"Makers of Magic"

by Ben Okri

[from The New Statesman, 29 November 1985]

. . . Graham Swift's Learning to Swim uses too many words. His stories are slack and his language often clotted. All but one are written in the first person and yet manage to be on the outside of their worlds. The first story is exasperatingly showy. The second is too long and unfocused. Swift seems to write short stories with the mind of a novelist.

He does, however, have a knack for bearing his reader on a rough paranoic wave: his stories are first-person nerve ends. His theme can be resolved into the terror of individual reality. What is difficult to understand is how, in the long rambling essay-story called "The Watch," he can have this description of a woman giving birth: the baby emerged 'like something poured out from a pickle jar, a slithery brine accompanying it. There followed it, rapidly, and indescribable mass of multicoloured effluents, the texture of liquid corals, gelatine, stewed blackberries. . . From what a ragout is human life concocted.' And earlier on there is this bad sentence: '. . .What, in turn, was that pregnancy, pressing, even as we sat, into our puny backsides, but the pregnancy of Time?' The idea of the story is interesting -- clocks cause time and contain demons -- but the treatment is ghastly and full of perverse sentimentality.

Swift writes a fiction of unease; the ends of his stories hang between illumination and dread. While they can be strangely compulsive, they are all so similar. One unmistakable thing is that they are about moral cowards and spineless individuals collapsing within the insidious pressures of evaded responsibilities, evaded vision. Maybe these are the kind of stories an aspect of England deserves.

[Added by Barry J. Fishman '89]

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