Shuttlecock: The Story of a Secret Agent

Barry J. Fishman '89

One of the most interesting aspects of Shuttlecock is the manner in which Swift weaves a story-within-a-story for the reader. The novel's central character Prentis seeks self-actualization by attempting to discover how his father was able to be so brave and strong while held captive by the Nazis in World War II. As his father is in a "language-coma," brought about by some sort of nervous breakdown, the only key to his personality lies in his autobiography entitled "Shuttlecock: The Story of a Secret Agent." Sharing his thought process with the reader, Prentis often demurs from his narration to present entire sections of his father's book.

Images of destruction, rubble, and the ravages of war are familiar to readers of Graham Swift. These images are noticeably absent from the narrator's life but are brought into stark focus by his dad's book. The scenes provide a dual purpose, giving the reader insight into the previous life of Prentis's father, now unable to speak for himself, and also providing a sharp contrast between the chaos and excitement of wartime and the relatively mundane life that Prentis leads in modern-day London. The interplay between the book and Prentis's life is often presented in blunt terms. For example: a scene where "Shuttlecock" is describing the filth and squalor of a prison cell which then cuts to the present and Marian asking Prentis if she can use all the hot water to draw a warm bath. (p.138)

The validity of the facts in "Shuttlecock: The Story of a Secret Agent" is slowly called into doubt as the novel progresses. As one of Prentis's more complex investigations proceeds at work the reader becomes aware that some of the characters in the father's book seem strikingly familiar to those in the secret police files. As all of Shuttlecock's various elements are drawn closer together the tension of the mystery begins to mount. The weaving and maneuvering that Swift works into Shuttlecock are what makes it a truly enjoyable work. How do the various subplots and mysteries in Great Expectations keep the reader involved? Are there any other works in English 32 that use this technique? What about Waterland?

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