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Photo: Courtesy of Will Aitken

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Will Aitken Recounts the Champagne-fuelled Lunch That Launched a Luxury Cruise Ship Satire

The Montreal author's farcical novel about high-end travel, "The Swells," takes a hilariously dark turn when class war breaks out on the opulent Emerald Tranquility / BY Will Aitken / January 5th, 2022


Madame faces two North American journalists across the calacatta marble slab of her dockside picnic table in a Southeastern Asian capital. Backlit by the setting sun, she’s tiny and ageless, with obsidian hair. The gold, chain-link breastplate slung over her silk tunic suggests she’s battle-ready.

She’s spent the last hour and a jeroboam of Taittinger performing for us the dog-and-pony show of her family’s storied wealth and her own relentless driving narcissism.

“Remember,” she concludes, “I don’t go to the Prime Minister – he comes to me.” There is a theatrical cackle before she adds, “Parliament too. They all come to me here at my little hotel by the river.”

Suites – there’s nothing so plebian as a room – at Madame’s little hotel start at $3,000 a night.

It’s 2013, and my colleague Chase works for a major money mag in the United States and wants to profile her. He wouldn’t at all mind if that extended to ghosting Madame’s autobiography. I’m a luxury travel journo along for the ride, curious about what dining with Southeast Asia’s richest woman will be like.

“But enough of this nonsense,” Madame turns to Chase. “Please tell me what you plan to write about me.”

Chase grins. “I’m going to put you in our magazine. Possibly a cover story.”

Madame looks impatient, waiting for someone to tell her something she doesn’t know. Her eyes fix mine. “And will you put me in a magazine too?”

I think a moment. “No,” I say, “I’m going to put you in a novel.”

This gives Madame pause.

This was the spark that set ablaze a slim new novel that would take another eight years to write.

Will Aitken

The Swells focuses on a mutiny aboard the Emerald Tranquility, the world’s most opulent cruise liner. Overworked and underpaid, the multiracial crew rise up against this boatload of white privilege. Soon the wealthy passengers wield toilet brushes and swab decks while the crew loll about in pilfered finery.

All this is reported by a young Canadian travel journalist named Briony who happens to be homeless – she survives by scurrying from gig to luxury travel gig. Cataclysm succeeds cataclysm at the ports the Emerald Tranquility visits – thousands die before Briony’s eyes – but the great ship sails on.

Madame herself didn’t make it into The Swells. Too overwhelming for a compact satirical novel, she would have swamped the thing.

All my novels have been forms of madness. The writing of my autobiographical, coming-of-age debut – Terre Haute (1989) – precipitated a colourful breakdown. My second book, A Visit Home (1993), described that breakdown in detail.

Book three, Realia (2000), marked a welcome change, at least from a mental health standpoint. About an ESL-teaching Albertan giantess conducting a scandalous affair with Japan’s greatest pop star, the novel explored madness as a portal to lubricious freedom.

Two more novels followed, neither of which got published. It was a chastening experience. In desperation, I turned to non-fiction. An erotic monograph called Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic (2011) examined Luchino Visconti’s luscious adaptation of Thomas Mann’s classic novella. Antigone Undone (2018) offered a backstage account of Juliet Binoche’s incarnation of the rebellious Greek princess during the international tour of Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’ tragedy.

When I resolved to try fiction one last time with The Swells, I entered into a whole new form of madness. I’d been writing the same way for too long, and was sick of it. I decided to break my style. But since a writer’s style is who they are, how then to break free?

I began cautiously, by eliminating certain parts of speech. The first draft saw a ban on all adverbs. In the second, adjectives went too. Soon “a” and “the” fell by the wayside, followed shortly by conjunctions. In our over-linked world, who needs ’em?

These subtractions seemed to speed up my prose in an attractive way.

By the 10th or 12th draft I decided my nouns were so strong they required no verbs – actions from here on would be implied or, better yet, inferred. Prepositions became de trop as well. Why waste time saying where things are?

How heady the rush of my syntax without the encumbrance of grammar.

Around draft 20 I sent the manuscript off to three readers who’d helped with previous books. The first reader was so outraged on so many levels he didn’t know where to begin, apart from wondering that I was willing to inflict such incoherence on the reading public. The second, more diplomatic reader suggested she found the opening chapters so vertiginous that, for the sake of her own mental health, she was reluctant to undertake another.

Only the third reader, a writer herself with an experimental bent, felt I “was on the right track.” I took this as effusive praise.

Only now, when I go back to that draft, do I wonder what the hell I was thinking. It’s a nutty read, and not in a delightful way, its distinctive flavor best described as mad propulsive yammering.

I began to encourage verbs, adverbs and so on back into the manuscript, but sparingly, sure that the peripatetic carnival funhouse of my narrative would carry the day.

This draft I sent to a former editor, asking for her reaction. She was blunt. “I always think it a mistake,” she witheringly wrote, “for the author to have more fun than the reader.”

I decided to hate this woman for the rest of my days, while at the same time recognizing she was right.

Three days later I began a whirlwind, slashing edit. I made basic mechanical changes, liking shifting the narration from first-person “I” to third-person “she.” Instead of having an outlandish character outlandishly commenting on a series of outlandish events, this new and detached narrative voice provided distance and perspective. And dividing my stream-of-delirium approach into discrete chapters, with lots of white space in between, gave readers a moment of repose before the onslaught of what would happen next.

As for Madame, she survived only as an embroidered silk tunic worn by an inconsequential character in Chapter 8, but nevertheless gave me a glimpse of the insouciant swagger of the overweening wealth that drives our world to ruin and makes of apocalyptic satire an absolute necessity.

The Swells was published Jan. 4 by House of Anansi Press and is available on their website, online and in book stores.

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