Out of this World: An Introduction

Barry J. Fishman '89

Out of this World (Viking Press, 1988) is Graham Swift's fourth major novel. One imagines that this work must have been very difficult to write, following as it does the magical Waterland, which received unanimous critical acclaim. Swift kept this book a secret until he was ready to publish, perhaps in an effort to protect himself. It was apparent that he was working on something in the years that followed Waterland but details of plot and structure were closely guarded by the author. The results are an interesting and gripping novel that takes Swift in some new directions while remaining firmly rooted in his past work, reiterating many familiar themes.

Swift is careful to relate his fiction to reality, deftly weaving the lives and events of his characters into the framework of actual history. One of the main characters, Harry Beech, is a photojournalist who has been a bystander to every major human conflict from World War II onward. Harry's entire career is a reaction to his dead father's munitions business. Robert Beech was killed by a terrorist bomb blast ten years before the novel takes place, ironically while Harry is on his way to photograph the IRA in Belfast. Harry is haunted by his father and the heroic image that was created around him after he lost an arm in World War I. Is Robert Beech really a hero? Should that matter to his son? These questions are reminiscent of Shuttlecock, Swift's second novel, and the search for their answers provides the impetus for most of the text.

By taking pictures of war that show the human and social losses, Harry rebelled against his father's "arms" empire. What he doesn't realize is that while he travels all over the world to photograph current events, his own family feels neglected back in England. His wife Anna is dead and his daughter Sophie is in psychoanalysis in New York City (an interesting aside: This is the first time that Swift writes of an American city. Prior to the writing of this novel, he had not visited the U.S. His American publisher brought him here for a lecture tour after the tremendous success of Waterland. Judging from its prominence in Out of this World, New York made quite an impression on Graham Swift.). Sophie has suffered from her father's frequent absences, and the closest that she has had to a father is Harry's father, the doting Robert Beech.

One of the most interesting structural features of Out of This World is the dual first-person narrative. Harry and Sophie take turns telling stories that combine to provide a complete picture of Beech family history. There are two individual chapters at the end of the novel, one by Harry's dead wife Anna and the other by Sophie's husband Joe. Temporal sequencing follows the individual recollections of the narrator. Time flow is slightly more linear if one first reads all of Harry's chapters and then all of Sophie's chapters, but in doing this one loses the carefully arranged interplay of the narrators' lives. The changing narration lends the book a strange conversational feeling, as if the elder and daughter Beech are somehow in mental communication across the Atlantic. This high-minded approach can work against Swift as well, as one critic comments: "The first-person reminiscences of both Harry and Sophie are too sketchy to give their past real substance. As a result, Out of This World remains a very cerebral book that describes strong emotion while failing to communicate it."

Whereas it is possible that many of the subtleties of Swift's writing could be lost amid the complex narration, only those encountering Swift for the first time in this novel will encounter problems. For the reader familiar with Shuttlecock and Waterland, or even with several of Swift's short stories, the novel's themes will seem like old friends. There is a great deal of familiar material in this novel; Swift merely broadens the scope of his favorite themes with imagery that reaches a wider audience. Where an earlier novel may have treated the Coronation of Elizabeth II as a world-wide media event, Out of This World begins with the Apollo moon missions. The addition of New York City also makes the book more accessible to American readers that may crave familiar turf. In any event, Out of This World is a welcome addition to Swift's works, successfully presenting many familiar themes in an entertaining and inventive vehicle.

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