Monday, October 29, 2007

Tomorrow by Graham Swift

Reading Graham Swift's new novel Tomorrow was for me an exercise in spoilage. The whole story hangs upon an essential hinge, but you see by mistake I'd found out what it was already. I can't remember where but some review gave the whole thing away, and so I wondered, knowing what I know, would the novel be much good anyway? Will knowing the end ruin the beginning, middle, and perhaps the end in the end? And it didn't-- turns out Swift's hinge was not so essential after all, but that it swings matters. In fact the swing itself is the point of the entire book.

Tomorrow employs a number of tricky devices, experimenting with the bounds and possibilities of conventional narrative. Swift uses second person narration for starters: middle-aged art dealer Paula Hook is telling this story to her sleeping teenage children one week just past their sixteenth birthday. It is the story of their family, beginning with the beginning of her relationship with her husband Mike and their first encounter "a stone's throw" from Brighton Beach, and following them through the years to their blissful present. And the narrative trajectory is tricky because nothing terribly story-worthy actually happens-- ordinary life is all, in fact a rather idyllic ordinary life. Compelling, yes-- but ordinary.

Paula is telling this story because she is unable to sleep, because she is fearful of what will come of the information she and her husband will reveal to their children tomorrow. The information itself isn't given until late into the novel (and this was what I knew from the start, incidentally), and here is Graham Swift's third trick: to make the act of withholding engaging. To let suspense be his sole narrative driver, and indeed, as it has been reported, what Paula is withholding is rather anticlimactic, but to Swift it is the very withholding that matters.

Is it enough to sustain an entire book? Almost, I think. Swift nails Paula's voice perfectly. Written as spoken, with backtracking, aversion, digressions, he conveys her love for her children and her husband, and her complicated feelings about "tomorrow". He fits a huge part of a life into the span of a night into the span of a book, and this compression reads convincingly. His reverence for ordinary life and love reminded me of Carol Shields' work (and I am going to read Larry's Party soon, so I am curious to see how these two books might be similar with authors writing in the voices of the opposite sex). Mike-- a biologist-- and Paula's relationship is a marriage of science and art (similar to that put forth by Margaret Drabble in The Sea Lady, and perhaps better realized). I enjoyed how both these characters engaged with the world through their work. And yes, it was interesting to see Swift playing with just what narrative can do.

However this focus on suspense, on withholding, seemed to function in the end to keep the really fascinating questions from being asked. What will happen tomorrow, I wondered, much more than I cared to know everything that was running through Paula Hook's head. Why had she and husband chosen to withhold this information from their kids? How had they decided to do this? And really, more than anything, what was the big deal? Because if the hinge on which this novel hung didn't matter to me, why should it really matter to Paula?

I enjoyed reading this book, but what was pivotal really wasn't the point. Is our experience meant to be analogous to Paula's then? Will she learn what we do? That instead of the "tomorrows" Swift focuses on, we remember all the other days.