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'The Light of Day' by Graham Swift

Swift's hero gains understanding one sentence fragment at a time

Sunday, May 11, 2003

By John Freeman

George Webb is a connoisseur of life's bitter caprices. In the past decade, the narrator of Graham Swift's exquisite seventh novel lost his job, watched his marriage go up in smoke and nearly botched his chance at fatherhood. It's probably a blessing that self-reflection has come to him late in life.

"The Light of Day"

By Graham Swift

Knopf ($24)


However, Webb decides to put aside mere survival to determine whether his life has been, in fact, a moral one. To this purpose, on a chilly November day in 1997, he revisits events of two years past when he may or may not have abetted a cold-blooded murder.

In 67 chapters that leap backward and forward in time at a dizzying pace, Webb relives the hours of that fateful day. It all began when a woman came to him needing assistance. He was a private eye and she had a familiar gripe -- her husband was having an affair.

Out of self-respect, the woman had finally confronted her husband, who agreed to put an end to it. He need only drive his mistress to the airport and send her home. Webb's job was to follow them and confirm that the girl got on the plane.

What started as a simple "matrimoni-al" gig, however, turned into so much more when the detective developed a crush on his client. It was not his first, but there was something different in this one. He wanted to protect this woman from heartbreak.

As if to better understand this urge, Webb delves into his past, recalling his parents' flawed marriage. He remembers vital moments of his fatherhood, as when his lesbian daughter came out to him, even tells of the event that led to his expulsion from the police force.

These excursions into Webb's history can be disorienting, but in the end, they pay off. They create a wholly realistic man, one who made culpability his living but ignored its role in his own life.

A divorcee and a fired cop, Webb was a keen judge of others' behavior but has only recently been learning how to know himself. "You take a step, you cross a line," he repeats throughout this story, as if, were he to stop saying it, he might forget the lesson.

Like Swift's previous novels, especially the 1996 Booker Prize winner, "Last Orders," one must learn how to read this one in order to enjoy it. The novel can be choppy and jarring. Most of its sentences are not sentences at all but fragments -- shards, really -- of a man's shattered thought processes.

Here is George thinking about how there ought to be someone out there to catch our fall, no matter what crime we commit:

"If we're found to be corrupt. Even if we do the worst thing ever, even if we do what we never thought it was in us to do, and kill another person. Even if that other person was once the person for whom we were holding out a net."

Only the English can atomize moral reverie so thoroughly as this. It is not hard to imagine that if John Updike were at the helm, he'd get lost in the particular texture of a privet hedge, the carnal fancies of Webb's imagination.

Swift, however, never deviates from the axis of memory and morality, so much so that this book can feel hermetic at times. Each moment George dredges up, each sentence he utters steals more air from the book's chamber, making the novel an uncomfortable place to linger. Before long, we grasp for closure, wanting out.

But Swift is not about to let go until our lungs are completely starved, until our vision is blurry from lack of oxygen. The fierceness of this chokehold is what makes Swift such an exhilarating writer, such an essential one.

He knows that to understand the menace of the past, readers need to be there with Webb in those breathless moments when he recognizes that he, not some higher power, has determined the bitterness of his own fate.

John Freeman is a freelance writer in New York.

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