Last Orders by Graham Swift – Review

I have to admit, the main reason I read this thing was because of the movie. I didn’t know who Graham Swift was, didn’t know he’d won a Booker Prize Last Orders, and just wanted to see if the book was as solid as the movie. The two are actually very similar, with a pretty straight adaption straight from the page to the screen. The animosity between two characters (Vince Dodds, the adopted son of the deceased, and Lenny Tate) is a bit more pronounced and expanded upon in the novel. At the same time, Lenny is also a bit more unlikeable, and his beef with Vince garners a bit less sympathy because of it.

The novel is constructed through a an intermixing of perspectives and time frames. This is something Swift handles exceedingly well, as each feels to transition smoothly into the next. There wasn’t a moment where something seemed out of place or forced; information and story was presented in a natural flow that seemed to ebb smoothly from one subject and character to another. The novel comes together not so much as a jig saw, with pieces plucked down into their spots, with a picture slowly emerging, but as a crystal, formed slowly over time from the gradual accumulation of layers.

This layering feels like an important force in Last Orders. From a purely entertainment stand point, it keeps the story moving without allowing it to grow tiresome. Yes, I know, being entertained isn’t always the most important thing with a novel but, no matter how brilliant, a forced death march through a brick of paper isn’t always the most appealing thing – for me, that would be Infinite Jest, which I am vowing to either finish this year or at least hack out another 400 or so pages. So moving back and forth, building the story slowly through events and character is a pleasurable thing. My kid used to have a bizarre fascination with layers. It’s how he approached everything, always looking for either a pattern or layers, and he always seemed to appear most content when both were represented in one. It’s what I think really made lasagna appeal to him. He could watch it being made, each layer being placed over another, each complimenting the one that came before it and the one that would come after it, and finally building to a collective form that is simultaneously whole and divided.

Which is a nice way of looking at Last Orders. As we move from Vince to Ray to Lenny to Canterbury to Amy (Jack’s wife) and back to Vince, we have Graham Swift constructing a pan of literary lasagna. An interesting exercise, which I wish I had done but have just through of while writing this, might be to go through the novel and list out the order of the different partitions Swift uses. He doesn’t have chapters so much as headings, where he shifts the focus to another character or place. So instead of chapter one, we have Bermondsey. After that we have Ray. Then we’re back to Bermondsey, and so forth. I wonder if there isn’t a pattern to who he goes to and when, if certain characters always follow others or if places are inserted at somewhat regular intervals.

Something that stands out after the reading is that Vince and Ray seem to be much more a focus of the novel than in the movie, where Jack’s wife, Amy, held a larger role. We find that Ray met Jack while at war, and a picture of them is referenced throughout the novel.  We are given the impression, and a couple of characters give voice to this, that Jack may have been happiest while at war, while “out with the boys,” before coming back to England and settling into life taking over his father’s butcher shop. Being a butcher wasn’t what Jack wanted to do with his life, he wanted to be a doctor, but he knew he was expected to take over the shop and so he did.  It may have also been the case with his marriage, as we learn it wasn’t necessarily the most joyful of unions (though also not the mot horrible, it should be noted that this isn’t really a story of skeletons being rested from closets) and if maybe he didn’t get married for a similar reason he took the shop – it was just what he was supposed to do. Vince, meanwhile, doesn’t take over the shop and grows to show a certain disdain for Jack. He almost holds it against Jack that he was ever told that he was adopted (though, really, he wasn’t so much adopted as taken in, the only survivor of his family from a German rocket bombing of London) and feels he never quite lived up to his dad’s expectations. And they were probably weighty expectations, looked upon as someone to lead the life Jack didn’t get to. There is a duality constructed between Ray and Vince that bookend Jack’s life, with one representing his gloried past and the other his unfulfilled future.

I was also reading through this interview with Graham Swift from Identity Theory and he starts talking about the every day world and how that is where he begins his stories and he finds extraordinary things there. He goes on to talk about how many extraordinary things are thought but left unsaid, and I realized how prominent of a role this plays in Last Orders. It is a novel around people that have known each other for the majority of their lives, people who are asked to carry out the dying wishes of one of their friends, but it is revealed throughout the story how little each of them knows about the others or, if they do know, they never bring it up. This silence becomes another layer in the formation of the characters and their interconnectedness because, at some point, they all become complicit in what they do not talk about. Vince doesn’t talk about his alienation from his adoptive father, Lenny doesn’t talk about his anger with Vince, and Jack doesn’t talk about the daughter he refuses to admit he ever had. In a way, it is everything that isn’t said in the novel, but which is expressed privately between the characters and the reader, that is the true motivation for everyone’s actions. What separates Last Orders from every other novel, though, is that we are given the sense that the everyone is pretty aware of what isn’t being said, and this layer of complicity might be the most bonding of all.

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