Here We Are—Graham Swift

[I decided to read this short 2020 novel in two sections. I wrote about the first section before I read to the end.]

8 April 2020
To ‘Now Evie is seventy-five…’
…which comes, as it happens, on page 75. And it’s no surprise that, suddenly, a character we have only known about in her mid-20s is suddenly an old woman. It isn’t the first time that Graham Swift has mentioned things that the characters in 1959 (or earlier) know nothing about yet, although before now they’ve just been little throwaways. Like, Jack Robbins—stage name Robinson, as in ‘before you can say’—when he’s moved on from end-of-the-pier shows, will one day muse on the possibility of a knighthood. And the narrator has told us he never will get it. But what is new in this chapter is that this isn’t just a throwaway, but a whole chapter at least in this far-future timeline. We find things out about the main three characters that we hadn’t known before, including the fact that Evie ended up spending her life with Jack, and that he died in 2008. In Brighton, when he had first met her, she had been engaged to Ronnie. We already know that the engagement didn’t last beyond the end of the season when they were a stage act together. We still don’t know what happened to Ronnie—or, at least, we don’t after two pages of the chapter I’ve just started to read. I decided to stop at that point to take stock.

There seems to be no formal structure beyond the novel’s short, unnumbered chapters. For a while, the point of view is all Jack’s. He’s about to go on stage as the MC of the Brighton Pier show, and he’s good at it. He’s 28 and he’s been on the stage since his mid-teens—which doesn’t stop him getting an attack of nerves sometimes, just before he goes on. But his mother’s ghostly presence always gives him the push he needs—not that she’s dead. She’s with a garage owner in Croydon. Jack is confident because he’s good at it, but 1959 is not a good time for variety acts. As a concession to this new reality, there’s a resident pop group topping the bill at the start of the season, and Jack knows his days as a song and dance man are numbered. It’s no wonder he gets an attack of existential angst as he waits there in the wings. ‘He was nobody. Nobody. / And where was he? He was nowhere. He was on a flimsy structure built over swirling water.’ This is early on, and we’re only just beginning to piece together where he actually is…

…because that’s what this novel is like. Nothing comes out all at once. He’s mentioned Ronnie and Evie, for instance—or they’re mentioned in his thought-stream, which comes to us in the third person. And we know pretty quickly that they get to be top of the bill as the season goes on, on the strength of an extraordinary part of their act that becomes the talk of the town. But we don’t know that it’s a magic act, or anything else about either of them beyond the fact that Ronnie met Jack during their time in the army a few years after the war. And Ronnie’s magician hero seems to have been ‘Lorenzo’, real name Lawrence. We expect things to get filled in—and Jack, or whoever is narrating this, has dropped a little hint in the opening sentences. ‘Jack paused in the wings. He knew how to delay his entrance by the critical number of seconds….’

At the point that I’ve paused, he’s been delaying a lot longer than that—57 pages, not that anybody’s counting. His point of view, as I mentioned, is the focus of the narrative in the early chapters, as it trips back and forth over the months of that summer season. And then it isn’t, it’s Ronnie’s. And it isn’t Brighton in 1959, it’s Bethnal Green in the 30s. Ronnie is a sensitive little boy with a largely absent merchant seaman father and a mother who seems to hate absolutely everything about her life. It’s his detailed biography we get, not Jack’s, as he starts school, does his best to please his mother—and inevitably fails—and then is whisked away to a new life, aged eight. He is evacuated to Oxfordshire, to a middle-class world whose existence he had never dreamed of, and into the lives of a childless couple who seem always to have been waiting for a boy like him.

This feels like classic Graham Swift territory. I don’t mean ‘Evergrene’, the big house where Ronnie lives for nearly six years. I mean all the issues that Swift is able to stir up, from the complexities of the relationships between children and their parents to the narrowness of women’s lives, by way of the labyrinths of the English class system. And, always, there is his care with words. Swift’s prose is never showy, and if a word or phrase seems out of the ordinary someone notices it. Ronnie’s uncharacteristic-seeming ‘Fucking ’ell’—only the reader knows where it comes from at this point—is surprising enough for Evie to think about how ‘oddly innocent’ it seems, not so different from her mother’s ‘Ooo-er!’ And when Evie herself speaks of the act being ‘a new departure’ for her, she’s ‘rather pleased with her impressive turn of phrase.’

Because, of course, words in post-war England come with baggage, to do with gender, class, education. All Swift favourites. Working-class Ronnie—we’ve been warned about this before it happens—is a ‘new’ person when he comes back from Oxfordshire. It’s not the same experience as Swift’s own, but Bermondsey to wherever Swift lives now via Cambridge—the university, not just a visit which, Lawrence jokes to the young Ronnie, means he can say he went to Oxford—is the journey that working-class London boys like him could make only a generation later. When Ronnie goes back to what he grudgingly accepts is ‘home’ after the war—he’d fantasised about never having to leave ‘Evergrene’—he no longer has any kind of relationship with his mother. He leaves as soon as he can, to pursue the career she had hoped he was joking about. Lawrence was the man in Oxford who was a better father than his real one, now dead, and he was Lorenzo the magician.

The next part is mainly about how, with Jack’s encouragement, Ronnie advertises for an ‘assistant’. The short chapters in which Evie goes from curious chorus-girl to the fascinating creature whose role is to distract the eye from the magician, are steeped in a realistically unglamorous backstage world. She’s from the same kind of background as Ronnie, except that her mother had always encouraged her to do her best and go for roles where she didn’t have to sing. Or not on her own, anyway. I was going to say that’s the only supportive (real) parent we’ve met, but I realise I’ve come full circle. Jack’s mother, in his imagination anyway, is as sympathetic as could be. Or would be if she wasn’t living with a garage owner in Croydon. Croydon!

12 April
To the end
I’m disappointed. Not because the big reveal isn’t all that big—Ronnie’s mysterious disappearance at the end of the final show had been hinted at even before I last paused—or that so much is left unexplained. The problem for me is that it ends up feeling like a gimmick. I’m still convinced that Swift is aiming to make a connection between what an author does and what a magician does, but it doesn’t work because it isn’t properly explored. Swift is definitely interested in the idea of authorship of different kinds—including the way the characters write and rewrite their own lives. Or, crucially in this novel, how they don’t. Evie can’t give us the ending that Ronnie’s story needs because she doesn’t know it. And Swift isn’t telling. Meanwhile, on that difficult anniversary of Jack’s death that shifts the timeline to 2009, she is quietly determined not to let Jack’s former agent commission a new biography of him. She imagines other stories, Ronnie’s or the history of that fateful summer in 1959, but that seems no more than Swift reminding us of what this novel of his has already largely covered. It’s all very meta, and it seems a little bit pointless by this time.

Is that fair? In Mothering Sunday. Swift’s previous novel, authorship is right in the foreground as the narrator takes us through the unexpected twists in the life of the character whose point of view we follow throughout. She’s Jane, a housemaid to begin with, and the language of the narrative, even though not spoken by her, feels wrong at first—because we don’t know she will eventually become a successful writer. We learn exactly how she comes to feel so comfortable in the literary language of the early chapters, because none of it is simply a given. The narrative coups feel as though they have been earned—both Swift and Jane, somehow, have worked hard for them. In Here We Are, on the other hand, we have to take almost everything on trust—but, unlike the audience at Ronnie’s shows, we aren’t looking to be impressed by impossible things. If we can’t believe what we’re reading there’s definitely a problem.

I wrote at the beginning that there’s no easily discernible formal structure, and I suspect it was Swift’s sometimes random-seeming approach to shifts in the point of view and timeline that I was really thinking about. There is a structure really, of course, all to do with those themes I also mentioned before—plus another. I don’t think I mentioned death, despite this being as much at the centre of this novel as it is in all Swift’s best novels. It’s there in Waterland, Last Orders is steeped in it and, yes, there it is in Mothering Sunday. In Here We Are I would say it’s one of the two key ideas—the other being the question of what the weaving of elaborate illusions, by magicians and writers of fiction, is actually for. Ronnie’s mother’s reaction to hearing his ambition is so spot-on it gets repeated: ‘Magic, Ronnie, whatever fucking next?’ She might have said the same about writing.

I’ll come back to the theme of death because, especially after the new framing device of Evie’s bereavement has been introduced, it’s central to the novel. I’m not absolutely sure the same can be said of my point about authors being like stage magicians. But for me, it’s the only way to explain what otherwise are a string of storylines that seem to be taken from stock. Evie and Jack’s marriage is blissfully happy, to the extent that Evie is still suffering the early stages of bereavement a full year after Jack’s death. And, from the beginning, Evie had been so exactly the manager that Jack needed that she could have been the model for the tired cliché about the strong woman who stands behind every successful man. Oh yeh? Where did that that talent come from? Jack’s superb, natural acting ability might be easier to believe—there’s a whole thread running through of his mantra that all life is an act for him—but his easy transition into being a hugely successful impresario?

The thumbnail account we get of their lives as a married couple and a business partnership comes to us by way of Evie’s thought-stream during that day which, crucially, is the anniversary of Jack’s death. And it’s all a given, one long tell by an author who seems not be too concerned about how plausible it is. A more problematic implausibility is to do with the way Ronnie’s act develops, almost overnight, from typical end-of-the-pier stuff to such an inexplicable spectacle that even Evie has no idea how it’s done. Of course she hasn’t, because there’s no way that Ronnie’s ‘rainbow’ illusion could emerge, fully-formed, a day or two after he’s had the idea. Magicians do impossible-seeming things on stages, but… not by magic. A trick—or ‘illusion’—like this would involve a huge amount of work, and we know he hasn’t had the time. Which makes me hope that Swift is expecting this reaction. Of course this fictional world is made-up nonsense, he might well be saying, what else did we ever think it was?

This possibility didn’t really satisfy me, so I went back to reread the second half of the book. I’m still convinced that Swift really does want us to see that stage magic and storytelling are, in some ways, the same thing. But what point is he making, exactly? For me, the last 50 or 60 pages of the book, i.e. maybe the last quarter or third, are all smoke and mirrors. There are so many quick changes to the setting, timeline, point of view—Ronnie, Evie, even Lawrence’s wife Penny—that we really can’t keep track. And a quick glance confirms an impression I had of questions. ‘When did it happen? How did it happen?’ How did what happen, we might wonder. Well, any of it.

And it’s all tied up with that other great theme, death. Or death and loss. Or just loss. Jack feels the loss of his mother in that early scene in the wings even though she isn’t dead. Ronnie feels, first, the loss of his mother as she waves him goodbye on the train and then, much more poignantly, the loss of Lawrence and Penny as he leaves Oxfordshire to go back to her. But the real losses are connected with deaths. The first, significantly, is made to seem unreal, because when Ronnie’s father is ‘lost’ at sea, Ronnie himself has got used to his surrogate parents for over a year and is already learning the tricks of the magician’s trade. He feels no sense of loss for his real father for a very long time, probably not, in fact, until Lawrence dies too, maybe ten years later. (We don’t know at first that he’s followed by Penny until Evie tries to go and see her after Ronnie’s own disappearance.)

Later, he has to miss two nights of his act to go and visit his mother, ‘gravely ill’ in hospital. And the narrator—this is a Graham Swift novel, after all—draws attention to how that phrase always really means this is urgent, she might be gone before you get here. Which she is. Gone. ‘This was his mother, yet she had vanished. Yet she was still here. How could anyone, anything, just vanish?’ It’s the biggest question of all, and Ronnie has spent his life onstage proving that when things vanish, he can make them come back. Except, when he makes himself vanish at the end of what is literally his final appearance—I think Evie, or the narrator actually calls it that—it’s permanent.

As it is, almost 50 years later, when Jack does his vanishing act by dying in his sleep. Which is the only death in the book that leads Swift to unpack the details of the grieving process. Evie is constantly imagining Jack coming through the door, as though he’s just gone out for a while. She imagines she will see him standing behind her as she looks into the mirror—although once, in a scene I didn’t believe for a moment, it’s actually Ronnie she glimpses—and can never get used to the empty space beside her in the bed. And, in fact, it’s with her disbelief in his ‘goneness,’ the constant wish-fulfilment of the bereaved, that Swift chooses to end the novel. At the end of the long day of the anniversary, Evie ‘drifts off to sleep very quickly, but before she does—or perhaps it’s a dream—she puts out an arm and feels the warm, familiar weight. So it’s all right, everything is all right, he’s still there.’

This, as with any magic trick, could mean everything or nothing. Of course, we know he isn’t there, just as the audience knows there was no rainbow arching across the stage in Ronnie’s show-stopping illusion. And maybe it’s what brings magic and storytelling together most poignantly. Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are what we want to believe.

I said I was disappointed with this novel, because there are so many ideas fizzing around in it that it could have been great. I haven’t even mentioned Ronnie’s other great loss, the one he never mentions however much Evie tries to get it out of him, the loss of the childhood he should have had with his real parents. Instead—well, we know. A mother who couldn’t really love him presented in the narrative (one way and another) in stark and terrible contrast to what Evie and Jack enjoyed with their own mothers. As for fathers…. Evie and Jack didn’t really have fathers whereas, in a way, Ronnie had two. But what good were they to him? One was never there, and one wasn’t really his father—just the most important man in his life as he grew into adolescence. And he had to retreat into the background again at the end of the war, even though there was nobody to take his place. Sure, Ronnie took what he’d learned from ‘Lorenzo’ and ran with it. But where did that get him? By the end of the season, he’s recreated the rainbow he saw on the train back from the hospital, he’s recreated the parrot that was the only bright thing in his Bethnal Green childhood… but they aren’t real. Evie’s real, of course—but he hasn’t got her either.

Enough. All these things are in the book but, I realise, I’ve been trying to develop them here because Swift doesn’t. It should have been a longer novel.