Graham Swift | Critical Review by Harriett Gilbert

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Graham Swift.
This section contains 819 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Harriett Gilbert

SOURCE: "The Lost Boys," in New Statesman, Vol. 115, No. 2972, March 11, 1988, pp. 35-6.

Gilbert is an English novelist and editor. In the following review, she discusses the themes and narrative structure of Out of This World.

Fathers stalk through Graham Swift's novels like silent, mutilated giants. Their strangely-shaped shadows unfurl across the lives of the narrators, but their selves have always just turned a corner, disappeared into another room.

Swift's "psychological thriller" Shuttlecock, published in 1981, concerned the pursuit by a young married man of the truth about his father's wartime heroism, and its relevance to certain unsettling events in his own life. The Booker short-listed Waterland (1983) sought out not only a specific father, but ancestors, those whose lives are our history, in general.

Out of this World returns to the theme: its variation being that here Swift not only has a narrator-son but provides that son, in turn, with a daughter, whose narrative alternates with his. In the novel's present—1982: the Task Force is approaching the Falklands—Sophie has moved to New York with her husband, a man who sells dreams of "historic" England to would-be tourists on 6th Avenue. Sexually restless, disturbed by her past, she talks to her psychoanalyst, trying to avoid revelations about her exphotojournalist father, Harry, and concentrating instead on Harry's father, her Grandad: an arms manufacturer and war hero who was blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb in the back of his Daimler New Sovereign.

Grandad it was who brought Sophie up, while Harry, grieving for the death of Sophie's mother in a plane crash, roamed the horror spots of the world: snapped for his paper a Vietnamese mother clutching a blood-soaked child in her arms; three prisoners squatting in the Congo, blindfold, their necks linked together by rope; a screaming Cypriot boy in the fall-out from a mortar attack in 1964 … A mother herself now, Sophie not only forbids her sons toy guns, she won't let a camera in the house. "You can shoot with both. You can load and aim with both. With both you can find your target and the rest of the world goes black."

Meanwhile, in England, Harry does his own analysis: remembering the battles with his father over his refusal to enter the family firm; his meeting with his Greek wife Anna, Sophie's mother, while covering the Nuremberg Trials; the heroic reputation he enjoyed in the '60s for having "been out there"; his father's Victoria Cross and his murder.

If all this sounds intimate, claustrophobic, I should say at once that it's nothing of the kind. Swift may place us firmly in his characters' heads, but only to lead us to their eye sockets: to show us, through those, the panorama of 20th-century politics and culture. The heads are vantage points; little more. Harry and Sophie are cardboard structures to provide the reader with a bird's eye view of our wars, of the ways in which those wars are represented, of the ways in which the media affect our sense of ourselves and our society in general.

Indeed, it's our new ability to see the world as though from above—Harry was an aerial photographer before he was a photo-journalist; the novel opens with the Apollo astronauts' picture of our globe—which is the book's central concern. When we know so much, asks the author, how can we be sure of anything: from the "truthfulness" of a photograph to the meaning, if any, of heroism? At one point Sophie rehearses an autobiography to tell her sons: "Once upon a time, in the reign of Good Queen Anne … Can you picture it? The world is safe and small—it only stretches to the next hill …" Both she and her author know this is bunkum, the kind of thing that her husband sells in his brochures; Swift is much too intelligent seriously to think that life was once essentially pleasanter, simpler. What he does mourn is what he perceives as our dislocation from history, our abrupt removal from a chain going back through our fathers and their fathers before them.

It's a point of view that makes me uneasy, implying, as it does, that the 20th century's lack of a unifying system of thought, a commonly accepted purpose, a shared understanding of reality, is something that has somehow happened to us: that God, progress, whatever it was that (some) people used to agree on aren't constructs that they themselves invented to cope with a chaos like ours. In other words, Daddy was less a wounded giant than a person as confused as us; he coped with it differently, that's all.

Out of this World is also over-schematic, more like a game-plan than a game played out, with symbols sticking up like marker flags and a structure of crossword-puzzle symmetry. For all of which, it's refreshing to meet so unashamed a novel of contemporary ideas—in this country, a rare and valuable encounter.

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This section contains 819 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Harriett Gilbert
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