Friday, June 13, 2008

I can see where they're coming from, but I didn't get it.

Graham Swift's The Light of Day is a sort of psychological/crime/love story. George Webb, a disgraced policeman, now works as a private detective, investigating the extra-marital affairs of the spouses of his clients. However, he gets emotionally involved with the case of Sarah Nash, whose husband had an affair with the Croatian refugee they sheltered in their home.

I didn't like it. I couldn't stand the prose style. He often uses short, pseudo-emotional sentences that lack a verb phrase (though don't quote me on that - I'm no expert on syntax) and rhetorical questions. I'll quote a bit:
"Or forgotten? Deliberately wiped from the record? A missing file. No, not here. You must be thinking of somewhere else."

To me, this is just plain bad writing. I used to write like that. I still write like that when I'm not writing well, and I read over it and shudder. It's a crude, unsophisticated method to try and create an emotional atmosphere. It fails. Majorly.

Other times, he slips into long, flowing sentences with far too much punctuation, which is just as bad:
"But this, this now, can't be what she would have imagined for me, what she would have wished. This woman in my life. That I'd be going, once a fortnight, two years now, to see - this prisoner. This killer."

Again, bad writing. It's better when he uses sentences of normal length, but then it slips into mediocrity. Frankly, I can't believe it won the Booker Prize.

The chapters are short and bitty - nothing of substance is said, ever. It is the final triumph of style over substance. Swift spends most of the novel skirting around the big issues, because he's evidently under the impression that withholding key elements of the plot for as long as is physically possible makes readers happy. I actually tend not to mind this, as long as the style is enthralling enough to keep me occupied, such as in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It also helps for the book to be gripping enough that I don't notice the suppression of information that would make the story make sense. Gripping, however, is not how to describe The Light of Day. It's been ages since I counted pages so much. I was willing it to end.

The praise for this novel has been excessive. Arena says: "A book so shot through with pent-up emotion that it practically trembles in your hands." I looked so hard for that pent-up emotion, but I could not for the life of me find it.

However, perhaps I'm being overly harsh. Here are some other points made by the critics, who are quoted liberally on the cover (inside and out), perhaps trying to convince the innocent Swift-hater that there is something worthwhile to be found in this pile of random words that pretends to be a novel:
  • "how to explain the inexplicable things in life: the strangeness of love at first sight, love like a blow to the heart, love for the duration?" Guardian
  • "sees the poetry and the tragedy lurking in an ordinary life" Irish Times
  • "Asks profound questions about how we live and love" Big Issue
There's also much praise for his "prose of such sensitivity" - I beg to differ, as I believe I have already made clear. On the other hand, I can sort of see where they're coming from with the points I quoted above. But I couldn't for the life of me see past the execrable prose.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Glad to see I wasn't the only one that just didn't get it :)