- “Let Me Tell You”: about Desire and Narrativity in Graham Swift’s Waterland
When, in popular discussions of novels, people commend a book by saying, “I couldn’t put it down” or condemn it by saying, “I couldn’t finish it,” they are suggesting that a novel has the power to control, even that the reader’s desires to devour a novel or toss it across the room are prestructured by the text. In more sophisticated terms theorists have argued much the same thing. Teresa de Lauretis says, “subjectivity is engaged in the cogs of narrative and indeed constituted in the relation of narrative, meaning, and desire; so that the very work of narrativity is the engagement of the subject in certain positionalities of meaning and desire” (106). Before her, Wolfgang Iser argued that “as the reader is maneuvered into this position, his reactions—which are, so to speak, prestructured by the written text—bring out the meaning of the novel; it might be truer to say that the meaning of the novel only materializes in these reactions, since it does not exist per se” (32). And Roland Barthes said, “the text is a fetish object, and this fetish desires me. The text chooses me, by a whole disposition of invisible screens, selective baffles: vocabulary, references, readability, etc.” (27). What I want to examine is how Graham Swift’s Waterland desires me, maneuvers or positions me, and as it does so how it is constituted in and constitutes my subjectivity. [End Page 917]
If, as Linda Hutcheon argues, “the process of narrativization has come to be seen as a central form of human comprehension, of imposition of meaning and formal coherence on the chaos of events” (121), we might ask of Waterland, what desire, or whose, shapes the narrative? Since the production of meaning “involves a subject in a social field” (de Lauretis 105), the answer to such a question is simultaneously personal and socially inscribed, but provisional. As I explore the ways in which this text calls to me, I hope to expose some of the ways the text itself calls, without being too idiosyncratic and too completely bound in my private, cultural, and novelistic assumptions. I will approach the question by examining the selective baffles that allure—vocabulary, references, readability—but also by suggesting the counter-baffles in the text that frustrate simple desire, and by examining how such dueling narrative desires affect the frustration/infatuation with/of the text.
I confess this novel engages me at precisely the level of plot and character after the fashion of a classic realist text. In fact, the text has kinship with Dickens’s Great Expectations, including a fenland setting and a boy’s coming of age. 1 By placing rounded characters in a familiar novelistic setting, Swift encourages readers to expect a traditional historical novel, that is, to desire a text that allows the reader to be absorbed in the apparently seamless construction of the novelistic world, but, as Hutcheon observes, “historiographic metafiction installs totalizing order, only to contest it, by its radical provisionality, intertextuality, and often fragmentation” (116). Like the other selective baffles, then, plot and character may also become flirtatious. They may not remain solid for the reader, but may become insubstantial through the foregrounding of their constructedness.
While the structural ingredients of the text noted by Barthes—vocabulary, references, readability—as well as humor, character, and plot do play a significant role in how much we allow the text to flirt with us, what are the permissible limits in a text before it becomes undesirable, before it stops being flirtatious and becomes offensive? This question is particularly relevant in light of postmodern fiction that challenges traditional understandings of narrative structure by self-consciously problematizing our relation to the text. Swift’s Waterland has channeled my imaginative space, built its dykes and trenches, claimed and reclaimed the boggy soil of my mind, yet this text has not provided [End Page 918] me with a comfortable world to inhabit, or any place of escape, because as I engage with it—as the text lures me in—it problematizes its allurement with a whole sequence of...