Re-reading Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

A book that I’m looking forward to reading, that doesn’t exist yet, is an academic account of how Irish contemporary fiction went, in such a short space of time, from social realism, to the precociously sentenced art writing with dissociative narrators that now composes the Irish literary milieu. It’s the sort of thing that was probably brewing for a long time, these trends tend to be, but I first became aware of it when Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was published in 2013. It caused a bit of stir in the literary press at the time, for its supposed uncompromising experimentalism, and its fraught, J.K. Rowling-esque publication history. Critics compared it to Marcel Proust or Samuel Beckett, but I don’t think there was a single review that didn’t mention James Joyce.

In the works of Sara Baume, Joanna Walsh or Claire-Louise Bennett, there are certainly comparisons to be made along these lines, but I think McBride is the novelist of the current generation who is suffering most egregiously under these comparisons. This leads to a kind of distortion that McBride has spoken about recently, saying that it’s ‘a way of not being seen’. Claire Lowdon, writing on McBride’s prose style in Areté, has used the Joyce comparisons as a way of demeaning the novel’s experimental qualities, saying that they are ‘redundant’ and ‘artificial’:

Having invoked Joyce, Joyce has to be McBride’s standard. She has taken all the difficulty and none of the brilliance.

Lowdon’s reading is important and thorough, but I have problems with it. The most significant one being that I think it’s nonsensical to say that just because a work is in some way formally indebted to Joyce has to be 1) as good, 2) as innovative and 3) as good and as innovative in exactly the same ways. I think it’s a very strange point to make that we should benchmark a writer relative to their influences , particularly when this is a comparison furthered more by the laziness of critics than something that McBride has taken upon herself. It’s also inadequate to assume McBride and Joyce’s modernisms are coterminous; I happen to think that they’re rather distinct in a number of significant ways.

Firstly, it’s clear that A Girl is more formally aligned with the Wake than with Ulysses, but taken relative to the former, A Girl manifests far less attention to the materiality of language. In A Girl, there’s less puns, there’s less references, there’s less leitmotifs. It’s also possible to make sense of A Girl without reference to other works. But it’s a mistake to regard this as McBride’s failure to live up to her twentieth century modernist aesthetics. An example from the novel’s opening that Lowdon cites reads as follows:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

‘Wait and hour and day’, carries with it the vague association with the phrase ‘a year and a day’ but it doesn’t strictly make sense in that context, there’s no clear reason for the semantic distortion. But there’s also no requirement that there is, nor that it add up to some enormous mythic framework in the same way that the Wake does. I think that once we approach the novel from this position, one which takes account of McBride’s actual concerns, we’ll be able to come to a more sophisticated understanding that doesn’t amount to downgrading her because of her perceived inadequacy in relation to Joyce.

By her own admission McBride retains an interest in nineteenth century novels with less self-consciousness about their language or processes of meaning-making. She has cited the work of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky as significant, particularly as an example of proto-modernism, or modernism in a nascent stage of its development, wherein human intersubjectivity was beginning to make itself known within the novel while the tenets of realistic fiction was still trying to accommodate it. Being aware of the fact that The Lesser Bohemians is not the novel under discussion, it’s important to note the way in which it demonstrates this interplay. Within the context of what has been referred to by the author as a ‘modernist monologue’ there is a very sensationalistic narrative in which a character lays out their life story in a very direct and straightforward manner in the same way that you might find extended and directly rendered narratives nested within nineteenth century novels. McBride has said that this is a very deliberate formal mechanic which is pertinent to the text’s thematic concerns, as it is a novel about relating to another person in spite of one’s traumatic past:

In the end you tell a person and you have to use the words that they’ll understand.

What makes McBride’s modernism distinct then, is the centrality it gives to the conveying of narrative information, deploying it as a means of bringing the reader closer to

physical experience, to write about the female experience…the reader can partake in the experience.

McBride has said that the language of A Girl, was written in a way that would create a physical experience for the reader, an immediacy on the page that is reminiscent of theatre. She’s expressed frustration at the content of many of her reviews which have emphasised the quality of the language at the expense of the novel’s content, which she regards as very significant. This stands in contrast to the tradition of the Wake or other modernist works famed for their unintelligibility, such as Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress is a novel that she has spoken about dismissively for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’

This stated interest in what the book is ‘about’ and a reader-centric ethic, is I think at least a partial reversal of expectations within the modernist tradition. McBride’s modernism is therefore conceptualised, not as a constructed textual estrangement from reality, but an attempt to bring it closer, to a dwelling-place of authentic being. Not that it’s likely to close off such comparisons in the future.

Re-Reading Anne Enright’s ‘The Gathering’

When it comes to reading Anne Enright’s novels, I am guilty of teleological thinking. This is because I believe her most recent novel, The Green Road, to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read and until I’d read that, I believed The Gathering to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read. So, there is an extent to which I have come to view her oeuvre as an inexorable movement towards the twin apotheoses of these two works.

What is interesting then, about the history of The Gathering’s composition, is that is seems to have begun almost as a run-up to The Green Road. It was initially Enright’s intention to make The Gathering a Faulknerian 500-some page novel that would follow three generations of the Hegarty family through a century of Irish history, from the early 1900’s to the early 2000’s. The section in the novel in which the whole family is gathered for their brother Liam’s funeral, certainly seems to emulate the set-piece of The Green Road’s Christmas dinner, albeit with substantially less information given about each family member. The Gathering apparently ‘fell apart’ in the drafting process, and became the far more fragmented work we now have, one which is at war with its own historical consciousness, an allegory of modern Irish history which acts as the novel’s framework.

Take Veronica’s account of her very Irish family, which is at once a detailed account of her own, as well as Irish families in a more general sense:

There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. There are just trends, of course, and, like trends, they shift.

Take, also, Veronica’s name. The biblical Veronica wiped Jesus’ face witha piece of cloth, and took its imprint. A heavily freighted name, and one which carries with it the burden of creating truly mimetic art, an aspiration towards the re-creation of causality on the page which Veronica mostly fails to live up to. Veronica is conscious of all this, making fun of her mother in the following aside: ‘Such epic names she gave us — none of your Jimmy, Joe or Mick.’

The allegory also manifests itself in the novel’s portrait of the hundred years of Irish history from below. There is a suggestion that Veronica’s grandmother was a sex worker, part of the generation of ‘reformed’ prostitutes put into halfway houses by the church to dry out until they were deemed fit to re-join society. Veronica theorises that her grandmother was one of these, in an attempt to explain her brother’s suicide, and her family’s general fucked-up-edness, but casts doubt on her account even she advances it, dismissing it as ‘A dusty, middle-class fantasy, of crinkled stockings and TB, and hunkering to wash over a basin on the floor’.

Her narrative fails to account for Liam’s suicide. No shape that she puts on the narrative remains secure because Liam, her grandmother and her uncle, (institutionalised due to his being abused), are not victims in isolation, they are part of a far broader generation of victims over the state’s history, whether they be ‘fallen’ women put into Magdalene laundries, rape victims institutionalised on the suggestion of their rapists (who were often family members) or children molested and beaten in industrial schools. It is only after these testimonies begin to surface in public life that Veronica remembers witnessing Liam’s abuse, and places it within a national chronology:

This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family — a whole fucking country — drowning in shame.

Over the next twenty years the world around us changed and I remembered Mr Nugent. But I never would have made that shift on my own if I hadn’t been listening to the radio and reading the paper and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and in people’s homes.

Of course, The Gathering is just one attempted explanation, for just one victim, and it can’t be expected to take the burden of just how many there were. This is highlighted at a stage in the novel in which Veronica visits as mass grave at a mental institution that has been recently closed:

Just one cross — quite new — at the end of a little central path. A double row of saplings promise rowan trees to come. There are no markers, no separate graves. I wonder how many people were slung into the dirt of this field, and realise, too late, that the place is boiling with corpses, the ground is knit out of their tangled bones.

Throughout the text, bones are associated with the act of narration, Veronica comforts her hand with the neat ‘arc’ of a cuttlefish bone, and feels for her children’s bones when she embraces them, enjoying their symmetry and their apparent lack of complication. The image of ‘tangled’ bones provides little hope of ever reaching closure for the innumerable victims of the Irish state’s negligence and cruelty.

To what extent The Gathering is about the history of systematic female oppression might all be Veronica’s contrivance, or Enright’s; she is not a heavy-handed novelist, and it is not just Veronica’s uncertainty that would prevent us from taking this reading up wholly, but Enright’s subtlety. (The one scene we might quibble with is one set in an asylum named St. Ita’s, a brief history of the saint’s role in embodying a feminine ideal is given also).

Perhaps any account is doomed to failure, knowing how pockmarked the historical record is by aporia and silence, enforced or otherwise, the extent of the suffering will be passed over, particularly as long as the state’s policy is to remain stingy with the provision of compensation or the bodies responsible continue to ‘deny till they die’.

I add it in to my life, as an event, and I think, well yes, that might explain some things. I add it into my brother’s life and it is crucial, it is the place where all cause meets all effect, the crux of an x. In a way, it explains too much.