In Graham Swift's Waterland, Byatt's and Carey's streams of consciousness converge and feed into one another. Like Carey, Swift uses setting as a symbol for theme: the fens of East Anglia are the medium of Swift's message. Swift's conception of time incorporates Carey's anarchy and Byatt's cycle. Swift's narrator, a secondary-school history teacher named Tom Crick, recounts the history of three time periods. The earliest time period begins with the lives of Crick's seventeenth-century ancestors and culminates in the marriage of Crick's parents after World War I. The second period, the 1940s, covers "Mary Metcalf's adolescent sexual experimentation, Dick's [Tom's brother] murder of Freddie Parr, Mary's abortion, Tom's revelation of Dick's incestuous conception and Dick's consequent suicide by drowning, Tom's return from the war and his marriage to Mary" (Janik 83).The third period, the 1980s, constitutes the narrative present of the novel. Tom Crick's narrative defies chronology but supports his own conception of time; Tom tells these stories out of sequence because "there are no compasses for journeying in time" (Swift 102). In this narrative, the constant flow, convergence and divergence of history with the Here and Now emerges as the controlling pattern. Swift posits a continuous discontinuity: empty spaces punctuated by moments of knowledge over time.

Collectively, Swift calls these moments of knowledge the Here and Now. In Swift's analysis,

life includes a lot of empty space. We are one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson...The Here and Now comes in "surprise attacks" that "bring both joy and terror" and "for a brief and giddy interval announce that time has taken us prisoner. (Janik 86)

Like Carey, Swift considers unconstructed time, but Swift does not inscribe this space with the desecration of order and the institution of anarchy.

Unlike Carey and Byatt, who suggests in Ash's voice that historical periods pile up palimpsests of meaning one over another, Swift admits the existence of an "empty space": this creates the need for constructed history. For Swift, "history and the Here and Now are not opposites but polarities, two aspects of experience. Both emerge out of the empty space of daily life. Making history...and telling stories about it...are two different ways to outwit the emptiness we glimpse (and fear) at the heart of reality; to 'assure ourselves that...things are happening" (Janik 86). For Carey and Byatt the state of innocence consists of an innocence of the other. Maud's "fractured self" and Oscar's and Lucinda's "drugs" or dreams exist in this state.

For Swift, the state of innocence presupposes a total void like the fenland itself, "a landscape which of all landscapes, most approximates to Nothing" (Swift 6-7). Only in the Here and Now does Swift find "the moment of penetrating, inescapable reality in which one is poignantly alive and aware...that dreams are irrevocable and actions have consequences" (Janik 86). Outside of the Here and Now, one floats in an amniotic fluid, comfortably cushioned from and as yet unformed by responsibility and connections with others.

The convergence and divergence of history and the Here and Now create an imperative for narrative: "the work of staying even, the unglamorous but essential business of 'scooping up from the depths this remorseless stuff that time leaves behind'" (87). In Tom's narrative, his brother Dick works and dies aboard a silt-dredger called the Rosa II. In terms of his function and his essence, Dick provides a symbolic marker in the text. Dick's father thought he would become the Savior of the World. Not only does Dick reclaim the land, an act analogous to constructing history from the muddle of time, but he also interrogates the myth of the fall:

According to Waterland, woman leaves history with neither its conventional linearity or subject -- and thus as a kind of void;...this same postpatriarchal space uncovers a surprising point of intersection between once grand narratives. For in centering as it obviously does on Mary and in particular on her "hole," the void that is woman is inevitably inscribed with that imaginative leap by which Mary's pregnancy constitutes a parodic version of the "immaculate conception." The uncertainty surrounding the father produces, that is, a negative image of an episode crucial...to the Christian narrative. (Schad 919)

Dick testifies to the enduring unknowability, throughout the ages, of Christ's conception and Christ Himself. As a possible Christ-figure and the possible father of Mary's possible Christ-child (if the fetus had not been aborted), Dick stands at 0 degrees longitude where time begins and ends, meeting in one seamless eternity in this text. Waterland begins and ends with the void and the resulting need for a constructed story to create a beginning and ending.

In her article "'What's in a Word?: Possessing A. S. Byatt's Meronymic Novel," Thelma J. Shinn encapsulates the common mission of Byatt, Carey, and Swift. Shinn defines the meronymic novel as an "'image of parts,' one which can encompass...seeming contradictions in style and content" (Shinn 164). Shinn describes the tension betwen metaphor and realism in the meronymic novel:

Words are actions, Emerson and others have argued, and the art of words is called poetry. It is in the poem, therefore, that language and action can unite in the highest expression of human consciousness; returning the poetic possibility of metaphor to the realistic precision of literary prose provides the raw material for the art of the meronymic novel. (169)


Victorian Overview Neo-Victorian sitemap Graham Swift Waterland

Last modified 29 December 2001