An Open Swimmer Paperback – Large Print, Jul 1991
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|Paperback, Large Print, Jul 1991||
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I was disappointed also as I am a great admirer of Winton's other works like 'Cloudstreet' or 'Shallows'.
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.
The book is often categorized as a coming-of-age novel. It is that but I think it makes more sense to read the book as a story about trauma. To a certain extent all coming-of-age stories involve trauma but the trauma that the main character of The Open Swimmer is working through is so unusual and so central that it places the book in another kind of category. The allure of the book is that this central trauma is never named (at least not directly) but this is also one of the books liabilities.
Although the exact nature of that traumatic event is never named or explained, every episode of the book alludes to it. In place of a description of that central trauma, we get a detailed examination of its effects. To a certain extent this works but this also leaves the story feeling incomplete and the reader unsatisfied. It is obvious that Jerra is weighed down with the memory of his trauma and every one of his actions can be read as literal and/or symbolic attempts to come to terms with that trauma; and it is also clear that Jerra reads the letters and diaries of family members in an attempt to understand his own trauma in the context of a larger family trauma. But too much remains sketchy, unclear, only hinted at.
Jerra is damaged goods, so, not too surprisingly, he is drawn to individuals who have also been traumatized in some way. What remains unclear is whether he has always been drawn to unusual, poetic and or tragic types due to a natural inborn temperament (and that life itself feels traumatic to him) or if one central event disrupted an otherwise normal life and left him feeling stranded in the world. This and much of the book is simply unclear. What is clear enough is that Jerra's deepest connection (and this puts the book squarley in the realm of masculinist fiction) is to the fish that he ritually preys upon. Jerra's masculinist side is drawn to the outdoors where he can escape the complications and meanings of human entanglements/histories and draw simpler and more personal meanings and confidence in his abilities from his outback survivalist excursions. One might say that his feminist side is less certain of the masculinist import assigned to such struggles and more interested in viewing these masculinist excursions as feminine attempts to plumb his own psychological depths. The natural imagery is often feminized and eroticized. Most masculinist lit ends with a sense of domination having been achived, but Winton is not interested in taking the usual route through this terrain. In fact at books end it does not appear Jerra is at all interested in mastery.
The book may be too overripe with suggestive symbolism for some reader's tastes. It may prove too confounding for readers who want more concrete/digestible content. What I think we have here is a book written by a young man who is not yet willing or not yet able to identify exactly what it is that troubles him and so everything feels a bit muddy. But this book will apeal to readers who like the freshness and enthusiasm of first books over the more polished quality of later and surer efforts.