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Format: Kindle Edition
An Open Swimmer, hot on the unfortunate heels of Jack Rivers and Me as a winner of the Australian/Vogel award for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of 35, show-cases the concerns and the way of putting them which Tim Winton deploys to such popular and critical acclaim in novels such as Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and Breath. There is nothing much callow about this work by the twenty-one year old writer. It has force: "Knots of guts fell onto the rock. The gulls hung, cackling. He washed the clean, firm, curving fillets, and kicked the offal into the pool that was scummed at one edge with a skin of larvae. Flies walked on the water's skin." Winton gets his descriptive claws into the landscape like no other literary lion.
An Open Swimmer is a story about a young university drop-out, Jerra, who fails to find the golden fleece, a pearl in the head of a turrum fish. Nothing, career, family, even romance, is enough to satisfy his nebulous longing. He seems to be writing a particularly bad poem, family pressures result in his temporarily working a conventional job in a corner store, he seems to have had an affair with his best friend's mother -- but these concerns are subordinate to the all-consuming quest.
Yet An Open Swimmer is not a romantic work of art. Winton fairly revels in a modernist/postmodernist preoccupation with degradation -- vomit, spittle, excrement, anxiety, angst, ugliness: "A bottle left them flat -- stung, on the back lawns of mates whose parents were away. Chundering in the long grass, against the rickety pickets." It is a long time since "like a patient etherised upon a table", that registering of discordant modernity, but it is the tradition which the Americans began which Winton carries on with such gusto.
Winton, working hard, in An Open Swimmer opens up a new landscape -- new meanings and nuances: "Breathing hard in struggling gulps, and he spat things before going down again, feeling the sappy weed stroking his face, eating into his cheeks." It is perhaps necessary to resort to French to decipher this new sense of 'eat': the fifth sense of 'manger' in Le Petit Robert 2006 is "Faire disparaitre en recouvrant, en debordant" (to cause to disappear by covering, by overwhelming (my translation)). Winton's sense of 'eat' might have a similar obliquity to the main sense of consume. (You get the fifth sense of 'manger' in Samuel Beckett's Molloy.)
Family has some presence in An Open Swimmer. Jerra's father is somewhat of an authority figure, pressuring Jerra to get work. In spite of the modernism/postmodernism Winton adheres to, there is little sense of the breakdown of this tried and trusted institution, of which all men speak well (Eliot). In Winton's fiction family is kept intact: the complete breakdown implicit in Beckett has not been arrived at. Yet, perhaps, the modern powers of disruption, destruction, rebellion are waiting in the wings.
Jerra's family pays a visit to Jerra's grandfather, and it is like a scene out of Philip Larkin's "The Old Fools": "[T]he hairless old man watched them come. His eyelashes were gone and the eyes were those of a reptile or a bird. His father's would be the same. Hands, the colour of ash, clawed the sheets." But Winton's relish of the gnarly details seems to outweigh the existential paralysis Larkin was driven to. The hospital nurse, quickly making a timely entrance, seems to save everybody from ultimate embarrassment. Winton's force surmounts all.
Winton is quite original. He is a modernist/postmodernist writer, but his powers of description have something original about them. His descriptions of sea-creatures are like Lawrence's descriptions of flowers: he is ever-attentive to their variety and individuality. His descriptive prose has power and poise, like a poem by James McAuley.
An Open Swimmer is an impressive first novel.