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Voices from nowhere: Orality and absence in Graham Swift's Waterland and Last Orders

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Graham Swift's oeuvre reflects a fascination with voice which appears most clearly in two of his novels, Waterland and Last Orders, but in seemingly diametrically opposed ways. Whilst Waterland foregrounds the act of narration through a voluble and chatty narrator, Last Orders is deprived of any central narrating agency and consists of a collage of different voices. In spite of this, in both novels, voice is a factor of instability as it no longer speaks with authority but proceeds erratically and repetitively, constantly echoing other voices. Voice unsettles the narrative by imposing multiplicity and fragmentation against the fantasy of a stable origin and a single meaning. But more importantly, our perception of the novel is transformed once we start 'hearing voices' instead of (or as well as) characters: by its ability to detach words from any clear origin, place or time, Swift turns those who speak into ghosts whose 'presence' is a mere illusion. Beyond similarities, the two novels also help us reflect on a diverging use of voice: in Waterland the narrator's multiple voices reflect a sense of loss and alienation coupled with the impression that there is no getting away from oneself; by contrast, in Last Orders, the echoes which form themselves through the various voices have a liberating effect, allowing the characters to exist in a realm where they can be more than themselves.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2008

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