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Common touch

Tomorrow A Novel; Graham Swift; Alfred A. Knopf: 260 pp., $23.95

September 16, 2007|Michael Mewshaw | Michael Mewshaw is the author of 10 novels and, most recently, a memoir, "If You Could See Me Now."

To an American reader, Graham Swift appears to have staked out a literary position as the anti-Martin Amis. Both British, both now in their 50s and living in London, the two novelists have enjoyed careers burnished with honors and brimming over with literary seriousness. But in contrast to Amis' style, which teems with postmodern excess and shimmers with brash verbal inventiveness, Swift's is more subdued, his characters more mundane, his plots more apt to seek out the extraordinary in seemingly ordinary events. Although Amis attempts to break new narrative ground with each book, Swift won the Man Booker Prize for "Last Orders," whose structure replicates William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." Where Amis forcefully proclaimed his aesthetic in "The War Against Cliché," Swift has quietly gone about the risky business of demonstrating the essential truth of cliché experience as well as clichéd expressions.

"Tomorrow," Swift's ninth book, begins with a woman lying awake in bed late at night beside her husband of 25 years. While Paula imagines a monologue addressed to her teenage twins, Mike dozes off "like a man finding it in him to sleep on the eve of his execution." They've already "made love in a special, a poignant, a farewell way." Morning, Paula makes it repetitively clear, will bring a confrontation with the kids that has the potential to end their childhood and alter the family forever. References to "your last day" and a "terminal meal" raise expectations and ratchet up the suspense. Divorce, disease, perhaps death seem to hover over what is described as a beatifically happy domestic scene. Since Paula and Mike appear to be perfectly mated -- he's a scientist with a romantic streak, she's an art dealer with a practical bent -- the reader is led to believe that only some tragedy out of classical Greek drama could destroy their contented home in Putney.

But as Paula rattles on about tomorrow's impending woe, she also busily unravels the pretty yarn ball of the past. We learn how she and Mike met in the 1960s at Sussex University, soon had sex and never sought other partners. We're introduced to their parents, cruise along on their uncomplicated courtship, huddle with them in humble early digs, then delight in their quick ascendancy on the real estate ladder. Their careers flourish in unforeseen ways. They have a cat foisted off on them and name it Otis after Otis Redding; they listen to "Dock of the Bay." They find that Otis, who has bedroom privileges, is an aphrodisiac. His purring turns them on. They suffer when Otis runs off and celebrate with his return. These feline peregrinations suggest to Paula the cycle of life and how everything led inexorably toward the births of Nick and Kate, just as now with each tick of the clock everything builds toward the revelation that threatens them all.

Although the narrator's heavy-handed manipulation becomes annoying and her repetitiveness -- frequent verbatim references to family history, treacly speculations about the children's virginity -- dins at the ear like a recorded announcement, the story has moments of charm and genuine tenderness. One nods in agreement as Paula points out, "How wonderful life is." But nobody ever appears to have taught her that she might have been better off showing the wonders and letting readers draw their own conclusions.

Or to put the blame where it belongs, Swift should have realized that revitalizing clichés doesn't necessarily require him to repeat almost every hackneyed phrase in the history of the English novel. One "bolt from the blue" is quite enough -- a second risks trying the patience of even the most forgiving reader. And to start two consecutive paragraphs with "in a nutshell" suggests either lame judgment or lamer editing. The same might be said of the tsunami of triteness that leaves the gasping reader wondering whether Paula has missed her calling. Instead of auctioning off obscure Italian masters, she might have made a fortune working for Hallmark. She and Mike, she says, "were always meant for each other, made for each other." "What you never had, you can't miss." "Life is short, my darlings. . . . Seize it, treasure it, cradle it." "All's well with the world really." "Just count your blessings." "It never rains but it pours." "But all's well that ends well."

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