Shuttlecock: An Introduction

Barry J. Fishman '89

Shuttlecock (Allen Lane, 1981) is a wonderful combination of a Swiftian novel with a detective novel. The unified whole is labeled a "psychological thriller," an apt description. Really two novels for the price of one, Shuttlecock is the story of Prentis struggling to establish an identity independent of his father and also the story of his father's adventures as a World War II spy. This second tale comes in the form of an autobiography written by Prentis's father, entitled "Shuttlecock: The Story of A Secret Agent."

Swift's often writes of the schism between generations and in this novel the gap is between not two but three distinct generations of the Prentis clan. Prentis has an abnormal adversarial relationship with his two children that stems from his own insecurity about his "manliness." Prentis often calls himself a "weak, cowardly man," and seeks to resolve this character flaw by examining his father's autobiography for clues to that man's inner strength while being tortured by the Nazis. If Prentis's relationship to his children is bad, his relationship to his father is horrendous. This split between the generations is heightened by the old man's catatonic muteness, brought about by a nervous breakdown of some sort that forms one of the central mysteries of the novel.

The interwoven autobiography of "Shuttlecock: The Story of A Secret Agent" forms one side of Swift's artfulness in this work. The other side comes from the expert way in which connections are drawn between Prentis's ordered working life and his disastrous private life. Prentis works not as a detective but as a researcher in the "dead crimes" division of the London police department. He rarely knows all the details of the cases upon which he works, and is under the complete control of his Captain Bligh-like boss, Quinn. When Prentis goes home each night, he takes out his powerlessness in the office on his entire family, becoming a tyrant -- cold to his wife, mean and vindictive towards his children.

The novel turns upon a series of questions, phrased very well in a review of Shuttlecock by Punch magazine shortly after its release: "Was Dad really the hero he appeared to the world? What actually happened when he was interrogated by the SS? Did he talk? Is that why he can't talk now? Is that why Prentis can't talk to his own children? And who is it that is removing the possible incriminating files from the police archives?" All of these questions lead back to questions of heroism. Is it important to be "heroic?" Does Prentis need to be a hero to his children in order to earn their respect, does he have to compete with the "Bionic Man" they watch on the TV? Prentis is victimized both by his own insecurity and an increasingly complex world. His escape from both is the truly "thrilling" part of this "psychological thriller."

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