Graham Swift Postmodernism in Graham Swift's
Graham Swift, British novelist and writer of short stories, was born in London on 4 May 1949 and attended Cambridge University, from which he received a B.A. in 1970 and an M. A. five years later. He attended York University from 1970-73. Until the success of Waterland /1983/, the novel that established his reputation, he taught English part-time at several London colleges (1974-83). Swift was born and raised in London and encountered the Fen country during his Cambridge years. According to a friend who met him during Swift's recent lecture tour in Canada, the novelist himself reports that he learned most of his information about the people and landscape he describes in books. His debut, however was not Waterland but a collection of short stories, Learning to Swim in 1981. He is the author of six novels from which Waterland won the Guardian Fiction Award, Shuttlecock won The Whitbread Prize, The Sweet Shop Owner won the Geoffrey Tait Memorial Prize, and Ever After /1992/, which won the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger.
Last Orders /1996/ is Graham Swift's sixth novel, for which he received the Booker Prize in 1996.
With only seven books, Swift has established himself as one of Britain's leading writers. He is considered a master storyteller and an inquisitive, ceaselessly analytical artist - one whose works embrace both the dramatic and the enigmatic.
Graham Swift’s works:
Learning to Swim /1980/
The Sweet Shop Owner /1980/
Out of This World /1988/
Ever After /1992/
Last Orders /1996/
•Jack Arthur Dodds (deceased) - "Dodds and Son Family Butcher, since 1903".
•Vince Dodds (Vincent Ian Pritchett) - "son" of Jack and Amy. "Dodds' Autos"
•Ray "Lucky" Johnson - "...if you want to put a bet on, he's your man". •Lenny Tate, Grocer - "Gunner Tate, middleweight. Always pissed. Always late". •Vic Tucker, Funeral Director - "...at your disposal". •Amy Dodds - Jack's wife, mother of June (mentally disabled). "...it was hop picking that started it....It's all pickings."
•Mandy Black - wife of Vince. "...a lassie from Lancashire".
The latest Swift‘s novel Last Orders is a surprise in a sense. It is surprising mainly because of the author’s selection of protagonists - they are common and uneducated Londonians who meet to carry out the last order of their deceased pal and that is to dispose his ashes at the end of Margate pier.
This selection of common people as protagonists is rather rare for Swift. The text is a juxt apposition of their memories about the same dead person, it is a collage of various voices talking about betrayal and failure. It is a model of retrospective prose. When writing a novel, it is hard to pick the right voice - the main narrator but Swift is a master of this art. Voices and narrators that he chooses help him create a moment here and now in its whole complexity. Another feature of this novel that is extremely striking is the mimetic subduing of the sapful and spicy language of the common people:
“ As if there was something wrong about used cars and something bleeding holy about meat “
/Last Orders p. 24/
“ Pips on man’s shoulders don’t mean a tuppenny toss. “
/Last Orders p. 28/
“ Jack’s dying and I’ve got a cockstand. “
/Last Orders p. 34/
The novel's title refers to the "Last Orders " or last wish of Jack Dodds, a London butcher, who wants "his ashes to be chucked off the end of Margate pier" - in the words of Ray Johnson, one of the narrators. This is a rather melancholic, or even morbid starting-point for story telling. The title also refers to the location from which the journey to Margate starts: to The Coach and Horses, a local pub in Bermondsey, south London, where Jack's friends order their "last" drink before embarking on their trip. The story begins in an East London pub. And Jack Dodds, dead and alive, is present from the start right up to the final moment when his ashes are carried away by the wind at the end of Margate Pier. It is Jack's boxed ashes, which bring his family and friends together in their favourite Bermondsey pub; and it is this heavy box and its contents that prompt their reminiscences on the car ride to the South Coast town of Margate. Shared memories overlap as the trip to Margate progresses, and in the forced intimacy of the car, old grudges re-surface and cause unexpected diversions. But finally, Jack's 'last orders' for the disposal of his ashes are carried out - more or less as he directed.
The participants in the journey to Margate are three close friends of Jack, all in their late sixties: Ray Johnson, an insurance clerk and gambler, Vic Tucker, the undertaker, whose "family business" is situated next to Jack's butcher shop, and Lenny Tate, the ex-boxer. Their driver is Vince Dodds, the motor-dealer and adopted son of Jack and Amy, who picks up the other three in a showy "royal blue Merc".
Ray's voice is the most prominent, he also narrates the chapters relating to the progress of the journey and its various detours. The second most frequently heard voice is that of Vince, followed by Lenny and Vic. Amy, Jack's wife, who along with Jack is a frequent presence in the memories of the four men, is also given a share in the narrative. Two single chapters are allotted to Mandy, Vince's wife, and one to Jack himself.
Amy declines to join the men's tour, which she had asked Ray to organise at Jack's request. She is on her own, different journey, visiting her daughter June. June has been living in an institution for the mentally disabled all her life. While Amy has been visiting her regularly twice a week, Jack decided, at an early stage, to ignore the existence of his daughter. Amy's recollections revolve around the conflicts arising from these different choices and traces them to their beginnings - to her first encounter with Jack.
The narrative frame follows the chronological - and geographical - sequence of the day trip from London to Margate, which is frequently interrupted by the memories of the seven narrators. The journey - and its cause: Jack's recent death, another absence - serves as the frame for the gradual emergence of a net of relationships, of intertwined histories in this local community. This frame is signalled by the chapter headings with place names, which trace the movements of the four friends in a very visual way, almost like road signs flashing up: Bermondsey; Old Kent Road; New Cross; Blackheath; Dartford etc.
The narration of this novel ranges from personal through reflector and stream of consciousness technique to camera eye technique. However, it is necessary to mention that all these techniques overlap, interrupt and support each other. Camera eye technique is employed mainly through Ray especially when he is narrating situations related to the progress of the journey:
“ It aint like your regular sort of day. Bernie pulls me a pint and puts it in front of me. He looks at me, puzzled, with his loose, doggy face but he can tell I don’t want no chit-chat. That’s why I’m here, five minutes after opening, for a little silent pow-wow with a pint glass. He can see the black tie, though it’s four days since the funeral. I hand him a fiver and he takes it to the till and brings back my change. He puts the coins, extra gently, eyeing me, on the bar beside my pint.
‘Won’t be the same.’
I say, ‘You aint seen the last of him yet.’
He says, ‘You what?’
I sip the froth off my beer. ‘I said you aint seen the last of him yet.’ “
/Last Orders, p.
Reflector and stream of consciousness technique is most evident in chapters employing Amy and Vince when both of them relate current situation with memories in the past that affected it or are associated with the current situation. Both characters’ narration – Amy’s and Vince’s – also exposes an emotional value for both of them have harsh feeling towards Jack which is evident from their narration. Amy’s narration especially creates a mess in reader’s head because her speech is very chaotic, uneven and heterogeneous and full of scorning, blaming and chiding:
“ But it wasn’t the Pier, he even got that wrong. It was the Jetty. He ought to have remembered: the Pier and the Jetty, two different things, even if the Jetty looked more like a pier, and the Pier was only a harbour wall. Except there isn’t no Jetty now, all swept away in a storm, years ago, and good riddance, T say, and amen. So maybe it wasn’t his mistake, maybe it was his alternative arrangement. If he had to be chucked, if it was a case of chucking, if he had to be taken to the end of somewhere and chucked, but count me out, Jack, I won’t be doing any chucking, then it had to be the Pier. Though it should have been the Jetty.”
/Last Orders, p. 19-20/
Another interesting and a very post-modern feature of the frame of narration is its sequencing. The author intentionally leaves one chapter open and then couple of chapters later in the text he continues carrying on the interrupted idea exactly where it has ceased before without any introductory paragraph. This forces the reader to absorb the novel very attentively and to scan the pages in order to draw links and connection among particular chapters.
Swift sagely employs different registers in this novel to illustrate different backgrounds of the protagonists. He uses motoring, butchery, mortuary, betting registers.
“ It’s a 380 S-Class, that’s what it is. V8, automatic. It’s six years old but it could do a hundred and thirty without a wobble...Custom paintwork, all-leather upholstery...It’s got white-walled tyres. It needs some air in the front near-side.”
/Last Orders, p. 23/
Swift also artistically inserts lyrics of popular song within the text. These songs include Roy Orbison’s, Chuck Berry’s, and John Lennon’s hits.
“ We’d hit the road and head out through the suburbs, like we’d robbed a bank and were on the run. Just runnin’ scared! Du-du-du-dum! “
/Last Orders, p. 105/
Creation of symbols in Last Orders is a remarkable feature of postmodernism as well. There is a number of symbols in the novel, however, I will concentrate on the most significant ones.
The use of the royal blue Mercedes limousine instead of a regular funeral hearse can be considered the crucial symbol because of two reasons. Firstly, Vince did actually give a thought to this selection because he wanted to please his father with glamour on his last journey since he has not done so while his father was alive. And secondly, low speed of the car and silence inside it while driving through Margate also suggest a symbolic use.
“ Seems to me the only time a man can get what he asks is when he’s dying. Though he didn’t ask for an S-Class Merc, extra long wheelbase, walnut dash. So I hope he damn well appreciates it, I hope he damn well does. “
/Last Orders, p. 23/
“ Vince lets the car roll slowly forward, barely touching the gas, as though it knows what to do, a Merc has a mind of its own, like Duke always knew the way home anyway, and I can see what he’s doing, I ca see how he wants it to be. It’s like the car has become a hearse, a royal blue hearse. Because this is Jack’s last ride, along Marine Terrace, Margate, along the Golden Mile. Last ride of the day, eh Jack? Vince looks straight ahead, hands on the wheel, like ho don’t want no distractions. “
/Last Orders, p. 273/
Except for the symbolism of the title, which I have discussed in the opening paragraph, the selection of names of characters is also symbolic. Vince Ian Pritchett or V. I. P. This abbreviation in contemporary language means Very Important Person. His name implies that he is very important. In fact, he only thinks of himself as being important. He is very self-conceited, ego-centric, and insensible especially towards Jack. His name can also be interpreted literally, he was important for Amy, he was a substitution for June, Amy’s mentally disabled daughter, he was very important for her as someone whom she can love while Jack was serving in Africa. Another protagonist’ name is symbolic as well- Vic’s. Vic as Victor which in Latin means winner. He is the winner of the race, because he knows what to do in a situation concerning death since it is his job to know so. And each of the two Jack’s peers wants Vic to die last so he can take care of each of them once they’re dead:
“ It’s a comfort to know your undertaker’s your mate. It must have been a comfort to Jack. It’s a comfort to know your own mate will lay you out and box you up and do the necessary. So Vic better last out. “
/Last Orders, p.
What is more, Vic claims that there are people who actually say that he is the next most important man to vicar, therefore he asks to be called Vic.
The name of the horse that wins Ray 33 000 pounds is another symbol – Miracle Worker - and his jockey’s name – Irons – even strengthens the creation of the symbol.
A short stop at Canterbury and a visit paid to the Cathedral similarly evokes symbolism. The size, glory and the antiquity of the cathedral compared to the importance or unimportance of human life is evident in thoughts of the protagonists. How small we are, how unimportant for the history of a mankind our lives are compared to the lives of the saints and kings who are buried in the Cathedral. We all are just miserable sinners. The author creates this imagery to point out that no matter how important a particular person is for us, it is nothing compared to those who had done their share for the history of mankind. Swift sagely presents this point though the realisation of his protagonists.
“ It’s a big building, long and tall, but it’s like it hasn’t stretched up yet to its full height, it’s still growing. It makes the cathedral at Rochester look like any old church and it makes you feel sort of cheap and titchy. Like it’s looking down at you, saying, I’m Canterbury Cathedral, who the hell are you? “
/Last Orders, p. 194/
“ And I’m saying to myself, Miserable sinner. That’s what you’re supposed to tell yourself, miserable sinner. You’re supposed to sink down on your knees. But all I’d been thinking, suddenly, was that it’s a far cry, all this around me, from what I’m carrying in my hand, all this glory-hallelujah, from Jack and his drips. What’s a plastic jar up against this lot? What’s the click and spit of a human life against fourteen centuries? “
/Last Orders, p. 200-01/
In order to exponentiate the symbolism created by the contrast of a human life and the antiquity of the Cathedral, the author goes further and puts in contrast the cloisters of the cathedral with the lane that has a symbolic name – Butchery Lane - because everyone gets what he deserves according to Vic’s opinion.
“ Then we head back the way we came, out through the gateway and along the narrow streets, except we take a different narrow street from the one we came up. It'’ called Butchery Lane, which is why we take it. Vince says we ought to. "
/Last Orders, p. 226/
Symbols bring us directly to the discourse of this novel. The chief discourse observed is betrayal and failure of a man. In this novel, betrayal is portrayed in various senses. The crucial instance of betrayal is Jack’s betrayal. He betrayed both June and Amy when he insisted on forgetting about the poor girl:
“ Best thing we ca do, Ame, is to forget all about her..
You bastard, you butcher.”
/Last Orders, p. 275/
Another instance of betrayal can be seen in Ray’s affair with Amy.
This betrayal is even doubled because Amy is Jack’s wife and Ray is his best friend. Because of this affair, Amy neglects her regular visits to June, which can be interpreted as Amy’s betrayal of June. And Ray is betrayed as well by his wife who leaves him because of another man. All other men feel betrayed by their daughter who somehow did not fulfil their fathers’ expectations. But if we turn this idea around, it can also be seen as a failure of a father to raise his daughter up to his desires. Jack also failed, he failed to have changed in Amy’s eyes and he failed to make her happy. Amy connects this failure of Jack’s to his unwillingness to visit his daughter:
“ So what was true of you, girl, was true of him. And maybe that’s why he never came to see you, because he’d already visited himself, looked in on himself somehow in that little room where his own body lay, knowing he wouldn’t alter. Maybe that was his sacrifice for your sake: no hope for you so none for him. His sacrifice of all those other Jacks he might have been. But pull the other one. Maybe Jack Dodds, my husband, was really a saint and I never knew it, I never cottoned on. And I was the weak and selfish one. “
/Last Orders, p. 275/
All other male characters fail to get things in order with their daughter, as well. And as far as betrayal is concerned, Jack’s last orders are betrayed, at last, by his son Vince. Jack’s original wish was to have his ashes chucked off at the end of Margate Pier. But not all the ashes were chucked off there. Vince had previously chucked a bit of Jack off at Wick’s Farm.
The author closes the novel with another discourse. It is the finiteness of a man. What are we compared to the infiniteness of the wind? What is one man’s life worth compared to history?
“ Then I throw the last handful and the seagulls come back on a second chance and I hold up the jar, shaking it, like I should chuck it out to sea too, a message in a bottle, Jack Arthur Dodds, save our souls, and the ash that I carried in my hands, which was the Jack who once walked around, is carried away by the wind, is whirled away by the wind till the ash becomes wind and the wind becomes Jack what we’re made of. “
/Last Orders, p. 295/
To conclude, Last Orders shows Graham Swift writing at his best, and he well deserves the nomination for the Booker Prize. The atmosphere he builds up as the book progresses is one of thoughtful reverie, he uses the frame of narration so wisely that he keeps the reader attentive.
He employs post-modern features from frame of narration through sequencing of narratives and juxt apposition to symbols and different registers. There is no main narrator – there are six or seven people who tell the story collaboratively which is also a post-modern technique of writing. It would have been very easy for Swift to create vivid, distinctive characters, as he has done before, but his gentle, understated approach is an essential part of the gradual intensifying of atmosphere that he achieves so well. It invites us to contemplate the course of our own lives. And it is also completely consistent with the old butchers' wisdom that Jack Dodds, towards the end of the book, recalls for us, just as he heard it from his father. It is advice which I think Swift intends us all to apply to our lives:
"....You got to keep a constant eye on the wastage, constant.
What you've got to understand is the nature of the goods.
Which is perishable".
/Last Orders, p. 285/
Sources of Literature
Swift, Graham: Last Orders. Picador, London 1996.
Thornley, G. C.: Outline of English Literature. Longman, 1995.