, but it has character, and that’s what you get. And that’s all you get.

So in these stories we have a host of characters discovered at vulnerable moments in their lives. Most of them are men, but they are often having thoughts about women, encountering difficulties with women, talking to a mate or to themselves about women. If they are young men, the thoughts may be hostile, dismissive and anxious, if older they can be loving, tender and sad. The waning of passion is a theme reiterated bitterly. Passion is viewed by these men as irresistible, motivating, always worth the trouble though it’s bound to end badly.

An example of this is “The Best Days,” in which two young men observe an inappropriately-dressed mother and daughter at a funeral. One young man thinks of advice to give the other: “ ‘You run after them, Andy boy’ — this is what he might have said — ‘you get the hots for them and you have your wicked way with them and then you end up marrying them. And then years down the road, look what you get. So — let it be a lesson to you.’ ”

One of the more touching stories, “Fusilli,” is about a father who is in the pasta aisle of a grocery store when he receives the call telling him his son has been killed in Afghanistan. Later, he returns to buy the pasta he was holding, intending to secretly keep it as some small connection with his lost son.

In “Knife,” a young boy looks at a knife in an open drawer while listening to the moans coming from his mother’s bedroom as she has sex with a man he despises. He thinks of the ease with which he could use it: “He understood that at this moment, though he was only 12, he had about as much power in the world as he would ever have. He understood it almost painfully now. At 12 you could not be held responsible, even if you were.”

These short scenes are skillfully presented. To again quote Valerie Martin:

The best thing about these stories, what carries the reader smoothly along with the grace and ease of a gondolier on the Grand Canal, is Swift’s prose style. It’s a theatrical act of balance and lightness. Revelations are sudden, and the level of narrative tension can skyrocket in a phrase…

Another pleasure of Swift’s method is the continual play in his characters’ internal monologues, proceeding from some variation on a word or the unexpected turn of a phrase. Clichés often drive these characters to deeper scrutiny. In “Dog,” a wealthy older man pushing a pram containing his newest daughter (he could be her grandfather) ruminates about his life and how he came to this pass. “Was putting your affairs in order the purpose of life anyway? Affairs! A poor joke of a word. It was his affairs, having them, that had got him into this mess.”

…There’s something bright and rewarding about this tendency to consider both the connotation and the denotation of words as they appear in random thoughts.

Graham Swift is the author of nine novels including Waterland which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won The Guardian Fiction Award, the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and the Italian Premio Grinzane Cavour. His Ever After won the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and Last Orders won the Booker.

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