LITE-2Z35: Contemporary Writing

Candidate: 3534278

Contemporary Literature
Last Orders. Graham Swift. Building on the work of previous writers, contemporary literature is defined primarily by its freedom in all aspects. It takes to extremes what previous writers put into practice, a palimpsest evolving new themes: memory, consciousness, contradiction, death. Writers exploit first-person narrative, narratorial independence, and in some texts1, the narrator even seeks to alienate readers. In Last Orders, Swift explores many of these aspects, his narrative experimenting in new ways as well as old.

One of the first elements of this book which grabs the reader s attention is the multiple first-person narrators. David Lodge expresses that in the world we live in today, a single human voice... can seem the only authentic way of rendering consciousness 2. Here Swift attempts to do this with many single voices, each offering their own incite and varied stand-point on the same situation. However, although the character speaking changes, the manner in which it is spoken stays very similar, so that the reader is not thrown though a series of stylistic and perhaps confusing transitions, but instead experiences the steady descant of a singular voice. Where it does not change in style or register, the accent and intonation continuous, the content is able to move more freely, forcing the reader to jump between memory and plot, and consequently make huge leaps in time. The effect this monotonous polyphony has is to create transient characters, their edges blurred and smudged, all spilling into one and other, and held in place by a shared bank of memories.

When the speaker becomes the spoken of, the visual alignment of the reader again changes. No longer are internal thoughts and memories accessible but instead we are fronted with external expressions, actions and reactions. When Ray narrates Vince scattering Jack at Wicks Farm, the reader is never clear of the intent or what thought traced itself through Vince s mind. Very often we define ourselves by our relationships with others and our reflection in them or their reaction to us, so perhaps the characters in this novel are truest to their self when seen externally, and that is why, in moments of spotlight-glory, the external is all that is shown.

Essentially, this has been called a text in journey form3. The characters undertake a quest in order to reach a resolution. However if we look at the essence of the journey it consists of only 5 focal points,
eg: A. Warner, Morvern Callar D. Lodge, Consciousness And The Novel, Unit Dossier, pg 3 3 P. Cooper, Graham Swift's Last Orders: A Reader's Guide, Continuum International, 2002, pg 32
2 1

LITE-2Z35: Contemporary Writing

Candidate: 3534278

and over half of it is spent inside the characters minds, remembering bits and pieces of Jack and them. Pamela Cooper described the novel as the interplay between story, history, and memory 4. Perhaps this is best thought of as a journey in memory ( in one direction there s what s ahead and in another there s the memory 5; like a person never dies in the mind s eye 6). After all it is the amalgamation of memories from our various and many narrators which brings us Jack: war hero, father, cheated husband, butcher; in effect this is his story, though he is the only one without a voice; Jack s life flashing before their eyes. It is asked when they first encounter the urn whether it is all Jack in there or Jack mixed up with bits of others 7. He is most certainly created in the reader s mind by bits and pieces from his friends, even the contrasting views such as Ray s fondness and Vince s hatred fuse together in an overall picture as one.

Despite this being a text about a journey, there is a preoccupation with standing still. Although introduced initially as a joke ( the coach which ain t ever moved 8) Jack s death seemed to create a feeling amongst his friends like [they] ain t going nowhere, it s the corridors and swing-doors which move passed [them] 9, like we re all in some place where things have come to a standstill

. This then

gives a purpose to their detoured journey, a means of re-animation, re-energizing themselves and moving on. Thus when they reach Margate pier, they have got to act quick , and symbolically Vince s sudden movement after the crawlingly slow car ride is time s sudden release and recuperation, allowing their re-entry into the present and their previously stationary perception accounts for Ray s description of event happening fast and rushed in comparison from here onwards.

History as well as memory is important in the novel. All five men have fought in the army, and were severely affected by World War Two. This is very fitting, as most of our contemporary lifestyle is a result of the war which caused massive industrial development, social reorganisation, and personal freedom. Thus this is a defining moment, and the change caused is reflected in the novel: migration is accessible, Susie disappearing to Sydney and Hussein living in England ( seeming suddenly like everyone was looking for a new place to pitch their tent


), divorce or separation is infiltrating, as is consumerism,

Cooper, Graham Swift's Last Orders, pg 31 G. Swift, Last Orders, Picador, 1996, pg 63 6 Swift, Last Orders, pg 267 7 Swift, Last Orders, pg 4 8 Swift, Last Orders, pg 7 9 Swift, Last Orders, pg 186 10 Swift, Last Orders, pg 185 11 Swift, Last Orders, pg 245

LITE-2Z35: Contemporary Writing

Candidate: 3534278

with Hussein s collection of cars and Vince s flaunted lifestyle, leading to growth in demand and inauguration of supermarkets, putting small-time butchers like Jack out of profit and business ( there was more than one meat market at Smithfield once ). This is all a reflection of the real world and how it changes, creating a backdrop of contemporary life.

Obviously death and dealing with it are main themes running through the novel, also key elements of contemporary fiction. It is said in many instances that if you don t do it, Jack will never know , and Ray says there ain t going to be no soonest or latest and you won t ever get the chance again , implying a belief in nothing after death. Last Orders seems to be fitting not only in the sense that these are frequenters of the Coach and Horses , but these are also their last orders, as soldiers, as a unit; these are Jacks last orders. However, although there is a finality to death, there is ambiguity over what then will ensue. Their certainty of Jack not knowing of the pilgrimage doesn t stop them going or making detours to take Jack for a last look

. It becomes clear that the journey is not for the dead man but for

them, to say goodbye to their friend, and thus each of them has a detour of their own.

There is a contradictory manner of dealing with situations which is used regularly in the novel. Despite Vince s comment that when something s one thing, it ain t another , there seems to be an underlying concern with things being something they aren t. Jack is a good example: he wanted to be a doctor not a butcher, and he pressures Vince to follow him despite his own aversions. Additionally his household consists of: a son whose home it wasn t but it was, a daughter whose home it was but it wasn t ... a mum and dad who weren t really a mum and dad hope
14 13

. Ray is supposed to be a lucky ray of

, but his family left him and despite his betting fortune, he does not have excessive money.

These contradictions stimulate the reader to impugn the tangled web of narrators and distrust their word as if there is always another side; it opens the characters memories to fallacy. Perhaps it is all elaborated truths, distorted recollections bent by time and desire. But without these memories, even misshapen and fragmented, there would be nothing else. All would be like June Dodds: exclusively confined to the present. So what Vince neglected to observe when he said nobody ain t more than just a body... which ain t nobody somebody.

, was not only that we are a body which remembers, but that that is



Swift, Last Orders, pg 10 Swift, Last Orders, pg 157 14 Swift, Last Orders, pg 284 15 Swift, Last Orders, pg 119

LITE-2Z35: Contemporary Writing

Candidate: 3534278

Finally, the approach of the author suggests a contemporary style and form: the tone is casual and conversation; the first-person narrative slips on occasion into second person16 and stream of consciousness; and it is littered with clichés17. There are also references to external texts such as the pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales, and Margate sands

. In addition, the fragmented chapters,

switching narrator, time, and place without concern, create a rhythmic discourse of plot and past which quickly becomes an interwoven canon of the two. Such textual interplay reeks of contemporaneity, the stylistic approach pushing and experimenting with the boundaries of the previous work.

Last Orders is a book of many depths and it uses many techniques, exaggerated and augmented, stretched to their potential and then given apparent narrative independence, to seamlessly dissemble the author and freely engage with an individual. Its insistent concerns with memory and death, contradiction and change, modernity borne by history and, quintessentially, narrative dominance, do not however define this text as contemporary. Part of the essence of contemporaneity is freedom from constraints, and so integrally it should not be definable. Henri Bergson said the truth is that we change without ceasing, and that the state itself is nothing but change

. And so it is only with the clarity of

time that we can look back at an overall pattern and find distinct change, and it is then that we can define our memory and label our history.

Swift, Last Orders, pg 277 - You can blame me that you were born... Such as: Vince the used car salesman, Jack the lad, the coach and horses 18 T. S. Eliot, Selected Poems, The Waste Land, Faber, 1961(2002), Pg 52, Ln 300 19 ed. Kolocotroni, Goldman, Taxidou, Modernism: An Anthology of Sources, Edinburgh University Press, 1998(2007), pg 69


LITE-2Z35: Contemporary Writing

Candidate: 3534278

Bibliography: G. Swift, Last Orders, Picador, 1996 P. Cooper, Graham Swift's Last Orders: A Reader's Guide, Continuum International, 2002 T. S. Eliot, Selected Poems, The Waste Land, Faber, 1961(2002) ed. Kolocotroni, Goldman, Taxidou, Modernism: An Anthology of Sources, Edinburgh University Press, 1998(2007)

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