Telling and Telling: A Review of Graham Swift's Wish You Were Here

It’s long been popular to criticize the proliferation of writing MFA programs in the US. And it’s easy to dismiss the overly processed, cookie cutter fiction they often shape. But these programs tend to teach those aspects of writing that are actually teachable. They focus on the “show don’t tell” school of writing—a kind of visual story that’s constructed of discrete scenes composed of dialogue and gesture. It’s the kind of fiction that feels closest to cinematic. But there are other kinds of writing, many of them unteachable.

One example of another approach—an approach that feels distinctly British—is Graham Swift’s new novel, Wish You Were Here. Rather than being built out of scenes that add up to a plot, Swift’s novel is built of echoes, and it adds up, for the patient reader, to a whole and complicated man. The man at the core of this book is Jack Luxton of Jebb Farm in Devon. The farm has been the family business for generations, but it has been ravaged by mad cow disease and the simple attrition of Luxtons—Jack is the last of his line—so he has left the land behind for a different less-rooted life: running a caravan park on the Isle of Wight with his wife.

Jack’s only sibling, Tom, fled the dismal farm life decades ago on his 18th birthday to enlist in the army, and, as the novel begins, he has returned from Iraq in a flag-draped coffin. Jack’s journey home to bury his brother prompts all the looking back that comprises this novel. The motifs that reverberate throughout Jack’s life are various—a sentiment scrawled on a postcard, a tarnished medal, a scarred oak, a Remembrance Day ritual—but as they echo again and again, each builds a kind of resonance.

In defiance of the “show don’t tell” school of fiction, Swift’s novel tells and tells and tells.

In defiance of the “show don’t tell” school of fiction, Swift’s novel tells and tells and tells. Many pages go by without a scene or spoken word. Many passages don’t happen in any particular place or time. It is full of dizzying shifts in point of view. A visible narrator leans in at times to tell us what none of the novel’s characters know. This novel defies most of the teachable MFA precepts of novel writing that have come to embody the vast majority of American fiction—but it is artful and heartfelt.

One of the novel’s most chilling and pungent scenes involves both brothers and their flinty, taciturn father. It’s time to put down the ancient family dog, and the father chooses one brother to come with him in the pickup, with the shovels and the shotgun and the old dog wrapped in a blanket. The other brother is left behind alone to listen for the echo of the shot. The scene is full of dread and regret and family politics, and its repercussions never quite fall silent throughout the rest of the book. Only on the final pages do we sense that Jack might, at last, lay that day—and the rest of his complicated history—to rest and move on. 

P J MORKAN got an MFA in writing and sees no reason to be ashamed of that fact.