Discourse and Identity in Faulkner's as I Lay Dying and Swift's Last Orders
Tebbetts, Terrell L., The Faulkner Journal
A lot of people have said that it makes them think of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. And I say, yes, well, indeed there is a connection. I admire Faulkner very much, and there are obvious similarities.
- Graham Swift, "Glowing in the Ashes"
When Graham Swift chose to use As I Lay Dying as a model for the plot and narrative point of view of his 1996 novel Last Orders, he suggested that in doing so he might have intended to engage the earlier novel in what Richard Gray has called the "open dialogue" among writers in the "vast sprawl" of the "literary tradition" (ix). The novels' connections in plot and narration are certainly compelling. Both novels are funeral journeys, the family of Addie Bundren and the pub mates of Jack Dodds traveling as requested by the dead to dispose of their remains. Both have multiple narrators whose names head the chapters they narrate, and both allow those narrators to provide not only details of the journey and their thoughts about it, but also memories about themselves and one another. In both novels, the dead person whose remains are being transported narrates one chapter. Both novels have a chapter consisting of a list. Both have an extremely short chapter, As I Lay Dying's "My mother is a fish" matched by "Old buggers" in Last Orders (84; 130). These connections are so strong they led to a brief storm in the British press after Swift received the Booker Prize for the novel (for a summary, see Poole 167 and Frow). In a recent essay, John Frow reentered the storm, arguing that Swift's novel is a "simple repetition" of Faulkner's, not a "productive reworking" (80), for he sees in Last Orders merely a "pointless and empty" echo of As I Lay Dying, not the "productive transformation" that he would find aesthetically and ethically satisfying (81). Unfortunately, Frow neither acknowledges nor considers Gray's notion of literature's "open dialogue" in which one work engages another in a conversation, repeating in order to grasp and then respond. In fact, Gray's ideas about the literary dialogue are compelling when applied to these two novels, for Swift very much seems to be in conversation with Faulkner. Looking past the imitations and toward the conversation lets readers see just how fully Last Orders makes a productive response to As I Lay Dying.
That productive exchange takes place not so much in the areas of more obvious imitation - narrative and plot - as in theme. A conversation about the themes of As I Lay Dying is what readers might expect, for Swift is, after all, a novelist of ideas, with earlier novels probing issues such as the relation of history to fiction ( Waterland) and the sometimes conflicting claims of science and religion (Ever After). Among the thematic interests in Last Orders, the question of identity stands out. Commenting on this theme, David Malcolm says the novel sees identity as "arbitrary and illusory" (175); though characters find some identity in their roles in life, they still recognize, Malcolm says, that other identities "might have been possible" (177). Emma Parker adds that the novel subverts "traditional thinking about identity" (89). Faulkner, of course, treats the same theme in As I Lay Dying. Darl, in particular, is explicitly concerned with questions of identity. He confesses of himself, "I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not," and he asserts of Jewel, "he is not what he is and he is what he is not" (80). In effect, Darl is confessing his own identity to be wholly unstable, a point Faulkner drives home as Darl entirely disassociates from himself by the novel's end, even referring to himself in the third person. In Last Orders, Swift seems even more interested in identity than Faulkner. Part of his interest in this novel is in engaging with his predecessor about the issue, bringing forward many of the understandings of identity implicit in As I Lay Dying and explicit in the postmodern and post-Christian world of Swift's English characters. …