Archive for the ‘Graham Swift’ Category

Swift, Graham. Out of This World.  New York et al: Poseidon Press, 1988.

More or less contemporaneously, Harry, in England, reminisces about his life with his bomb-manufacturing father while, in alternating sections, his estranged daughter Sophie, in New York, tells a psychoanalyst about her life, also often involving her grandfather, Harry’s father.  The two have parallel problems–an obsessive concern with how their relationship with their father shaped and even blighted their lives, and how their fatherrs have driven them away and apart.

Harry has responded to his father’s heroic activities as a solder in WWI and then as prominent owner of the family munitions factory by refusing to be heroic, and refusing to be next in line as munitions-maker.  Rather than making bombs and blowing people up, he has become a famous photographer of trouble, a visitor to and recorder of dangerous spots everywhere.  (The book is centrally concerned with photography and observation, and with the distancing effects of observation generally.  Harry’s choice of witnessing rather than doing is said to be an example of a contemporary malaise, a way we all live now–and the book questions if it is indeed morally purer, or in fact just another way of letting bad things happen.) Harry is generally depicted as someone who avoids contact with the real, then–although he’s always there watching and recording it.  It’s interesting that Swift here seems to be duplicating a playing around with metaphors of cameras and guns, triggers and capturing images and such, that permeates a lot of Canadian writing in the decades before this British novel was published–as in Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid and often in Atwood (The Edible Woman, for instance, and a number of poems.

In a somewhat parallel way, Sophie is convinced her life has been shaped, and not well, by her father’s distance, his lack of involvement in her life as a child  (where his role as father has been taken over by his father, at least as Sophie sees it).  She has retreated from his apparent lack of concern for her, which has come to exist because his fear of involvement with reality at first hand has spread from his father’s business to his relationship with Sophie and her mother.  And while she has loved her grandfather and married a man who is warm and to whom she seems emotionally close, there’s a sense that she, too is keeping herself distant, somehow–not just distant from her father, but distancing her real sensibility from her husband and children.  She is more than they know.   So she is more her father’s daughter than she seems willing to admit.  And she, like him with his father, has moved far away–out of his world.

And he is more his father’s son than he seems willing to admit.  The key incident in the book is the moment at which Harry’s father is blown up by terrorists–the bombmaker hoist on his own petard.  Sophie’s alienation form her father seems summed up when she runs to see the disaster and catches her father on a balcony upstairs taking photographs of it.  He is always going up and above, in airplanes, especially, flying over the awful events he records–out of this world, as the title suggests.  But here and elsewhere, going out effects those still in.  He had destroyed his relationship with his daughter by trying to protect himself from involvement with others.

The device of the plot here is that Harry is gradually now being brought down to earth through a relationship with a woman younger than his daughter–he is re-engaging in the world he has been afraid to enter.   And one aspect of that is an invitation to Sophie to come to his wedding.  She clearly wants the contact, and at the end, is flying back to England for a reconciliation that hasn’t yet taken place.

That it doesn’t take place–that these two isolates remain disconnected from each other at the end despite the promise of connection to come–is one way this adult version of alternating narrative varies from what typically happens in children’s novels.  These two are not characters divided and different simply so that they can become together and the same.  There’s a strong sense that neither really understands him or herself well enough to be totally whole–and so how can they be that together?  At the heart of all this is a subjectivity that is never totally understood by any subject–a sense that people are always infinitely complex, and always more complex than they even know themselves. That seems quite different from the subjectivity most often on view in children’s fiction, where even complex characters seem to be open to eventual understanding.

There’s also a very complex and subtle kind of counterpointing going on throughout this book.  Harry heads off to Nuremberg after the war to record the trials, and finds there the Greek women he marries, Sophie’s mother–a surprising contact merging from his distancing profession, something positive in the midst of horror.  Sophie later heads off to Greece to explore her now dead mother’s past, and find the man she marries, not an exuberant life-affrirming Greek but an affable safe Englishman.  There’s something sort of parallel and sort of not-so-parallel about all that.  And there are similar resonances between the two narratives throughout.  I suspect I could spent a lot of time working more closely with this text to learn a lot more about its complexities.  Indeed, I just might do that, because it seems from what I know now as if it would repay attentiveness.  Among other things, the various events that Harry and Sophie remember in each of their sections seem to have variational or contrapuntal relationships to what happens in the other’s sections immediately preceding or following them.  Both Sophie and her mother, for instance, have sexual encounters with other men, driven to it by Harry’s lack of contact?

Another way in which this novel differs from your typical children’s novel with alternating narratives:  while the vast bulk of the book is Harry alternating with Sophie, there are two other characters who get exactly one section each: Joe, Sophie’s husband, and then, two sections later Anna, Harry’s wife and Sophie’s mom.  We are now seeing, for just this once each, how the spouses of these two characters understand the events they’ve taken part in as described by their partners elsewhere.  The placement of these sections near each after and immediately afters ones by their spouses suggests that this, too, is part of an elaborate counterpoint.  But it’s the refusal to be held to a tight recognizable pattern that most strikes me: a children’s fiction editor would be upset that the rhythm the novel had established was being interrupted in this way.–it’s too surprising, perhaps.  But I have to assume the adult novelist knows what he’s doing in deserting his binary structure–or rather, not deserting it, but suddenly and surprisingly complicating it.