Let’s go back to Graham Swift. I’ve been thinking some more about Last Orders. I talked about the story when I wrote up my first post, but I want to spend some time looking at the jumble of voice and structure and detail that transformed this particular story into such a wonderfully-written book.
What strikes me only a few lines into the very first paragraph is the particular emotional structure of Ray’s voice. His edgy melancholy and gruff sadness. He is a sappy stoic. Ray is set up right away as our guide to the novel. He opens THE story and signals that this story will also be HIS story. There are a lot of characters introduced across the next few pages and sly allusions to almost every single subplot which means the novel threatens to become confusing. But it stays firmly in Ray’s perspective for 18 pages, long enough for the reader to feel steadied again, before switching to Amy.
Amy’s voice is the “chin-up, old girl” variety – a perfect blend of bitter self-pity and desperate pluckiness. She is so angry but she’s trying not to let that anger win. One of the novel’s strengths is its willingness to keep us in suspense as to why. And we’re also meant to wonder about June, the person to whom Amy is talking.
Eventually, although Ray remains the most frequent POV, each of the men gets a turn leading the narrative – Vince, Lenny, Vic. And Amy shows up a few more times. The effect created is very much like a gathering in a noisy neighborhood pub. Someone starts reminiscing and everyone adds the detail most important to them. The stories intersect but also swiftly diverge. Details start to get cluttered or vague. The voices of the novel’s seven narrators are similar because they all come from the same place and have lived similar lives, a feature of the novel that frustrated me at first, but as I read further, I think Swift manages to differentiate them where it matters – their judgments of others, their interior decisions.
Besides Ray, I found myself really drawn to Vic. He speaks directly to the reader only seven times and each time with this kind of fierce pride and solemnity about him. He is the only man in the group who seems to be at peace with himself and his life. Although he’s just a little pompous too. He can’t help feeling the power his job gives him, although he tries to be respectful of it for the most part. I suppose I liked the contradiction in that. A character that recognizes the authority he has over people at their weakest moments and who tries to honor that but who can’t help feeling just a bit superior. That seems very human to me.
Part and parcel of the constantly shifting point-of-view in the novel is the way each man describes the others, and his friendship in relation to each and then to all. It was interesting to compare how Vic thought others saw him with the glimpses Swift gives the reader of how they actually did. Same for Ray and Vince and Lenny. Human relationships are so complicated, with so much room for misunderstanding and false impression. The men in Last Orders have known each other for something like forty years and Swift does an excellent job of using a particular blend of their voices to bring all that baggage, both good and bad, into the present moment of their car ride to Margate.
This is a novel I could write pages and pages about. And after my first post, so many of you mentioned his other novel Waterlands, which I now have waiting for me on the shelf, along with Shuttlecock, so I’m really looking forward to both.