There is a pun in the title of Will Aitken’s fourth novel that readers would do well to consider. The Montreal author sets his latest full-length fiction on a boat – more specifically a cruise ship catering to the über-wealthy, the privileged 0.01%. In this context, his title does double duty. As a noun, a swell can refer to a wave or other oceanic upheaval; it is also an old-fashioned term for a toff or a pretentious upper-class person. Both figure in the course of Aitken’s madcap seaboard romp.
Nominally a satire, the novel follows Briony, a travel writer who, as the book opens, gets unceremoniously demoted from her salaried associate editor post at Euphoria! magazine to a glorified freelancer making $200 per article, to be filed preferably in the form of easily digested listicles. The opening scene takes place in an “underwater restaurant” called Entre deux eaux (Between Two Waters), instantly identifying the novel’s sodden milieu.
This is not the only thing the curtain-raiser accomplishes. It also cues the reader to Aitken’s preferred style in the novel, which ranges somewhere between Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. As she is waiting for her entrée (her appetizer having consisted of “lettuce gazpacho with brown crab and whey granita”), Briony receives a phone call from the editor-in-chief of Euphoria! who informs her the magazine has been sold. Their conversation is redolent of the kind of humour Aitken employs over the course of the novel:
“I told you we were looking for a buyer.”
“I’m certain I did. But it’s been such an absolute flurry here I don’t know what I’ve babbled to whom. You remember the Macau twins?”
“The macaw twins? Birds, Gemma?”
“Macau. China, casinos, fabulously wealthy twins – so young! so sleek! so sharky! – looking to diversify their … holdings and –”
“Launder their money?”
“Briony, you are such a card!”
The Abbott-and-Costello mishearing of “macaw” for “Macau” combines with the machine-gun bursts of dialogue and the prodigious use of exclamation points to plunge the reader bodily into a chaotic and frenzied prose style. The problem with adopting this kind of frenetic approach right out of the gate is that it doesn’t leave the author anywhere to go; even Nigel Tufnel understood you have to work your way up to eleven on the amp. It does, however, allow for a moment of sly levity when Briony is offered an all-expenses-paid voyage on the luxury cruise ship Emerald Tranquility: if we can be sure of anything at this early stage in the novel, it’s that tranquility of any kind will be in short supply.
Sure enough, before long Briony is on the high seas touring the waters of East Asia among fellow travellers with names like Doña Cuantos Cuantos-Besos, Count Guido Malodoroso, Grand Duke Basil-Haakon, and Major Chelmsworth Cholmondeley. The ship’s security is made up of a group of mercenaries colloquially referred to as Gummis; dressed as servers, they put down an attempted incursion on the part of balaclava-clad pirates by decapitating the invaders with razor-edged serving trays while Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” plays on the speakers. Briony has a fling with an ex, who is onboard in the company of a new flame; she has another fling with an older passenger named Mrs. Moore; there is a mutiny and a second pirate invasion, among other onboard shenanigans.
This is all before the final part of the novel, which takes place on the pirates’ home island of Yomia, where passengers and crew members are imprisoned in work camps and beaten; the stark shift in tone is jarring and the final sections of the novel read incongruously compared to the broad slapstick that preceded them.
The slapstick set-pieces – even the serving-tray beheadings are played for laughs – belie a more serious intent on the author’s part and there are some aspects of the novel that work well in this regard. The rich white passengers inhabit the upper decks of the ship with names like Petrossian, Limoges, and Hérmes, while the deckhands, chambermaids, and other crew members are crowded into claustrophobic cabins below sea level. The irony here is Briony. Having sold her Park Slope studio when she lost her job, she has begun a “life of sumptuous new homelessness.” She has become a de facto part of the gig economy, dependent on companies like the Japanese cruise line that owns the Emerald Tranquility to provide her room, board, and living expenses. Though she consorts with the well-heeled, she shares more in common with the anonymous crew belowdecks.
Aitken’s satire of the haves and have-nots is one part Titanic and one part Parasite, but the scattershot tone of the book unfortunately sinks the more barbed and subtle aspects of his narrative. The social politics onboard a luxury cruise liner were depicted well in Esmé Claire Keith’s 2011 novel Not Being on a Boat; where Keith demands that her reader inhabit the psyche of a distinctly unsympathetic main character, Aitken’s approach to Briony is less vicious and therefore somewhat less interesting. And the cacophonous pile-up of dialogue and incident renders The Swells a fast, noisy, but ultimately unsatisfying read.