‘We Wave and Call’ by Jon McGregor
Available here. Read it in 30 minutes.
Thinking about how structure and themes interact…
The story begins after the young man’s death, in the present tense (simple and continuous).
For me, the opening creates a sense of detachment – it’s a combination of the use of present tense; second person; the unnamed ‘you’; the way his body is described in the 1st paragraph (‘his limbs hanging loosely beneath him’) – not emotive*, or even unusual, but at one with the ocean (‘his body moving in long, slow ripples with each passing shallow wave, the water moving softly across his skin’). The only thing ominous/dangerous is ‘the electric crackle of waves’. The punctuation and length of clauses are amazing in this paragraph – they are like waves themselves, washing over him.
* the only emotive aspect is the use of ‘young man’, which is repeated, the second time emphasising, in case it wasn’t obvious from ‘lying face down’, that he’s dead.
So, the story has started in present tense, fine, but then the author decides to continue in present tense (as before, simple and continuous), rather than using past tense, even though he’s now talking about events earlier in time. Why? In the second paragraph the young man is alive, in the water, face down (looking ‘down at the sea floor’). The reader may think, ‘Wait, he’s not dead, the narrator was mistaken!’ I think the author wants the reader to feel a sense of disorientation, like the character would have had as he struggled in the sea.
Also, the story is circular, beginning and ending at the same point, so maintaining the tense supports this circular movement. And the circular structure traps the young man; he’ll spend eternity swimming in that bay, young, his whole life ahead of him (a metaphor for dying young?). The structure is supporting the themes here – being young, on the brink; the passing of time; destruction; remembering.
Past perfect is used here to talk about something that happened before something else happened: ‘You’d left [past perfect because this happened first] behind long months of exams and anxieties in the flat grey east of England and landed [past simple because it happened after] suddenly in this new world of cheap beer and sunshine, of clear blue seas and girls who wore [past simple] bikinis and short skirts and slept [past simple] in the room next door.’ — It’s grammatically accurate, but it’s jarring going from present to past (although, it’s always hard moving from present tense to something else).
The author has had to make grammatical choices in this paragraph. If he writes the whole thing in the present tense, there’s no layering of time, so no texture. He could have written most of this paragraph in past simple, but again, there’d be limited layers. If he wants to have one thing happen before another, he’s got to use past perfect; he couldn’t mix past perfect with present, because it would be grammatically inaccurate: ‘You’d left [past perfect] behind long months of exams and anxieties in the flat grey east of England and land [present] suddenly…’.
But at the end of that paragraph, we switch back to present tense: ‘The girls have already made it clear, by their pointing out of waiters and boys on scooters, that they’re more interested in the locals than in the two of you. But there’s still a chance. A feeling that something could happen; that anything could happen. It seems worth thinking about, at least.’ All the author’s really doing here is returning to present tense, because it’s the main tense used in the story, and he doesn’t need past perfect/simple anymore. However, based on what’s said in this part of the story, is present tense also being used symbolically because the hope is eternal? The hope that that the girls love the boys is juxtaposed with the hope that he can make it to the shore – or are we even talking about the girls? Remember, the young man is in the sea and this is analepsis.
Perhaps the use of past perfect also draws attention to the before and after? Making a comparison? As in, alive then dead. In the paragraph beginning ‘One of the boys, in the memorial photographs’ uses a lot of past perfect – our young man wonders about another young man, in a photo, who died. Foreshadowing. Juxtaposing.
So, in my opinion, the structural choices relate to the creation/development of the themes.