I’d love to say such things are deliberate, but as Indelible Ink is planned five months in advance it is pure coincidence that I’m looking at a Ewan Morrison novel just as his latest book ‘Tales from the Mall’ is published to great acclaim (and you can read my review of that at Scots Whay Hae! ) This column deals with his 2007 novel ‘Swung’, and it is interesting to compare the two as they share themes, both ideologically and specifically. Both look at areas of modern life that we use to avoid, or distract us from, dealing with our problems, feelings and emotions, and as a result they can increase our anxieties. But whereas ‘Tales from the Mall’ is primarily concerned with shopping, with ‘Swung’ it’s all about sex.
Except it isn’t. ‘Swung’ is about Alice and David, two individuals with deep psychological problems who have found each other just as they feared they would never find anyone again. The most important phrase in the novel is David’s confession/admission on their first meeting ‘I’m impotent. In so many ways.’ In Alice he has found someone who not only accepts and understands his problem, but tries to help him, or at least find ways to have a sexual relationship that doesn’t leave him feeling like a failure. We are never left in any doubt about the strength of feeling between the two, and those scenes where Alice is trying to connect emotionally with David are incredibly tender and moving, even when the circumstances may appear absurd.
The problem is David’s impotence has come to define him, as he says, ‘In so many ways’. He believes he has failed as a husband and father (his relationship with his estranged family is primarily now that of babysitter). He is made unemployed, and his dreams of becoming an actor are now an in-joke. His erectile dysfunction has come to be the physical representation of all of these failures, and, as such, he accepts it, and sees it as integral to who he is. It is part of his character. As he says at one point ‘We all tell ourselves stories to get through the day’. It is only natural that some of these stories will be for adults only.
‘Swung’ contains lots of graphic sex, but it is neither erotic nor titillating. The sex is often functional and increasingly absurd as Alice tries to connect with David. All of Morrison’s books are really about human frailty and individuals’ interaction in the world. He is more Henry Miller than Anais Nin. It is the detached, matter of fact, manner of Morrison’s prose as he describes the increasingly convoluted sexual situations that the two find themselves in, which stops the book from being exploitative. This is about two people trying to discover who they are, what they want, and how they can be happy. As with most relationships the balance of who takes the lead shifts throughout the book, and it is this uncertainty, for Alice and David, and for the reader, that makes the novel convincing.
As with ‘Tales from the Mall’, there are some very modern dilemmas to be considered. The increasing importance of lists in our lives, self-help books which only feed feelings of inadequacy, IKEA rage, and how we make friendships on line while losing contact with those around us, are all featured. The book also asks us to consider a new set of problems. What are the dos and don’ts of swinging? Which picture do you use when asked by potential partners to send a photo of your genitals? You don’t want to brag, but then again don’t want to disappoint. Then you have to decipher the code of swingers’ ads; does W/E stand for well endowed or West End? And that’s before you actually meet potential partners. What would your safe word be, and do you really want to take your fantasies and make them reality? Are you prepared for the consequences?
There are a few music references in ‘Swung’, but I did like Alice’s mistaken belief that Primal Scream were a Manchester band so I thought one of their best songs from the ‘Vanishing Point’ album would be appropriate, especially when you consider the opening lyrics. This is ‘Star’:
So few writers deal with sex in a serious manner that it can be shocking when one does, but it is also refreshing. David and Alice hide their fears and frustration from each other, often relying on role playing or using humour to avoid serious discussion. Their inability to communicate what they want, or what they need, takes them to places that neither feels comfortable going, but each thinking they are doing this for the other. Doesn’t this sound familiar? The way sex is sold to us means that is has become another area of life that can only disappoint, leading many to believe that what they used to have, or what they never had, is better than what they have now. David considers returning to his family, or having a one night stand with someone he meets in a bar. This is at the heart of the couple’s dilemma, and is what leads them to The Black Room at a swingers’ convention on the banks of Loch Lomond. Some people may view this finale as extreme, but it has to be to shake the two into realising what they want, and what they don’t. Morrison is not an extreme writer, but he is an honest one, something many confuse, and that’s what makes ‘Swung’ so convincing.
I happened to watch ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ last night, Stanley Kubrick’s last movie which stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as dysfunctional and dissatisfied lovers. There are lots of parallels between that film and ‘Swung’. I’m always interested in how people view ‘Eyes Wide Shut’. It does seem to split opinion along a love/hate divide. I think it is an astonishing film in places, but some see it as an unpleasant work of misogyny. I don’t think that accusation can be levelled at Morrison, but I would be interested in readers’ reactions to ‘Swung’. If you feel strongly either way then please get in touch. But if you only take one lesson from this month’s column, it is never laugh at an orgy.
Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: Anyone who was familiar with the style magazine ‘The Face’ in the late 80s will perhaps remember when they championed the work of a Scottish writer called Martin Millar. This was long before the Chemical Generation of writers would bother ‘Face’ readers, and to have a Scottish writer on those pages, admittedly one who wrote in and about London, made an impression. Such critical success was rare for the time.
His debut novel ‘Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation’ was lauded, but it was his next book ‘Lux the Poet’, set against the Brixton riots, that proved that this was a writer of real talent. He is now best known for writing the ‘Wolf Girl’ novels, as well as the ‘Thraxas’ series of fantasy novels as Martin Scott, but for a while he was the Scottish writer to have in your back pocket.
- Martin Millar Lux the Poet (Jul)
- Andrew Raymond Drennan The Immaculate Heart (Aug)
- Ajay Close Forspoken (Sep)
- Nina De La Mer 4a.m. (Oct)
- William McIlvanney Weekend (Nov)