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Susan Swan Biography

anna mouse narrative reader

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Midland, Ontario, 1945. Education: Havergal College, early 1960s; McGill University, B.A. 1967. Career: Writer and performer in theatre, 1970s; creative writing teacher, York University, Toronto.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Biggest Modern Woman in the World. Toronto, Lester & OrpenDennys, 1983; New York, Ecco Press, 1986.

The Last of the Golden Girls. Toronto, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989;New York, Arcade Publishers, 1991.

The Wives of Bath. Toronto and New York, Knopf, 1993.

Short Stories

Unfit for Paradise. Dingle Editions, 1982.

Stupid Boys Are Good to Relax With. N.p. 1996.

Plays

Queen of the Silver Blades, 1975.

Writing vs. Dance, 1977.

Down and In, 1978.

True Confessions of the Female Organs, 1978.

Poetry F.M., 1979.

X's and O's on the Longest Day of the Year, 1983.

Moral Passion, 1984.

Radio Plays:

The Collaborators, Toronto, Canadian BroadcastingCorporation, 1974.

Television Plays:

Futurework, Toronto, TVOntario, 1984.

Other

Contributor, Best Canadian Short Stories. Oberon, 1989.

Contributor Hard Times. Mercury Press, 1990.

Editor, with Margaret Dragu and Sarah Sheard, Mothers Talk Back: Momz Radio. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1991.

* * *

Coming from a career in journalism and presently teaching at York University in Toronto, Canadian writer Susan Swan has produced three novels and two volumes of short pieces to date. Her first publication, Unfit for Paradise, is a small group of short stories on the theme of Canadians traveling on tropical vacations. The Biggest Modern Woman of the World is her greatest success because it handles the transition of history into the mythic at the touchpoint of feminist issues, and in so doing joins the company of Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. It professes to tell the story of the nineteenth-century Nova Scotia giantess Anna Swan (1846-1888), who was exhibited in New York by P. T. Barnum and later toured Britain and Europe before settling down in Seville, Ohio, to an uneasy married life with the Kentucky Giant. The story has a clever mix of narration, including Anna's own voice, her letters, other people's letters, "testimonials," and fragments of poems and other documents. Anna's voice in particular is very cleverly presented, because the reader she is directly addressing is ostensibly her nineteenth-century listener, but in fact the quality of her observations are profoundly modern. While the story follows Anna's life in rough chronological sequence, its strength lies in the ironies set in motion by its title. Anna's experiences are precursors of the feminist moment of the late twentieth century, and her own narrative voice is a clever mixture of an educated nineteenth-century woman (the real Anna had extensive tutoring written into her contract with Barnum), a Nova Scotia Scots practical farmgirl, and a twentieth-century consciousness of how women feel themselves to be seen as strange and monstrous creatures. Anna says she intends to be "… A Victorian lady who refused to be inconsequential."

The novel is very direct about bodily functions and sexuality. Anna discovers that the Kentucky Giant is impotent and small, but she has two children with "Judge" Apollo Ingalls, her manager after she leaves Barnum. Anna's practicality and sharp eye for the world confound reader expectations of a giantess as a physical curiosity. In this witty and perceptive novel she emerges as an icon of "modern" womanhood, directing the reader to the personality rather than the body.

Swan's more recent books The Last of the Golden Girls, The Wives of Bath, and the short story collection Stupid Boys Are Good to Relax With are less coherent in tone and structure, but each has features that suggest that Swan is coming upon a style and form that may make her a first-rank writer.

The first half of The Last of the Golden Girls, subtitled "Losing," takes place in 1959 on the shores of Georgian Bay (renamed UGo-I-Go Sound), where fifteen-year-old Jude "Dinger" Bell and her friends Roberta "Bobby" Gallagher and Shelly Moffat are discovering themselves and sex. It has the strengths of good psychological perception and sensitivity to the pressures on the girls and their resulting struggles with parents, boys, and each other. Dinger is attempting to write romances, and she and Bobby are able to quote the sexual encounters from Payton Place and Lady Chatterley's Lover. But there are always overtones of a struggle for dominance, and the section ends when Bobby and Shelly trick Dinger into performing oral sex on Jay Manchester, the boy de jour, at a beach party, horribly shaming her and bringing the summer to a bitter end.

The second half of the novel, "Winning," takes place ten years later when Bobby has married into the wealthy Cape family who own an island in the Sound. In this playground of the rich, Jude, now a journalist working on a book about the Cape family, is struggling with Shelly for the love of Child Cape, and Bobby is married to Bull Cape. Swan directs the section at "you," whom she identifies as the reader, Old Voyeur Eyes, who she imagines as actually present in the scenes she depicts. Thus she can address the reader, correcting what she sees as their misconceptions of the situation. This self-conscious narrative position represents an increased maturity in Jude, and from this stance she chronicles a series of sexual struggles within the family and involving Jonah Prince, a rich Jew who is having an affair with Bobby. The section centers on a series of sexual exchanges and struggles. But the novel switches tone near the end and becomes awkwardly apocalyptic as atomic bombs explode and the Capes, plus an Indian swami Mrs. Cape has recruited, end up under the Sound in a strange double sphere that she has had built. These events simply run away from the focus on human personal experience that the book has been about, and there is finally no explanation for the section title "Winning," and no resolution to the tangled lives that the voyeur reader has been watching. The unevenness of the plan for this novel overwhelms the energy of its narrative.

The Wives of Bath is much more coherent as a narrative and features Swan's most convincing character, Mary Beatrice "Mouse" Bradford, the slightly hunchbacked (she calls her hump Alice) daughter of a small-town physician. In this narrative she is sent to Huron Ladies College because her father Morley is nervous about bringing up a daughter and Mouse's stepmother Sal does not want her in the house. From the beginning we know that the trial of her roommate Pauline Sykes is underway, but the spectacular nature of her crime takes most of the retrospective narrative to emerge. The first-person narrative is intelligent, and Swan creates an edgy style that allows both a naturalistic representation of the young women at the school and overtones of caricature and even surrealism. Caricature emerges in the persons of the mistresses in the school and in aspects of school life, and surrealism in images of a former Victorian headmistress riding a gigantic three-wheeler. Mouse herself is a realist, almost a version of Anna Swan and Jude Bell. She sees her own situation clearly, and she has a wry eye for the world of the school. She copes with most things but is surprised by the discovery that Lewis, who is ostensibly Pauline's brother and who works on the grounds of the school, is in fact Pauline herself acting as a boy. Seeking her friendship, Mouse imitates male roles as well, but Pauline's behavior detonates into the pathological, leading to the brutal and bizarre conclusion of the novel.

The Wives of Bath, like The Last of the Golden Girls before it, lacks a unity of style. But unlike the unfitted compound parts of the earlier work the difficulty here may lie more with the reader than the author. Swan has found a tone for the narrative "I" of Mouse Bradford unlike any other woman's voice in fiction. If Mouse's bravado was removed, it would be like the voice of J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield—observant, sensitive, a touch cynical, and suffering through the shocks of discovering the intricacies of the world.

Stupid Boys Are Good to Relax With is a short story collection in two parts: Gutenberg Stories and Cyber Tales. The Cyber Tales are mytho-comic experiments in sexual politics featuring imagined emails between such luminaries as St. Paul, Hannibal, Catherine the Great, Marilyn Monroe, and Ariadne. Four of the Gutenberg Stories, however, extend the Mouse Bradford character from The Wives of Bath. Three of these are set before Wives, including the title story and "The Stupid Boy Handbook," a teenager's guide to boys. "The Una-bridged Stupid Boy Handbook" is Mouse's adult version of the same handbook, written at the age of thirty.

Swan's oeuvre to date is a mixture of success and promise. She seeks new narrative approaches, like the Old Voyeur Eyes character of the reader who is actually present in The Last of the Golden Girls, and the knowing young woman characters of Jude Bell and Mouse Bradford, but the voice of Anna Swan is to date her only assured, flexible, and coherent vehicle.

—Peter Brigg

Wayne Swanson (1942–) Biography - Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights [next] [back] Ruth (Freeman) Swain (1951–) Biography - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

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