This is a strange novel, but as a text that deals with isolation, claustrophobia, imminent – and inevitable – catastrophe (as well as unresolved personal trauma), it felt like an apt book to be reading amidst the coronavirus lockdown. Yes, this is Spring 2020.
Cygnet by Season Butler is mainstream literary fiction, and though it’s guilty of many of the standard cliches of that genre (e.g. a teenage protagonist who is exceptionally intelligent and adaptable, though they dropped out of school years before attaining any qualifications, also they suffered sexual abuse as a child; thematically there’s lots about drug use both casual and chronic (with a weirdly judgemental tone towards anyone casually using any drugs except marijuana and alcohol but no judgement at all towards the friendly hipster drug dealer other than describing the cocaine he sells as “ethically dubious”), not being set in a city, landscape used as metaphor, etc), it’s actually much better at demonstrating the virtues of the form, as Butler creates a layered, complex, character in the present of the narrative, before delving into their past.
The novel’s unnamed (I think) protagonist is living on a small, fictional, island named Swan, which is off the coast of the USA’s [bizarrely still-named] New Hampshire.
Swan is a retirement community on a private island that has a strange communistic, agrarian economy, which is boosted by the production and off-island sale of a non-nominal quantity of marijuana.
The narrator is living there, alone, in a house owned by her recently-dead grandmother, while she waits for the increasingly-unlikely return of her parents.
The islanders had bent the rules when they allowed the teenager to stay with her grandmother for an agreed term of a couple of weeks, while her addict parents “sorted themselves out”. Weeks turned to months, the grandmother died, and the parents still haven’t got in touch. While the teenager waits, the cliff beside her grandmother’s house erodes closer and closer to the house’s back wall.
Every month, the teenager hooks with the local lad who sells the old people’s (“The Swans’s”) cannabis on land (and sells them harder drugs in return), does a small amount of cybercrime (with a bit of a 1990s near-sci-fi-style ease) and helps a wealthy old lady on the island digitally enhance/doctor all of her photographs, home videos and the diaries and letters of her now-estranged children.
Revisioning is a key theme in the text, and though the protagonist cannot use her self-taught Photoshop – and other programme – skills to literally rewrite history, she can rewrite the evidence of it, which is functionally identical.
Butler’s protagonist doesn’t have any evidence of her own childhood to enhance: her transient, musiciany, hippieish, heroin-addict parents didn’t have enough stability when she was younger to maintain a photographic record, and now they are estranged they fail to send her any letters or anything else for her to base her revisions upon. The only evidence of her parents exists within her memories, and those are harder to doctor than the physical media the lonely old lady has her alter at the terrible rate of $5 per hour.
The reason why this novel succeeds, imo, is because the issue of the narrator’s unreliability comes down not to dishonesty, but to naivety.
The protagonist is honest throughout: honest about what is happening to her, about what she remembers about her past; about her relationship with the drug dealer and how, though she likes to think of him as an “imaginary boyfriend” she knows that there’s probably a reason why he’s uncommunicative when he’s back home and never stays the night at her place on the island.
There is no questioning about how little her – genuinely technical – work is earning her, and there also seems to have been no engagement with the practicalities of her grandmother’s death. The detail and artfulness in the structuring led me to feel that the absence of exploration of this is intentional, compounded by the narrator’s impossibly hopeful tone at the novel’s close as she prepares to disappear into Boston with only a small amount of cash, a fake ID and no friends, no family and no qualifications.
At the end of Cygnet, the teenager has not become a Swan – neither in the island slang for a retiree or in the trad metaphorical meaning of mature adulthood. She’s fucked, basically, and the fact that she doesn’t realise this means the book left me feeling a nervousness, a trepidation, in contrast to the optimism of the narrator.
She makes out with one of the old men on the island before she leaves; she comes to terms with the fact that the drug dealer has a proper life and a real girlfriend off the island; she works for far below the value of her labour, and when she does cybercrime she steals only a couple of hundred dollars. She leaves with only her laptop, hardly any clothes, no record of who she is and no firm plan as to keep herself afloat while she discovers that for herself. She might have enough money for a cheap hotel room for a week, but she doesn’t have enough money for rent AND a rental deposit. She is vulnerable, completely alone and has already shown herself to be easily exploitable, in particular sexually.
Cygnet ends with the teenager feeling like she is a metaphorical grown Swan, leaving the island towards adulthood, but she has none of the tools or resources a person needs to survive.
Though this is an energetic, eventful, often funny, novel about growing up, it’s not a coming-of-age story, rather it is the opposite: it’s about a young person not learning how to be, not learning how to exist. It’s sad and it’s brilliantly done, as evidenced by this post being the first I’ve written since lockdown began where I haven’t digressed at length. If this was a “real” website, I’d move the paragraph of criticisms about the novel to the end, but it’s not a “real” website, so I’m not going to.
Also, I’m unemployed now and there’s no prospect of getting any work any time soon, so if you still haven’t bought a copy of Bad Boy Poet (my debut tonally-varied poetry collection) or Because Earth Is Flat: A Flat Earth Poetry Collection (humour and full frontal nudes) yet, then please please please do now. I was ‘Highly Commended’ in the Forward Prizes for Poetry 2019 for my work in Bad Boy Poet and I have some lovely blurbs from properly talented people, so if that doesn’t sway you, I don’t know what will.
Cygnet was GREAT, btw, recommended. Unless the happy ending was meant to be read as a happy ending and I misread something, applying my own mentally ill, pessimistic, depressive reading onto it like a real fucking downer.
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