Sunday, May 23, 2010

Matthew's Review - Last Orders - 1996

Last Orders, by Graham Swift, received a bit of flak from the critics over its use of the structure from Faulkner's masterpiece As I Lay Dying. To me, that doesn't seem fair considering this novel stands on its own, and familiarity with Faulkner's work is absolutely not required.

Jack Dodds has passed away from cancer, and his final request, to his best friends, most of them war veterans, is to have his ashes scattered into the sea. His three friends and his adopted son undertake a roadtrip to Margate from London to do this. Along the way, they reminisce and celebrate the good times and the bad.

The Faulkner connection is that each chapter is first person stream of consciousness narration, getting right inside the head of the specific narrator. In the modernist sense, this means it goes backwards and forwards in chronology, which can make the first thirty pages or so confusing, as the reader's hand isn't held by the author.

Luckily, Swift makes each character real and breathing. You never doubt the authenticity of them for a moment. This sustains the emotional realism of the novel. It's very multifaceted, with numerous asides and flashbacks detailing everybody's lives, never in a painstaking or compulsive manner, always organic to the overall story.

If there was a criticism to be leveled at this book, it's that it feels slight, or airy. When Swift reaches for moments of thematic depth, the best he can do is a statement on the benefits of eternal friendship, or a platitude of a similar nature. There's no sweeping epic theme of death like which pervades the spiritual inspiration As I Lay Dying. Rather, Last Orders is a simple novel of friendship. This isn't necessarily bad, just slight.

Last Orders is a good novel, filled with realistic characters and an excellent use of stream-of-consciousness narration. But I would not say that this novel can be elevated to the heights of Faulkner or Woolf. It's better than what sits on most bookstore shelves, anyway.

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