Among the most ancient and revered forms, which the amorphous siren known as prose may assume, is that of satire, used for millennia to critique, to side-eye and expose, to lay bare the ills of society in narrative or verse. From The Frogs of Aristophanes to Voltaire’s Candide, from James Joyce to Larry David, satirical writing has the ability to communicate to its audience — be it a contemporary one familiar with the nuance and subtleties of the societal landscape of the day, or a future one, looking back to enliven their histories with a biting account of the way things were — beyond and between the lines. A sharp satirist can paint a many-sided portrait of her world, one that, typically, allows more to go unspoken than not, leaving much to be inferred and understood. It is an approach that requires a deft touch, one that ideally encourages the reader to a destination while allowing them to find the way on their own. Our modern society, one that daily threatens to collapse in on itself via an unsettling tragicomedy of error and incompetence, is especially open to criticism, and it seems that satirical elements appear in the majority of modern novels to some degree or another. In Will Aitken’s The Swells — his fourth novel, and first in more than twenty years — however, the technique spills somewhat out of control, refracting against itself like a satirical prism, one where style runs amok and story is largely lost at sea.
The book opens with our heroine, the impossibly named Briony, receiving a call that the magazine for which she serves as Luxury Travel Associate Editor is being downsized, and that her job is among the affected. Whilst dining, we are told, beneath a giant manta ray in an underwater restaurant, Briony learns of her new “unremunerative” role — she will now sail round the world, gratas, with travel expenses as her salary and little idea of her duties. Somehow managing to pick up the pieces — fortunately, she is able to list her Park Slope apartment on a dating app for sub-letters — our intrepid protagonist takes off aboard The Emerald Tranquility. Thus we have our story: The Swells will be the account of an ultra-high end cruise gone wrong, the voyage of a hapless central character as she travels “from gig to luxury travel gig, with only the designer togs in her luggage, paying nothing, earning less, and never ever really settling down.” While a sensible backdrop for a critique of a twenty-first century rife with economic inequality and class antagonism, the heavy-handed style, outlandish set pieces, and an obfuscated narrative make The Swells a work burdened by the very de trop it purports to satirize — unchecked and uncontrolled revelry in a world of its own design.
The central story revolves around Briony’s conflict, as it were, that arises when something of a Marxist-Leninist class revolt breaks out atop the gleaming deck of The Emerald Tranquility. As the crew toils down below and the affluent guests avail themselves of the trappings of privilege and buffet, a certain Mrs. Moore leads a mutiny, one that topples the classist status quo and puts the means of production back in the hands of stewards and butlers. Briony, trapped between two worlds as she is — on the one hand, penniless, on the other, a freeloader — must navigate and survive The Emerald Tranquility’s October Revolution Game Night. Unfortunately, such a task proves largely beyond the abilities of heroine or artificer.
The trouble in The Swells is primarily a stylistic one. In attempting to make clear his satirical intent, Aikens overwrites by half, relying again and again on outlandish prose, an abundance of exclamation marks, and dialogue seemingly taken from the transcripts of clinical trials for new and improved amphetamines. The most consistent and notable challenge in the book, however, is an unfocused, in-on-the-joke narrative entity which, instead of colorizing and sympathizing the narration as in the best characterized thirds, often pushes the reader out and muddles the water of a given scene. The opening page — as Briony receives the fateful call in the submerged restaurant — offers an illustrative example:
She knows who’s calling without even checking the display: Gemma! the only person she knows who still uses her phone for talking. Gemma! editor-in-chief of world-renowned Euphoria! Magazine, where Briony’s employed as Luxury Travel Associate Editor. Gemma! whose lithium’s always going wonky. Gemma! sixty if she’s a day.
“Briony, Briony, Briony! Where are you when I need you most?”
She tells her even though Gemma knows perfectly well.
“So much has happened here — volcanic! — you won’t believe.”
From this hectic and careening beginning the reader receives little respite. The story of The Emerald Tranquility’s journey across yawning ocean and proletariat revolution, and of Briony’s struggle to choose her allegiance, is a difficult, at times impossible, one to track through the chaotic density of the language. While some no doubt will enjoy the absurdity and appreciate the intent, the bludgeoning feel of the narration risks leaving little room for the audience as a whole.
None of the devices or techniques employed in The Swells — idiomatic third-person narration with characterized grammar and speech patterns, larger-than-life actors who strain off the page, winking references to modern life and society, or even the constant dropping of French and Spanish terms and phrases — are bad tools, in and of themselves; nor are they poorly chosen for the work at hand. And to be sure, the novel has its moments, especially in humor and observation, and it is supremely well-attuned to a 2022 world at the brink, it seems, of an actual Russian Revolution redux. But ultimately, just as in the fictive universe it creates and the real world it condemns, it is in the excess where The Swells loses control, a story submarined by its style and a narrative capsized under its own weight.
By Will Aitken
House of Anansi Press
Published January 04, 2022
D. W. White is a graduate of the M.F.A. Creative Writing program at Otis College in Los Angeles and Stony Brook University's BookEnds Fellowship. He serves as Founding Editor for L'Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. His writing appears in The Florida Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and Necessary Fiction, among several other publications. A Chicago ex-pat, he now lives in Long Beach, California, where he frequents the beach to hide from writer's block. He can be found on Twitter at @dwhitethewriter.