Swim, a novel by Marianne Apostolides, takes all of her concerns as a writer and shifts them both in the form and content. She questions her materials from different angles and new vantages.
In Swim, the main character Kat is swimming, and most of the novel consists of her musings while doing laps – her activity is fitting. For at the same time she swims Apostolides performs some marvelous feats of narrative experimentation to try and loosen up that trap of language freezing reality, to get it to swim along too, and not to be so bound by yhe conventions that make writing, for the authors, such an ambiguous enterprise.
The new prose style in Swim is an answer to the problems of the author’s former books: how to write about the past without trapping it in amber; how to set the body free: how to give it expression without the limitations of its flesh. The act of swimming, being suspended in a liquid medium, comes as close as possible for a fleshed creature. Yet later we learn that Kat was taught to swim by her father, who wanted her to swim from her “core” – a problematic enough notion in general, but given Kat’s difficulties with mind, body, self, even more fraught. The bodily core is both a danger zone and a place of expression for Kat: it carries hazard and possibility.
Yet there is intimations of the problems of language. Kat sees her daughter writing a letter to her father. Kat explains that she will “She’ll never commit these thoughts to written words; they will remain perfect, on in her mind.” We have the problem: words are still best when they remain in utero. There is a real problem here with expression. What to do?
As if to answer this, as Kat swims, her stream of thought mirrors this idea that language, if it must be expressed, should be multivariate. We see this in the ample use of “/” which often pairs words with similar meaning “physical / awareness” or completely opposite “done / undone.” For language to have more meanings, some words must be spilt up into at least two pairs, either to complement or offset each other. There is also the ample us of the dash “–“ to suggest the flow of ideas in Kat’s mind, one idea moving to the next, which connotes rapid shifts in meaning and process. Such as: “– he’s physically left the place they’d shared where he – other, at home in bed – was present in bed but gone – to be/away – from self.” Again, we get the sensation of swiming: language here is a liquid medium, not confined to any one meaning or fixed location. Rather, it flows from one form to another, often with a high degree of ambiguity.
Yet another way language goes through transformation in this work is paradoxical given the flow theme: the atomizing of words. As Kat swims, she breaks down words like respect, into its Latin parts. But this too is done in order to, once more, take language and make it more fluid, to provide indefiniteness – to get words out of the trap of their fossilized meaning.
Then there are the boundaries of the body, yet another theme in Apostolides’ writing. There is much giving and taking of bodies in Swim, from birth to sex and everything in between. But the body undergoes a profound change from her other books. It is more permeable, more a membrane than a skin. Kat has the incredible urge to scream in the water, not outwardly, but inwardly “a scream as a suck of water” an amazing image, both possible and impossible. The body wants to burst its closures, nearly… to become more than this fleshed-thing bound by all kinds of dead ends. Kat wants an oceanic feeling – the ability to strip away the falsehood of everything, hidden in bodies, minds, and language. As she contemplate her failing marriage, this wonderful cascade of images of exposure appears:
She wanted – she thinks. She wanted– like the goring of her cunt by his cock – she wanted some confrontation: some grapple with the covered now. She wanted to shout the problem – her betrayal, his depression, her hatred of this, her lost (complete) of belief in trust and faith in him / her / them – and love and honour and family / vows. Her loss of self as she’d defined: a woman / mother / wife, not tainted by the lingering smell of want.
The goring image is strong, disturbing. And as it leads to the cascade of items, all bad and tinged with sorrow. A lingering small of want. All that stuff, all that those feelings and senses hidden by the “covered now.”
Marianne Apostolides accomplishes much in 93 pages. Swim radiates great struggle, yet it finds, in certain moments, a way around them. The form of the novel and its narrative texture – work in perfect tandem. Toward the end, Kat’s daughter and the young Greek man struggle to name a butterfly before it flies away. They simply name it butterfly in Greek – a hint that Greece and thinks Greek, with all its problematic history for Kat, still has much to offer. Kat knows that her daughter would not be paying attention to a butterfly if it was not “held in this man’s hand” But best of all is her daughter’s experience of “purity of wonder – her joy at sensing the unnamed possible.”
After a novel that is obsessed with definition in language, human life and relationships and history, we get “a purity of wonder” a “joy at sensing the unmade possible.” These few words almost overthrow the whole course of the book – they are, really, the simple sense of reality that eludes Kat, but that she can see in her daughter. The novel ends with a hint of hope.