... [a] zany, demanding satire ... It’s an estimable entry in [Aitkin's] varied literary career ... I do have several reservations about The Swells. I wish we knew more about Briony’s wishes, aspirations, goals along the way, and it kind of gets lost that she’s a journalist and supposedly on assignment on this trip. And the lovely use of language, of unusual, mellifluent words in the first part of the book...are mostly dropped later on. And, yes, the clever satire page after page does occasionally get bogged down a bit ... Still, what a fascinating, skillfully written book!
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 ... 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.
Across 18 chapters The Swells evolves as a novel at odds with itself. A confection with hopes of providing meaty sustenance, the fourth novel of Montrealer Will Aitken...can’t fulfil disparate aims. The story’s initial—and principal—mode is whimsical comedy that could easily be called Wildean (after Oscar). It’s frivolous and camp and hyperbolic ... The amusing proceedings veer between glib and vapid; verbal exchanges trade in wit, sophisticated ennui and barbed innuendo. Not developed much beyond their ludicrous names, Aitken’s 'hyper-privileged' characters stick to facile conversations and blithely accept the pecking order ... [then] a rhetorical about-face ... Aitken writes his characters as silly and, well, farcical. Even the deepest, Briony, develops but remains a comical figure. As such, they’re out of place as beaten slaves in a labour camp. And as gossamer things, they can’t support the weight of the story’s new sobriety.
... the heavy-handed style, outlandish set pieces, and an obfuscated narrative make The Swells a work burdened by the very de trop it purports to satirize—unchecked and uncontrolled revelry in a world of its own design ... In attempting to make clear his satirical intent, Aikens overwrites by half, relying again and again on outlandish prose, an abundance of exclamation marks, and dialogue seemingly taken from the transcripts of clinical trials for new and improved amphetamines. The most consistent and notable challenge in the book, however, is an unfocused, in-on-the-joke narrative entity which, instead of colorizing and sympathizing the narration as in the best characterized thirds, often pushes the reader out and muddles the water of a given scene ... a story submarined by its style and a narrative capsized under its own weight.