Ship of fools
Satirical, comical cruise-ship novel floats on somewhat uneven keel
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/01/2022 (202 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Luxury cruises offer ripe — overripe, in fact — opportunities for comedy and satire: all-you-can-drink bars and overstuffed buffets, on-board spas, casinos and posh restaurants, on-shore cattle-call tours and trinket-filled souvenir shops at every stop, to say nothing of the wide spectrum of indulged passengers and captive servants. Everything screams excess. Comedians and satirists thrive on excess.
Montreal’s Will Aitken has accepted the luxury cruise challenge with his new book The Swells. It’s advertised as “a darkly hilarious satire,” a billing that it only partially satisfies. At times it’s dark. It’s only sporadically hilarious (but often amusing). And its satire is scattershot and unsure.
The Swells begins brilliantly. Veteran travel writer Briony Paget takes a phone call from her editor-in-chief Gemma as she is about to dine at a chic, swanky restaurant. Their magazine has been sold and renamed. In a conversation rife with biz-spin and zany malapropisms, Gemma fast-talks Briony into accepting that she will write less (with an emphasis on “listicles”) and be paid minimally, condemned to a life of “sumptuous new homelessness.” Other writers have been summarily turfed. Contemporary journalistic practices are neatly skewered here.
Immediately whisked to an assignment on Emerald Tranquility, the most luxurious cruise ship afloat, Briony hooks up with tour guide Mimi and fellow reporter Gigot. They understand the situation: “the pricier the ship, the older the clientele.” Thus the satiric conflicts are set: hyper-rich old fogeys, cynical authorities and downtrodden service staff.
The ship’s obese Captain Kartoffeln commands a security force of Uzi-toting “Gummy Bears” which puts down a raid by pirates during an introductory costume ball. Stymied in their quest for “gold and an end to capitalism,” the surviving pirates kidnap Gigot and make their escape. The wealthy offer to take up a collection. A con man who calls himself Little Buddha calms everyone. From elementary to off-the-wall, Aitken satirizes some obvious tour targets at the start.
At the heart of the novel is an upstairs-downstairs conflict between the service staff — confined to small, airless quarters on Zircon deck and below — and the wealthy passengers on upper decks Lanvin, Limoges, Halston, etc. Down below an aging lesbian, Mrs. Moore, has been counseling the brown-skinned service staff during four previous trips on the rebellious principles of Franz Fanon. Taking Fanon to heart, the staff cause a power disruption, a typhoon hits and then the staff stage a mutiny, dispatching the captain and tossing him overboard.
In true satiric fashion, everything turns topsy-turvy. The servants become the privileged, and the wealthy are made to do all the menial jobs. And then the pirates attack again and chaos ensues. Not saturnalian, but then again these are old people.
Aitken is an experienced arts critic and writer with three novels and two highly regarded works of non-fiction to his credit: Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic and Antigone Undone: Juliette Binoche, Anne Carson, Ivo Van Hove and the Art of Resistance. The latter was a shortlisted finalist for the 2018 Hilary Weston Writer’s Trust Prize for Non-fiction.
His previous novel, Realia, is a funny, postmodern tale featuring an endearing, larger-than-life Albertan named Louise on the loose in contemporary Japan. And that’s what’s mainly missing in The Swells: a strong central character. Briony is a journalist, but she does no writing at all in this story; her naïve and inappropriate comments for an upscale magazine could have been hilarious. As is, her character is too slight to carry the satire.
The “ship of fools” story is also undernourished. The Emerald Tranquility never seems full, nor the caricatures fully fleshed out. Characters and opportunities are slighted. The Swells is amusing but schematic, more like an enhanced outline rather than a full-bodied satiric novel.
Sadly, in The Swells it never feels like Aitken has been on a real luxury cruise, which could have helped make the book a richer and funnier experience.
Pre-COVID, Gene Walz foolishly gained unnecessary poundage on a (discounted) cruise to Alaska.