Tuesday 4 October 2016

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

All We Shall Know

By Donal Ryan
(Transworld, €16.99 p/b)
In his new novel, Donal Ryan attempts to do something male writers essay at their peril: to write from the first person point of view in a female voice. Of course, there have been notable achievements among men pretending to be women, perhaps most famously James Joyce in petticoats as Molly Bloom. Not that the praise for JJ’s attempt has always been universal: ‘ “Yes” is what men always want women to say,’ being a favourite line of attack among feminist literary critics, highlighting the propensity for male wish-fulfillment. Then, in an instance of being shot by both sides, there is also the risk of being accused by the lads of merely wanting to score male-feminist brownie points with the ladies. All this preamble by way of suggesting that the success or failure of Ryan’s venture depends largely on how well you think he inhabits the mind and body of his anti-heroine, a diarist with the unlikely name of Melody Shee.
  Melody is in a bit of a pickle, suicidally so. She tells us, by way of introduction: ‘Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I’m thirty-three. I was his teacher. I’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough.’ She’s married, and husband Pat doesn’t take the news too well, even if she strives to ameliorate it by telling him the father is someone she met on the internet who she had an affair with. She’s had several miscarriages, and Pat has had a vasectomy to save her any more trouble. He moves back to his parents’.
  Like Anna Karenina, like Emma Bovary, Melody is a malcontent, and chaffs under the constraints of quotidian marriage. Pat’s an ordinary guy, a hurler, an electrician, the only boy she ever kissed (until Martin Toppy). (On a pedantically realist note, Pat is described as wearing a Liverpool jersey at one point, and a Chelsea shirt a hundred pages later, which doesn’t do him any favours: as every bloke knows, you never change your team.) She’s an educated girl, she did English and History at Limerick University. They are trapped in the endless cycle of an abusive, destructive relationship.
  Ryan takes a further risk by making his protagonist a not very nice person. This trait is made most manifest in how she treated her school friend Breedie Flynn, whom she initially befriended but then betrayed, because she had to get in with the cool girls in school in order to get to Pat, and Breedie wasn’t cool. It also seems a tad capricious, if not downright hypocritical, that she is put out on discovering that Pat has been going to prostitutes, when she hasn’t – as American parlance would have it – been ‘putting out’ for him herself.  
  Ryan’s account of Melody’s attempt to establish herself in a journalistic career illustrates how Melody’s variety of feminism does not sit well with the more herd-like elements of the sisterhood: ‘I wrote a searing article on inverted sexism as a trope in advertising. It was published in a broadsheet supplement, and when I looked at the online edition there was a stream of comments beneath it and my stomach burnt with the excitement of it all and I waded into them and saw myself being attacked and I mounted a defence of my position and I gloried in my new-found notoriety and I railed against this narrow, straitened, un-nuanced, reactionary brand of feminism, and declared myself to be a proponent of the purest from of equality, and I was so happy with myself, and I was never asked to write for that paper again.’ She is nothing if not single-minded and independent.
  It’s as well that she is befriended by Mary Crothery, a young Traveller woman who has been ostracised by her own family, having been returned by her erstwhile husband’s family for the awful crime of being barren. This bond makes possible Melody’s final, moving act of redemption.
  Aside from the sexual politics involved, how well you take to this book will also hinge on how accurately you think Ryan handles the representation of the vicious and violent tribalism of Traveller mores.
  Believable female character or flimsy male construct? Honest portrayal of the harshness of Traveller life, or typical stereotyping of an already marginalised community? Your judgment of the verisimilitude, or even the fact that you are judging in terms of verisimilitude will, I suspect, depend on what area of the ideological spectrum you inhabit. Or, perhaps more fundamentally, on whether or not you are a woman, and on whether or not you are a Traveller.

First published in The Sunday Independent 

Monday 8 August 2016

Nothing On Earth by Conor O'Callaghan

Nothing On Earth

By Conor O’Callaghan
(Transworld, €16.99 p/b)
A ghost estate in the middle of nowhere; an unreliable narrator in the shape of a priest under suspicion: these are the standard themes of post-boom, post-clerical child abuse Ireland, out of which poet Conor O’Callaghan, whose debut novel this is, has woven something quite extraordinary.
  During a sweltering summer – the hottest May on record – a makeshift family move into the show house on a far-from-finished estate, on a rent-to-by (as opposed to buy-to-let) basis they agree with dodgy builder Flood. There’s Paul, who cycles everyday to his nearby computer software factory job; his partner (are they married?) Helen; her sister Martina (it transpires that they are twins), who goes everywhere they go; and Paul and Helen’s twelve-year-old daughter, also named Helen (or is she?), otherwise referred to as ‘The Girl’. They are recently returned emigrants, from Germany. The girl calls Helen Mutti, her English is stilted, with ‘… a sort of freeze-dried quality…as if her every phrase had only just been taken out of the vacuum packing it had lain in for years, and was found to be almost too well preserved.’ Their only neighbours are the elderly Harry and Sheila. Marcus, Flood’s nephew, turns up of an evening as night watchman. Martina takes to slipping out, keeping him company in his portacabin, until he knocks off at 6am. Then, one by one, over the course of that long hot summer, each of the adults goes missing.
  The previous sentence hardly counts as a spoiler, given the noncommittal way information is slowly and insubstantially revealed in this radically enigmatic text. Because the girl turns up distraught at the door of the priest, in the opening pages, both terrified and terrifying, telling him ‘My papa is gone too’, we are already prepared for the worst. Yet there is worse to come. Everything is suffused with an air of dread and impending doom. The glancing early reference to Kubrick’s The Shining is an apt signpost.
  Most of the narrative concerning the domestic relations of the family is based on what the girl tells the priest that evening, but is he to be trusted? He doesn’t even seem to trust himself, and already feels guilty as soon as the girl enters his orbit. He has previously made an effort to call on the house, at Sheila’s behest after the mother’s disappearance, but is conscious only of his own marginality and superfluousness. ‘They were tomorrow’s young, with their worldwide webs and their several languages. The last thing they wanted was yesterday’s man on their doorstep, preaching ancient, hollow words. They weren’t part of the congregation.’  Yet he seems to be a decent man, even if the police are sceptical. 
  After Helen vanishes, Martina leaves the factory to look after the girl. They sunbathe topless everyday, as if on a mission, in the backgarden. When Martina too is not to be found, Paul neglects to report it, not wanting to bring any more attention on himself and his daughter. They go for a macabre dinner at the house of Slattery and his wife Hazel, the local squire (his fortune apparently made in dog food) who sold the land to Flood (now absconded to Portugal). Then Paul is made redundant, and bills go unpaid. Water and electricity are cut off. Then he dematerialises too.
  In twenty-odd years of reviewing, this has been one of the most difficult to write, because it is hard to convey adequately the unsettling atmosphere the novel creates. The nearest correlatives would be: early Ian McEwan, particularly The Cement Garden; Neil Jordan’s The Dream of a Beast; John Banville’s The Newton Letter; or some of the late J. G. Ballard’s suburban dystopias. While it certainly has antecedents in Gothic literature, its contemporaneity makes it feel almost sui generis. Like many great works, it could so easily have all gone wrong if it hadn’t been done exactly right. All that can be done is to give it the highest recommendation: read it, and find out for yourself.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Solar Bones

By Mike McCormack
(Tramp Press, €15)
Meet Marcus Conway, County Engineer for Mayo, resident of Louisburgh, fiftyish, husband to schoolteacher Mairead, father to aspiring artist Agnes and backpacker Darragh, brother to Eithne, ex-seminarian, one time adulterer, and all round connoisseur of chaos, both domestic and universal.
  Mike McCormack’s new novel – his third, following Crowe’s Requiem (1998) and Notes From A Coma (2005), and his fifth book if you include the short story collections Getting It In The Head (1996) and Forensic Songs (2012) – is a day, or rather, a morning and early afternoon, in the life of this gentleman. It is no ordinary half-day either, although it seems so for most of the narrative, culminating in its closing pages in a finale it would be spoilerish to reveal (did you see it coming?), but which attempts to lend weight to what has gone before, in so doing asking important ethical and metaphysical questions about life and death, how to live and how to die.
  Although clues are dropped throughout, the novel largely dispenses with plot contrivances, and completely with full stops, choosing instead to range broadly over Marcus’ reminiscences of his life, in a Bloom-like, free associative, stream of consciousness manner. Indeed, like Joyce’s Leopold, Marcus is in many ways an ordinary hero, a mythic everyman, although his classical correlative would not be Odysseus, but rather Achilles. He even has a literal gammy heel, a side effect of the Lipitor cholesterol medication he is on, which weakens tendons down there. However, unlike the largely equanimous, even jovial Bloom, the metaphorical equivalence of this vulnerability is Marcus’ defining characteristic of anxiety. In his mental ramblings, he is inclined to fret about everything, whether it is his immediate family, or the state of the county, the country, or the whole shooting match.
  For while the universal may be contained in the particular (and vice versa), for Marcus this translates into an engineer’s acute awareness of the nothingness upon which everything is built, and the provisional nature and inherent instability of all structures. This sense of dread is vividly illustrated in a genuinely unnerving recollection Marcus has of coming home from school one day as a boy in short trousers, to find the engine of the Massey Ferguson 35 tractor his farmer father had bought ‘completely broken down…gutted of its most essential parts and forlorn now, its components ordered across the floor in such a way as to make clear not only the sequence of its dismantlement but also the reverse order in which it would be restored to the full working harmonic of itself.’
  He comments: ‘…since looking at those engine parts spread across the floor my imagination took fright and soared to some wider, cataclysmic conclusion about how the universe itself was bolted and screwed together, believing I saw here how heaven and earth could come unhinged when some essential cottering pin was tapped out which would undo the whole vast assemblage of stars and galaxies in their wheeling rotations and send them plummeting through the void of space towards some final ruin out on the furthest mearing of the universe and even if my childish fear at that specific moment did not run to such complete detail, only such cosmic awareness could account for the waves of anxiety that gripped me as I stood over those engine parts on the hayseed floor soul sick with an anxiety which was not soothed one bit the following day when my father drove the tractor out of the hayshed with a clear spout of smoke blurting from the exhaust…’ Marcus is quite an articulate, even at times verbose, prose stylist, for an engineer. Proust had his madeleine, McCormack has his tractor engine.
  This idea of incipient collapse extends to ‘the global economic catastrophe, all this talk of virus and contagion, it is now clear to me that there are other types of chaos beyond the material satisfactions of things falling down since, it appears, out there in the ideal realm of finance and currency, economic constructs come apart in a different way or at least in ways specific to the things they are, abstract structures succumbing to intensely rarefied viruses which attack worth and values and the confidence which underpin them, swelling them beyond their optimal range to the point where they overbalance and eventually topple.’
  Similarly, and in keeping with his Achillean sensitivity to perceived offences against his amour propre, or perhaps it is his integrity as a concerned citizen, he also has quite a hard-on against the havoc reeked by the venal short-termism of local councilors, TDs, developers and builders, looking to circumvent planning and health and safety regulations with a nod and a wink.
  On the home front, his anxiety about the centre not holding and things falling apart is made manifest not just in the body politic, but also the physical body, when Mairead is infected with the coliform Cryptosporidium viral parasite, after a trip to the opening of Agnes’ first show at a gallery in Galway, a reference to the outbreak of food poisoning there in 2007 caused by infected water.
  If this all sounds a little abstract and heady, it is in the familial moments that Marcus’ humanity survives, best exemplified in how attentively he nurses Mairead through her illness. Technology, of itself, is an agent of neither control nor chaos: that depends on how it is used. Thus, the amusing father and son exchange about the generational gap in popular musical taste which takes place when Darragh, Skyping from Australia, asks his Dad if he has made any headway with Radiohead’s Kid A. In Marcus’ opinion, ‘it sounded a lot like unleaded King Crimson’, a band his offspring describes as, ‘music for engineers, all those dissonant chords laid down at right angles to each other’, prompting Marcus’ conclusion, ‘exactly, my generation demanded more from our music than soft emoting.’
   Mike McCormack is an important writer, not just in the Irish context, but internationally. Writing from and about the furthest edge of Europe, he is leagues ahead of many of his more cosmopolitanly located contemporaries in tapping the pulse of the zeitgeist.

 First published in The Sunday Independent, 22/05/2016

Monday 25 April 2016

My review of The Blade Artist by Irvine Welsh, in The Sunday Independent yesterday

The Blade Artist

By Irvine Welsh
(Jonathan Cape, €16.99 h/b)
You all remember Begbie, don’t you? That’s right, Frank Begbie, the hard man from Trainspotting, portrayed so memorably by Robert Carlyle in Danny Boyle’s filmisation. There’s usually one in every teenage gang: the one everyone winds up embarrassed by and wants to disown, in this case because of his thuggish, psychopathic antics, and just plain wrongness. Well, Begbie’s back, and you wouldn’t recognise him.
  Jim Francis is now a successful artist, living the good and tranquil life in southern California with beautiful, art therapist wife Melanie, and their two young daughters Grace (5) and Eve (2). The happy couple met when she was in Edinburgh for a year, working on an exchange programme between the Scottish prison service and the California correctional system. Guess who was inside? As Welsh has said, the only future he could imagine for Begbie beyond Trainspotting was either death or prison. Under Melanie’s tutelage, however, a hitherto unsuspected talent begins to flourish.
  He does portraits and busts of celebrities, adding ‘implausibly creative mutilations’. Think wide boy/wide girl Damien Hirst/Tracey Emin style Brit Art, to understand how he might find a foothold and fit in. His new profession proves lucrative too, apparently extending to private commissions: ‘ – But Nicole wants a bust of Tom, with a very specific mutilation, strictly confidential…And Aniston’s people want to know when the Angelina will be ready.’ He’s now strictly teetotal too, and has white omelette, spinach and green tea for breakfast (by all accounts echoing the lifestyle of his creator).  
  This idyll is interrupted when a phone call comes from Jim/Frank’s sister Elspeth in the old country, informing him of the death of his first born son, Sean. Jim has three children he hardly knows in Edinburgh, from previous relationships: Sean and his younger brother Michael, with June; and River, whose mother is Kate. He packs his bag to head back for the funeral, and when it emerges that Sean was murdered, you just know things are going to go downhill fast.
  Despite providing a rollickingly panoptic and page-turning view of the exile’s return to Edinburgh, with a huge cast of characters, the novel is not without its flaws. Attributing Begbie’s former rage and stupidity to undiagnosed dyslexia seems both patronising and uncharacteristically politically correct; after all, not all dyslexics develop a taste for ultra violence. There’s an ongoing riff around cell phone problems, which serves to limit communication between Jim and Melanie, but doesn’t seem credible to anyone remotely tech-savvy. Are there really no iPhone chargers to be had in the Scottish capital? And why does the relatively affluent Jim buy the cheapest Tesco mobile when his iPhone (in)conveniently pops out of his pocket and down a drain while he is out jogging? While Jim thankfully avoids the obvious cliché of going back on the bottle, he still has a barely controlled nasty streak. However, this is motivated less by revenge, and more because he just simply enjoys inflicting suffering, which make his sadistic outbursts seem gratuitous. But maybe that’s the whole point, and I am missing it. 
  Irvine Welsh remains a very good writer, both fictionally and otherwise. Indeed, as his op-eds around the Scottish Independence Referendum demonstrated, had he not made it as a novelist, he has a career manqué as the shrewdest of socio-political commentators to fall back on. He has also, notwithstanding his subject matter, become a much more straightforwardly traditional storyteller than he started out as, perhaps realising that experimental novels a lá William Burroughs wouldn’t butter any tatties these days. However, suffice it to say that he still will not prove very popular with the Edinburgh Tourist Office.

   Resurrecting characters is always fraught with pitfalls, but can also, given the passage of time in their lives, and the author’s and ours, prove rewarding. Although not perfect, Begbie’s return is a good yarn, well told.