Tales from the duvet


Graham Swift <em>Picador, 248pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0330450182

To say that the action of Graham Swift's latest novel is mostly horizontal might give the wrong impression. Tomorrow is set in a double bed, but the springs are squeaking through restlessness, not passion. While her husband and children lie asleep, art dealer Paula Hook is thinking about the day that is to come. Something will be revealed, the back cover promises, that "will redefine all their lives". It's her husband, Mike, that's going to do the telling. Their teenage twin children, her "angels", are currently unaware of what is about to change:

As he asks you to sit, side by side, on the sofa (we've even discussed such minor details), you'll do a quick run through in your minds of all those stories that friends at school have shared with you: inside stories, little bulletins on domestic crisis. It's your turn now, perhaps. It has the feeling of catastrophe.

Before dawn breaks, Paula thinks her way through her own version of events. "You're sixteen," she tells them, "and the night's not young, but here's a bedtime story." Given Paula's ominous hints - she admits that "we might be wrenching you forever from your childhood" - the narrative that follows could hardly be said to be soothing. It does, however, achieve an impressive level of banality. Paula thinks about the time she and Mike first slept together ("We were undulating . . . Not just pillow talk, you might say, but billow talk"), their first bottle of champagne ("I kept my cork. It's precious beyond reckoning"), and the purchasing of their first bedspread ("vast, crimson" and "slinky-thin"). She talks us through Mike's occasional pangs about his job as director of a popular science magazine when "he'll come over all self-searching and conscience-stricken about having deserted 'real' science to become a money-maker", and touches, on occasion, on her own knowledge of art history, on "lovely Poussins and a gorgeous Watteau". There is a long disquisition on the naming of their former cat, Otis, and the question of whether one is a "cat person" or a "dog person": "The world divides, they say: cat people and dog people."

Paula's sense of the world's other divides seems limited. She is not quite a snob, but this is partly because she rarely extends her consciousness far beyond Dulwich, or the duvet. It's a complacency matched by her narrative style - a mixture of mincing quotation marks, cliché and recherché puns. The problem is not, in the first instance, the way this irritates and rankles. In catching her voice, Swift attempts to convey the sense of her own particular dreariness. It's the timing that makes you incredulous. When it comes to breaking bad news, there's softening the blow with a few niceties and a cup of sweet tea, and then there's the narrative equivalent of Chinese water torture. If Paula is to be imagined to be rehearsing a serious conversation, she's doing a rotten job of it. If, on the other hand, you take the imaginative scenario more loosely - in truth, Paula is keeping no one waiting except the implied reader - one is still left wondering why it takes her so long to explain what the big secret is.

In Paula's defence, she does keep asking for forgiveness. "Forgive me," she pleads. "Will you be able to sympathise with me?" "After I've said a bit more," she admits, "you may think it's all the most blatant twaddle." Unfortunately, you often do. This is not because one thinks Paula is either deeply misled or deeply villainous. She never quite gains the dimensions that would allow us to form such judgements. Accidentally subjected to behaving in a certain way, due to the demands of Swift's narrative, it's rather hard to care about her "twaddle" at all.

Tomorrow has all the hallmarks of a novel that, rather like its narrator, prefers to have everything worked out in advance. Characters are set up to chime neatly with his main themes. The tiresomely ubiquitous upper-middle-class couple, with a scientist husband balanced by an artistic wife (it's always the men who are the scientists), allows for a nod to the art/science debate without ever fully engaging with it. There is a neatly poised quotation from Ulysses and a smattering of allusions to Macbeth. But acknowledging these various literary ghosts does not add the weight or depth this novel needs. In the end, one suspects that Swift has become so attached to his narrative form that the question of whether it actually works has been sidelined. This is not Swift at his best. "Life," as Paula says, "is short, my darlings."