Monday, January 17, 2022

the last book I read

Shuttlecock by Graham Swift.

Prentis (we never find out his first name) has a slightly mysterious job as a senior clerk in a murky government department, a sort of deep archive of cold case material which needs to be kept safe and indexed and occasionally retrieved for use in new cases or when fresh evidence comes to light in old ones. His immediate superior, Quinn, is a slightly odd, mercurial sort of bloke, the sort of boss who keeps his staff in a constant state of mild unease with his unpredictable moods. Nonetheless Prentis has been led to understand that despite being relatively young (early thirties) he is being groomed for Quinn's job once Quinn retires in a few years.

Prentis has a fresh set of challenges once he arrives home from work: his wife and two sons, approaching puberty and teenagerdom and all that tricky stuff (the sons, not the wife), don't seem to like him very much, partly because of his occasional penchant for administering a swift backhander to any and all of them. While he and his wife still have a fairly active sex life - partly because she's nervous of saying no to him - of late this has involved a set of increasingly eye-watering positions and utensils just to keep the interest going. Some further tension is provided by Prentis' twice-weekly visits to his father in a nursing home - not only does this mean him monopolising the car so the wife and sons can't go anywhere, but he usually arrives home in a state of frustration brought on by the strange speechless near-catatonic state his father has been in for the last twenty years. As a substitute for actual conversation with his father Prentis has been re-reading Shuttlecock, his father's memoir of his heroic exploits as a spy (and subsequently as a prisoner of war) in occupied France during World War II.

A few odd things have been happening at work: Prentis, always entrusted with the trickiest assignments by Quinn, finds himself tasked with finding connections between cases and files that seem to have no relation to each other. Moreover, certain key files seem to be missing altogether, something that ought to be anathema to Quinn, but something that he seems oddly reluctant to pursue when Prentis broaches the subject. 

On further examination, and after conducting some not-strictly-permitted external enquiries of his own, Prentis discovers that at least one of the subjects of his latest set of seemingly unconnected dossiers knew his father, and that the details that would explain the connection are more than likely in the missing files. Having finally persuaded himself to confront Quinn about it, Prentis finds Quinn only too willing to tell all over a post-work gin-and-tonic. Quinn has been selectively removing files which he deems to contain information which would be needlessly hurtful to people should it ever emerge. In this particular case the missing file contains some letters which were sent to Prentis' father twenty years ago in an attempt to blackmail him, and which allege that not only did he have an affair with the wife of one of his wartime comrades, he wasn't actually a war hero at all, the account in Shuttlecock of his heroic escape from being tortured in a Nazi prison being wholly fictitious. Instead it was alleged that he cracked under torture and betrayed several other spies who were then captured and shot.

But what to do with this information? It's very tempting, given the dates, to imagine that these letters may have been the catalyst for Prentis' father's breakdown; but if they were, does that necessarily mean that all the allegations they contained were true? And even if they were, is it so terrible to have failed to withstand torture? Being intolerable is, after all, its purpose. And what of Quinn's efforts to spare people from revelations such as these? Will Prentis continue this (as Quinn pretty clearly wants him to) once he takes over the top job?

While Prentis ponders these questions, and some more practical ones, like what he's going to say to his Dad the next time he sees him, he finds himself oddly liberated, both by Quinn's departure and by the removal of the weight of the intimidating comparison between his life's achievements and those of his father. While his sons still pity and despise him (they are, after all, soon to be teenagers) there has been some thawing of relations, and he and Marian have settled back into a more relaxed relationship - fewer ever-more-complex joyless rubbery couplings, more furtive quickies in the dunes at Camber Sands while the boys are in the sea. 

This was Graham Swift's second novel, published in 1981; it's also the second Swift to appear on this blog, the other being the much later novel The Light Of Day back in 2011. It's a little slow to get going, but the atmosphere built up by Prentis' slightly Brazil-esque pointless shuffling of files and dealing with weirdly arbitrary requests for information is very effective. Things only really take off when big chunks of Shuttlecock, the book-within-a-book, start to appear, the breathless excitement of Dad's wartime exploits providing a slightly odd contrast with the suburban sterility of his son's day-to-day life. The idea of a wholly involving and thrilling World-War-II-based adventure, presented as true (within the novel's own reality anyway), which subsequently turns out to be fictitious may also be familiar to anyone who's read Ian McEwan's Atonement (or seen its film adaptation). Shuttlecock was itself adapted into a film in 1993, universally agreed to have been something of a shambles (although it does feature Wiping Your Arse With Silk Guy from the second and third Matrix movies) and which appears to have taken some liberties with the plot, in particular making Quinn the director of the mental institution rather than Prentis' boss. Oddly that wasn't the end of the story, the original film's director updating it 25 years later and re-releasing it as Sins Of A Father, sadly to a similarly lukewarm response.

Anyway, it's very good, slightly darker and odder than it at first appears, like most of Swift's novels. They are all good, but if you only want one I would unreservedly recommend Waterland, a book I tediously extol the virtues of at every opportunity (and have done at least a couple of times previously on this very blog).

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