By Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, September 9, 2007
By Graham Swift
Knopf. 255 pp. $23.95
For the second time this year, a Booker Prize winner has given us a short novel about a single night in bed. In June, Ian McEwan described an awkward honeymoon on Chesil Beach. And now Graham Swift wants to keep us awake with Tomorrow, a monologue in which a mother lies next to her husband, worrying about a revelation that will soon alter their lives. Superficially, both novels are about sex in the 1960s: for McEwan, really bad sex, and for Swift, really good sex. But while McEwan makes us cringe at his careful analysis of two nervous virgins, Swift makes us cringe for entirely different reasons.
Tomorrow opens in the anxious hours of a midsummer's night in 1995. Paula Hook, an art dealer in London, is obsessing over the horrible news that she and her husband will reveal to their 16-year-old twins in the morning: "You're asleep, my angels," she says. "So, to my amazement and relief, is your father, like a man finding it in him to sleep on the eve of his execution."
What an exquisitely suspenseful introduction, and Graham ratchets up our apprehension with each paragraph. Since Nick and Kate were born, Paula and her husband have been dreading this day. Dishes from the "terminal supper" of their "last day" have been put away, and now she imagines the coming scene at breakfast, how her husband will deliver "the biggest speech of his life," how her children will receive the news. "It's time you were told," she thinks, but will her husband survive the ordeal? "I picture a bomb going off and this house falling to bits." And then, just when you can't stand the anxiety of this mystery one more moment, it goes on for 100 more pages:
"How different tomorrow will be."
"Tomorrow looks like being a rainy day, my darlings."
"It's a lasting sadness to me, and it will have its extra stab tomorrow."
"We'll see tomorrow."
"Your dad will explain tomorrow."
"He'll give you these intimate details tomorrow."
"Perhaps tomorrow you'll try to dig up some more."
"You have to face tomorrow."
"What will happen tomorrow?"
This is coyness raised to the level of waterboarding. By the time Paula observes, "You must both be starting to muster an intense interest," I knew why her husband was lying next to her dead asleep.
And what horrendous mystery could possibly justify these 150 pages of anxious delay? Have Paula and her husband attained their comfortable middle-class lifestyle through drug-running or child prostitution? Did they acquire their beloved twins from a murdered dissident during Argentina's Dirty War? Are they closet Nazi transsexuals from planet Zorkon?
No, none of that would even begin to satisfy the level of suspense Paula raises in this claustrophobic narrative. And so it comes as a particularly bitter disappointment when she finally reveals the rather ordinary news that will shatter their lives. I won't spoil it for you here, but it's something like watching "The Crying Game" only to discover that Forest Whitaker is a black man.
Swift's overemphasis on this domestic mystery is a fatal distraction in what might have been a compelling meditation on family relations, but there's another equally weird misstep here. Tomorrow isn't just a woman's late-night ruminations on her life; again and again, Swift reminds us that she's rehearsing a confession to her 16-year-old twins. She wants to explain herself and her life to them. It's a story that takes her back to her college days, her courtship of their father and the striking social revolutions of the 1960s.
"What made that age so new, so different from previous ages," she explains, "was a little pill: once a day for twenty-one days, then a week off." Well, okay: Nothing wrong with a little frank talk between a hip middle-age mom and her savvy teenage kids. But that candor quickly descends into the-birds-and-the-bees talk from hell.
"At sixteen you're both virgins," she announces, but they're old enough to hear this: "I met your father when I was twenty and he was twenty-one, in Brighton, in 1966, when we were both at Sussex University. When I say 'met' I really mean 'went to bed with,' 'slept with,' if there wasn't, that night, that much sleeping." If you're starting to feel a little uncomfortable, prepare to squirm.
Anyone listening at the door that night, she says, would have "heard our thrustings and thrashings-about certainly, and later on heard something softer, slower, just a lovely, steady undulation . . . the merest gentle creaking of my bed. . . . We were engaged in a wonderful, slow, wave-like motion that neither of us wanted to stop. . . . I didn't want to interrupt your daddy's sweet and gathering rhythm."
Maybe I'm a prude, but "your Daddy's sweet and gathering rhythm" is a phrase that I could live without. And there are so many others here: "We started to make love again," she imagines telling her children, "with a new -- I don't think it's the wrong word -- potency." In fact, they made love "in some fine places," in "some little niche, some cupboard somewhere, a space in one of the store rooms, among the artworks, where we could have immediate and urgent sexual congress." There's a long passage about how their cat used to watch them having sex. There are frequent discussions of their father's semen. Elsewhere, she describes their sexual positions ("against all mechanistic wisdom"), how their father likes to cry out, how loud she is and even how she had to clean herself afterward.
"I've said too much already," Paula says (too late!), but then she goes on: "Let me tell you that the early mornings have always been our favourite time for it." Good to know, Mom.
It's enough to make one question the propriety of a male author trying to write in a woman's voice. All of these needlessly intimate details are spilled out in a misguided sense that her teenage children will "want to know everything, the full, complete and intricate story."
My own 16-year-old daughter, sitting in the back seat as I read to my wife in quieter and quieter tones, finally piped up and said, "Please don't let this give you any ideas." And when I got to Paula asking, "Should I be telling you this?" everyone in the car blurted out, "No!" ?
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at email@example.com.