Monday, February 26, 2007

Last Orders by Graham Swift

Last Orders is the second winner of the Booker Prize I've read in a row, after Disgrace, and later this year for my English class I'll have to read Kashuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It's about the death of Jack Dodds, the local butcher in Bermondsey, London, and his last request: that his three best friends and his son carry his ashes to the British beach of Margate and scatter them to the sea.

The book tells the story of Jack and his family and friends via flashback. Each of the characters, plus a couple of others, including his wife Amy, gets a series of short chapters in which they tell their version of events, so to speak. If a book about transporting someone's remains told with a shifting point of view sounds familiar to you, it should: That's As I Lay Dying.

But whatever. Swift doesn't crib from Faulkner directly, though he has pretty clearly lifted the plot. He does all right by it, though: the characters, who at first seem to run together like any trio of old strangers sitting in a London pub might, eventually separate themselves into quite convincing portrayals. Peculiarly, Jack is the main character of the book (while Faulkner's matriarch almost certainly wasn't), even though he is dead, because the format allows us to see him from every angle: his faults, his assets, his passions and character. Swift seems to imply that the line between existence and non-existence is not death but memory; once you are forgotten you truly cease to exist. This explains why Jack's wife Amy continues to see her mentally retarded daughter June in an institution every week, though Jack refuses to come: it's as if when Amy stops coming to see her, June will cease to exist because she is completely out of mind. Last Orders is a book keenly interested in what it means to exist at all.

This is the second book in a row I've read that dealt heavily with the theme of aging (and, by extension, death). That may be all well and good for my professor, but it seems as if the course is missing out on literature that deals with my own problems and questions. Surely these books are worth reading at any age, but I can't help but feeling that I won't be able to understand them on the deepest level for some time now. Hopefully, a very long time.

There was a movie made of this with Michael Caine. It's probably pretty boring.


Carlton said...

What type of English class had you reading this?

Christopher said...

British American Fiction after 1950