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The New Republic Online
Thursday, June 5th, 2003


 

The Light of Day

by Graham Swift

Day Tripper

A review by Ruth Franklin

The writer who confines his novel to the space of a single day faces a paradox. The day that he chooses must be somehow extraordinary in the lives of his characters, a day not like all the others, so as to justify its selection. But it must also be, in some ways, a day just like all the others, because it bears the burden of illuminating the entirety of a life. When this device is successful, the day seems to respond to its authorial pressure like a balloon, expanding to encompass all the moments of present and past that come to bear on the current action. But when it does not work, time seems to contract rather than expand, and the device becomes nothing more than an arbitrary gimmick meant to distract the reader from the novel's otherwise lacking form or substance.

In other words: in order to carry out the one-day form successfully, the novelist must cheat. Mrs. Dalloway would be of little interest if Virginia Woolf had taken the formal and temporal restriction too literally; stripped of Clarissa's longings for Sally or her regrets over Peter, the novel would be nothing more than the schedule of errands for a woman of a certain temperament planning a party. But the longings and the regrets of the past are essential to Clarissa's being, and therefore to her story. By animating her thoughts, they animate her life. And this "cheating" — recapitulating the bumps and the valleys of the preceding months and years, rather than hewing stubbornly to the straight line of the present day — is much more true to the actual experience of lived time, to the way a person's thoughts really do range over the course of a day, lingering much longer on memories and daydreams than on current activities. This is also why the one-day form fails in Don DeLillo's recent Cosmopolis: the internal monologue that Eric Packer unspools in his limo keeps tightly apace with the action (such that there is), allowing no history and no background, and therefore no character, to overflow the tight bounds of the predetermined time limit.

Graham Swift first tried out the one-day novel in his debut, The Sweet-Shop Owner, which appeared in 1980, and he has returned to it periodically over the years, although he has also permitted himself some extreme deviations — his extraordinary Waterland, published in 1983, encompasses more than two hundred years in the history of the family that it chronicles. But Swift, like Woolf, cheats the form: even when he holds himself to the classical unity, he stretches its boundaries as far as they will give. The Sweet-Shop Owner examines the course of a thirty-year marriage through the reflections and flashbacks of the title character, wasting little time on the perfunctory outlines of his routine. And Swift's last novel, Last Orders, published in 1996, pushes the limits even further: though it ostensibly records the journey of four men to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack into the sea, the book changes perspective among its characters with each chapter, so that the result is an examination of five lives rather than a memorial to one.

It would be wrong to call Swift's novels mysteries, but not entirely wrong: he has a quick sense of suspense, and he is stingy with the details of his plots, revealing key information only gradually en route to a final epiphany that goes at least some way — though never all the way — toward illuminating the dark corners of even the most apparently well-lighted life. His characters, typically, are middle-aged men who have suffered some kind of psychic blow — a divorce, a death — that has brought them to the discovery that their lives are at the mercy of powerful forces beyond their control, a combination of family, history, and mythology. In Waterland, Swift's third novel and his most profound realization of this vision to date, Tom Crick, a history teacher, is about to be forced into retirement, with administrative cutbacks in his department conveniently coinciding with a personal scandal: Mary, his wife of thirty years, has had a mental breakdown that culminates with her kidnapping a child from a supermarket. As Tom tries to make sense of the ancient sins and betrayals that led to her act, his lectures to his students take the form of a meditation on the history of his family, Fenmen engaged in a centuries-long struggle to reclaim the land on which they live from the River Ouse, which constantly threatens to flood it. Though the fundamental mystery at the heart of the book — a question of paternity that spans multiple generations — is never completely resolved, the truths that Swift conjures are genuinely moving and deeply satisfying.

Despite Swift's interest in the crimes of humanity, in general his characters serve not as detectives but as watchmen: Tom's father Henry Crick, a lock-keeper on the River Ouse; Willy Chapman, the sweet-shop proprietor, who presides behind his counter during the day and returns home to stand guard over his invalid wife at night. The activity of keeping vigil has always seemed to have something in common with the occupation of the novelist, who strikes a similar pose with regard to his characters. Swift is among the most invisible of contemporary writers: each of his books is told in the first person by a highly idiosyncratic narrator (or narrators), whose voice is in no way mistakable for that of the author. Yet for all their eccentricities and neuroses, the attitude of Swift's characters toward their lives is one of nearly uniform — and often frustrating — passivity. And this passivity is mirrored by their creator, who adopts largely the same attitude toward them. The watchman's invisibility can be beneficial, but in the face of a threat intervention is often necessary.

George Webb, the protagonist of The Light of Day, is in fact a detective, but the crime that preoccupies him is long since solved. Two years earlier, George, a private investigator specializing in "matrimonial work," was hired by Sarah Nash to follow her husband Bob, who was having an affair with a young Croatian refugee whom the couple had taken in. With the war in the former Yugoslavia ended, Kristina was scheduled to return home, but Sarah feared that the affair was not really over. She charged George to follow the couple to the airport to see whether Kristina got on the plane by herself. "Even if that's where they say goodbye, I want to know how he does it, how they do it," she told George. "I want to have been there — but invisible — for that."

The leave-taking at the airport went as planned, but afterward George, who by then had fallen in love with Sarah, followed Bob back home. Seized with foreboding, he returned to the house ten minutes later to find that Sarah had murdered her husband with the kitchen knife that she had been using to prepare their dinner. She promptly confessed to the crime and was sentenced to ten years in prison. When the novel begins, George is preparing for his fortnightly visit to her there, a journey he has made faithfully for the last two years.

This much of the story becomes clear in the novel's first few pages. But the tangle of motivations, conscious and unconscious, that underlie the action remains for George to tease out. As he makes his way through the day on which the novel takes place — the second anniversary of the crime — he painstakingly reconstructs not only the events of that singular day two years ago, but, as all of Swift's characters eventually must do, his own personal history, which includes a failed marriage and an estranged daughter with whom he is in the process of reconciling.

As befits a detective in George's line of work, the main object of his investigation into his own past is marriage and its seemingly inseparable companion, infidelity. The tale of marital betrayal is inherently trite, but George knows from listening to his clients that the participants are unable to perceive it as such. " 'My husband is seeing another woman.' There aren't so many ways of saying it — but you have to look as if you haven't heard it said in every possible way. They're all unique: the only one to have to come to the doctor with this rare complaint." Of course, George knows well that they are not unique, having witnessed as a child his father's affair with the mother of a friend. George kept this knowledge from his mother, who found out about the affair only when her husband, on his deathbed, repeatedly called the name of his long-ago lover.

Now George tries to understand the basis for the attraction between Bob and Kristina, which has resonances for his own infatuation with Sarah. Both cases, he believes, are a variation on the classic coup de foudre: "Something happens. We cross a line, we open a door we never knew was there. It might never have happened, we might never have known." Once the line is crossed, there is no going back; such doors, once opened, can never be closed. "Something's come over you," a line that is repeated again and again in various contexts, might be the novel's mantra; but George is never able to articulate what exactly that "something" might be.

Was there a period at least, an initial stage, when [Bob had] felt himself slipping, sliding, and tried to resist? That sweet good period — autumn slipping into winter, three years ago — which, for all of them, seemed to be about something else. This new presence in the house, this new soft mood. The urge to protect.... Pity and charity sliding, melting into something else.
Or it was just a single moment? Maybe. One of those moments that turn everything upside down. No preliminary period of veering, and arguing with himself, no watching her every day like some substitute father but at the same time like a spy in the dark. A moment, an opportunity. They were alone together in the house. The dead of winter. Curtains drawn. They caught each other like startled animals. A door left open. A look that passed between them, a look that wasn't so much like two looks colliding and instantly bouncing away, but like a single bolt sliding shut.

When George first sees Kristina, as Bob picks her up on the way to the airport, he looks for "some dizzying, devastating factor that might, in an instant, explain everything. But didn't I know, by then, there's no telling how it strikes?" He knows because "it" has struck him as well. Again, he is at a loss to explain it, but it happened the moment he saw Sarah waiting in his office.

The bar of sunshine between us caught her knees and gave them an almost tinselly sheen. They didn't seem like the usual knees of women that can project from a skirt with all kinds of angles and meaning. They were just knees caught in the light.
It was her knees, maybe.

If this observation — "it was her knees, maybe" — seems less than revelatory, at this point one is still willing to accept George's confusion as the necessary blindness of a man in love.

But eventually there must be some revelation, and George's powers as a detective are unfortunately not up to the task of producing one. Why did Sarah murder her husband after he had given up his lover and was returning home to her, after she had gotten dressed up and prepared his favorite dinner? This is the mystery at the heart of the novel, and Swift characteristically delays its resolution as long as possible. What "came over" Sarah, George believes, was the realization that though Bob had given up Kristina, he still cannot truly return to her. "He's not really there. He hears his wife's voice. He steps into the kitchen. Yes, this is his house, this is his wife, but it all seems utterly impossible. She sees it in his eyes. The smile on her face goes out." Once the door is opened, there is no going back.

This is a relatively uncomplicated vision of love, and it is at odds with the considerably richer attitude toward affairs of the heart that Swift has taken in his previous novels. One of the extraordinary things about Swift's writing has always been his ability to bridge the disjunction between the zeniths of human passion — the stuff of art and literature — and the much more superficial way in which we actually experience the primary portion of our lives. In Waterland, he portrays adolescent sex games as part of the grand scheme of natural history, as mysterious and primal as the reproductive habits of the eel; but we also see the romance between Tom and Mary in all its sweet banality, the shared confidences on the train rides to and from school and the ruined windmill turned love nest where they have their trysts. "Do you think people kill themselves for love?" one character asks in Ever After, Swift's fifth novel, which reads the early death of the protagonist's wife against the shadow of his parents' troubled marriage, which ended with his father's suicide. But again the mundanities of the couple's courtship — the late-night taxis, the seedy hotel that they visit — are as vivid as the moments of great passion.

For all the intensity of his investigation into the forces that bind people together or blow them apart, Swift has often seemed to regard love as a persistent source of mystery. The marriages his novels depict are pockmarked by great gaps in understanding; sometimes the characters are able to circumvent them, but more often they become abysses that threaten to swallow anyone who steps near. The relationship at the center of The Sweet-Shop Owner is estranged from the start, with a wife who seeks to escape her marriage through the slow suicide of allowing her asthma to go untreated for years. Even the widowed narrator of Ever After, who enjoyed a happy (if abbreviated) marriage, is preoccupied not only by his mother's adultery but also by the failed marriage of a distant ancestor, a pastor who fled his wife after losing his faith. All that Swift's characters can hope for is some belated understanding of the turmoil after the catastrophe has occurred; any advance reckoning is an impossibility.

The Light of Day takes up many of the same questions as Swift's earlier work. Do people die for love, and if so what are the consequences for those whom they leave behind? Can we choose to fall in and out of love, or are we inevitably overcome by forces beyond our control? But the book restricts itself to a much more shallow scope, and so it seems to strain for the sort of operatic intensity that once was natural. The overlapping circles of the novel's love affairs swirl around nearly every character: George and Sarah, Sarah and Bob, Bob and Kristina, George and his ex-wife, George and his secretary, George's father and the neighbor, George's daughter and her girlfriend. Yet its vision of love never advances much beyond the oft-repeated "Something's come over me," a simplistic and unsatisfying conception. This is not entirely for lack of trying. "How does it happen?" George wonders at one point. "How do we choose? Someone enters our life, and we can't live without them. But we lived without them before..." Sarah will try to push the idea further: Bob had said that he couldn't live without Kristina, but "he had lived without her, hadn't he? All the time he'd never bloody known her. All the time he'd been living with me.... We can live without anyone. If we have to, we must." George feels differently, but either he chooses not to argue his case or he is incapable of it.

"In my time of doing matrimonial work," he muses toward the end of the book, "I've seen quite a few couples who've come to grief, who've gone to war, for no other reason, so far as I can see, than that over the years of being safe and steady and settled, something's got lost, something's gone missing, they've got bored." This plainspokenness is no doubt intentional, but George's inarticulacy is a disturbing feature in a novel that is essentially a monologue. Swift used the device of the naïve narrator to great effect in Last Orders, in which a number of the characters speak in slangy dialect. But George's inadequacy as an investigator of his own affairs is more troubling for the fact that the book itself is presented as his written record to Sarah, his "twice-monthly reports from the world," which he delivers to her on each visit. "The truth is she's taught me to say things, to say all this, to put things down in words," he explains. "It's been an education, really."

There are some wonderful moments in George's account. On the visitors waiting to get into the prison, he observes: "By and large, we're a silent bunch — except for the kids. We haven't come to meet each other, and it's only by accident that we look like some special, picked group, a chosen few." At the end of visiting hours, "Time's up. A sudden activity. It's like the moment when a ship leaves. All non-passengers disembark. Where do prisoners sail?"

But the bulk of the novel is related in George's flatter-than-deadpan style, a near-parody of hard-boiled detective-speak. "She's reading my face like a book," he notes early on. "But that's just an expression. I didn't read faces like books (I didn't read many books), I read faces like faces." More often, though, the clichés are presented unmediated and uninterrogated: "we all have to eat," "my bread and butter," "the girl in her," "fate steps in," "time to kill," "an old hand," "home away from home," and many more. They must be intended ironically — it is hard to imagine anything else of Swift — but the text itself provides little reassurance.

This novel's exasperating flatness is entirely at odds with Swift's previous work, which has been distinguished by the density and the richness of its prose and its psychology. Perhaps with this, his third attempt at the one-day novel, he has exhausted the form's potential. Or maybe some questions cannot be answered in a single day. More likely, though, it is not the form that has failed Swift, but he who has inadequately risen to its challenge. It is not, after all, only the addition of the memories and the flashbacks that makes the one-day novel work, but also the way in which the accumulating episodes and details coalesce into a full-fledged character. The unlikely hero of this arbitrarily constricted romance remains too slight a figure to bear the burden of an entire life on his thinly sketched shoulders.


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