THIS PUBLISHING season belongs to Graham Swift, author not only of the present story collection but also of three novels (including Waterland, a finalist for Britain's Booker Prize in 1983) now emerging in paperback editions.
All but one of the stories are first-person narratives. Many concern men of science -- chemistry, medicine, mathematics, zoology. Most stake their plots on the fens of family, on the marshes of marriage.
They seem, in part, repetitive. Swift has a favorite epistemological question -- if a thing exists but is not known to exist, is that different from its not existing? -- and a favored ending device -- the imagined reappearance of someone who has died. And yet, these stories are also rich in unusual situations, fresh writing and original insights.
Often their opening lines are particularly deft, showing how well simple means can draw a reader into a story: "Mrs. Singleton had three times thought of leaving her husband." "Uncle Walter had his own theory of the value of zoos." "The day they let me out of the hospital I went for a long walk round the streets."
As may be guessed already, Swift's forte is psychological dissection. He is particularly acute on the war between the sexes, leading us through labyrinths that tunnel to the enemy's heart:
"I blamed my wife because I myself felt to blame for what had happened and if I blamed my wife, unjustly, she could then accuse me, and I would feel guilty, as you should when you are to blame. Also I felt that by wronging my wife, by hurting her when she had been hurt already, I would be driven by my remorse to do exactly what was needed in the circumstances: to love her."
The best stories are the first two. In the title story, Mr. and Mrs. Singleton (a name too obviously meaningful) have reached a standoff in their marriage. Mrs. Singleton likes the arts and likes making love:
"She would stretch back on the bed with the sheets pulled off like a blissful nude in a Modigliani. She thought this ought to gladden a man. Mr. Singleton would stand at the foot of the bed and gaze down at her . . . (with an) expression, half stern, half innocent, in his eyes. It was the sort of expression that good men in books and films are supposed to make to prostitutes."
All Mr. Singleton likes is swimming. In fact, "when he made love to his wife her body got in the way; he wanted to swim through her." So Mrs. Singleton devises erotic plans involving their son. "He would become an artist, a sculptor. She would pose for him naked (she would keep her body trim for this), and he would sculpt her. He would hold the chisel. His hands would guide the cold metal over the stone and its blows would strike sunlight."
The story's achievement lies in creating a complex tension between this man and wife. But Swift lets the reins fall slack when he ends the story in the mind of their son, a peripheral character.
THE SECOND story, "Hoffmeier's Antelope," is chiefly a portrait of Uncle Walter, a sententious zookeeper whose mouth tended "to generate more spittle than it was capable of holding." To maintain alive -- if possible, to breed -- the last known pair of the species named in the title is Uncle Walter's job and his passion.
The narrator, Walter's nephew, is also his lodger, an uneasy arrangement. For one thing, the narrator brings home girl friends. These he conceals from his prudish widower uncle, who has "confessed with quivering lips that in thirty years of marriage he could never approach 'without qualms' what he called his wife's 'secret regions.' "
Uncle Walter is a marvelous eccentric, a man attuned not to humans but to ruminant ungulates -- a man who, because his "only culinary knowledge had been acquired in preparing the diet of hoofed animals, ate large quantities of raw and semi-cooked vegetables."
The story seems diminished when Uncle Walter becomes mentally ill in an ordinary clinical sense. And we grieve to see him, at the end, sentimentalized: apparently he and the last extant antelope elope. Walter disappears; her cage is found empty.
These first two stories suggest a quirkily strong collection, and most of the remaining nine contain passages, at least, that are vividly imagined. Even unforgettable: a frenzied gang of boys using a dead pigeon for a soccer ball.
But several of the stories are peculiarly impersonal. They suggest studies in the economics of emotion: arid Anyman versus angry Anywoman. They are more concerned with feelings than with the characters who feel them.
Other stories fall into contrivance and melodrama. In "The Son," for instance, a man devotes his life to concealing from his adopted son the facts of his birth. At the end of the story, in a pat reversal, the son stuns his adoptive father with the news that the latter was himself adopted.
The last and longest story, "The Watch," has a frankly supernatural premise. Because they possess a perpetual-motion watch, males of the Krepski family never die of natural causes. The story works itself out with Gothic twists, including death by lightning- bolt, until the watch is finally stopped by the touch of a newborn baby. When such mysterious powers control a story, the human characters hardly matter at all.
These stories are of thoroughly mixed merit. Swift writes grand scenes, magical paragraphs -- and finds as many ways to fail as succeed. There is something intrepid in his readiness to follow his nose. His story collection looks like the laboratory of a novelist.