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.
Aspiration: 50/50 gender & POC split (currently at a lame and terrible 20% and 0% respectively)
Samuel Beckett — How It Is
Reaching the conclusion that How It Is represents Beckett’s prose writing reaching its most concentrated point of distillation and intensity is somewhat inevitable, seeing as it was his last novel; the longest prose work subsequent to How It Is barely reaches the length of a novella, almost as if the weight of the novelistic tradition, a form known for its expansiveness and maximalism, couldn’t withstand Beckett’s striving towards a more hermetic and taciturn literature.
Having said this, I don’t wish to fetishise How It Is for its its impecuniousness alone, for there are plenty of sections in which traditionally pretty descriptive prose appears:
we are on a veranda smothered in verbena the scented sun dapples the red tiles yes I assure you the huge head hatted with birds and flowers is bowed down over my curls the eyes burn with severe love I offer her mine pale upcast to the sky whence cometh our help and which I know perhaps even then with time shall pass away
The ‘yes I assure you’ is demonstrative of How It Is’ overriding push/pull dynamic, in advancing an almost sickly description, almost reminiscent of Keats alongside its subverting narrative commentary. But this doesn’t deaden the effect of the writing, just as setting imagery of abject ugliness and inhumanity amid these lyrical digressions intensifies the effects of both:
as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom
2. Jorge Luis Borges — Labyrinths
In talking about the short story’s as one of the more concentrated literary forms, one in which space is at a premium, and there can’t be too many words that don’t belong there, I think the work of Jorge Luis Borges is most deserving of mention. No other writer that I’m aware of is capable in under five hundred words of totally challenging the ways in which you think, how you think about how you think, and how you think about how you think about how you think. His capacity to do so through use of a style that is predominantly unadorned and perhaps uninviting makes him all the more fit to be praised.
Since ‘On Exactitude in Science’ is the length of just one paragraph, I’ll present it here:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
At the premium of literary art is its capacity to open up entire worlds with just words on a page. For those who believe world-building to be a preserve of genre fiction only, I encourage them to read Borges.
3. J.M. Coetzee — Waiting for the Barbarians
The allegory, and playing with the conventions around allegory, is a way in which Coetzee’s writing career in its entirety has been characterised by critics, but it might be a line of interpretation advanced too tenuously; it might be more accurate to say that his novels reflect a radical scepticism regarding narrative itself; an unwillingness to confront anything directly. In the Heart of the Country is one of the most deft examples of metafiction I’ve ever come across, and in its refusal to fix its plot around any one sequence of events, we see a narrative force that is as congenial to the forces of its unmaking as its genesis.
Waiting for the Barbarians is more contained than In the Heart of the Country in this sense, but in no other. That it has parallels to South African society under apartheid will surprise no one familiar with the rich literary tradition of that political milieu of the past fifty years, but it has also an uncanny capacity to encompass and seemingly respond to the nature of racial prejudice and ethnically-based in general. I was so sure that it was a product of the Bush years, so I Googled it to find out whether it was written in 2007 or 2005, only to discover that it was published in 1980. Not to turn my ignorance into a virtue, but I think this speaks to its universality.
Which is not to say that the narrative entire is grounded in geopolitics — in the colonial administrator’s love affair with one of the supposed barbarians, we are permitted to meditate on the unknowability of any love object, and by extension ourselves, how ‘In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.’
4. Don DeLillo — Underworld
To write a Great American Novel has, thankfully, become rather passé, after feminist critics drew attention to how unusual it is for a female author to be feted with this title. The liberal commentariat’s realisation that they have committed the error of elevating Jonathan Franzen to the role of cultural commentator. Underworld, I would say, is one of the few published in recent years that’s worth reading, for the reason that it is a novel about America that won’t allow real life in.
Underworld is a novel supposedly about baseball, the lost era of old New York, the faux-simplicity of the Cold War, and yet there is nothing ordinary, white bread or milquetoast about the America in this novel; the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted and unsettling sections in the text.
It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As you read it, you may find yourself compulsively noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the famous magic bullet. But for once, I’d encourage any potential reader not to spend their time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this good.
Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.
5. Anne Enright — The Green Road
Enright is one of those few authors that refuses to write the same book twice, and never makes you regret it. Because there is, as publishers well know, a great seductive quality in becoming used to one writing style. Many authors who are too protean, simply do not catch on in a crowded marketplace. Well Enright is interested, and is good at, change. This is how she can move from the hilariously picaresque and surreal The Wig my Father Wore through the tortured monologue of The Gathering to an adept Irish family novel about land, which one could almost call realist, so subtle is the indirect discourse which drives it.
Enright is a deeply intellectual author, but unlike many book-readin’ writers, her ideas exists beneath the surface of the words, just gestured towards, to be decoded on repeated readings. For first readings, just allow the sentences to do their thing. You could read The Green Road all the way through and have no notion of the fact that its in conversation with William Shakespeare’s King Lear. You wouldn’t want to, of course, but you could.
It is a novel of many parts. Each of Rosaleen Madigan’s children get their own section and so the novel roves from Clare to New York to Mali and back, before they are all assembled for the set piece of the Christmas dinner. I really can’t emphasise enough how well this is done. It is in the novel’s closing sections that the function behind its structure becomes clear, in seeing exactly where these people are coming from, their ambivalence regarding their role in the family before their adult lives, then watching those roles slowly overcome them is great, hilarious and sad. A novel with characters you care about, things to say and great writing is too rare, which makes The Green Road all the more valuable.
6. William Faulkner — As I Lay Dying
7. David Foster Wallace — Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace might be said to be undergoing his D.H. Lawrence moment, in having his reputation defined for too long by a reading community of dudey-bro-y dudebro brodudes, and y’know, to look at his representations of women, here and in The Pale King, not to mention his opinions, or life, it can be hard to say his books don’t deserve scrutiny. It is slightly disappointing all the same to see an author who, among the authors of phallogocentric literary fiction, to be tarred as such, considering he’s among the most giving of them. Infinite Jest apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre, and reading about eschaton is about as much fun as you can have with your eyes open.
Its flaws, the sections dealing with the Québecois separatists, the exposition-laden conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin, don’t totally come good in the end, but the unavoidable ambivalence one develops when reading a novel Infinite Jest’s length and ambition, is a feature, rather than a bug. As in any important relationship, the challenge is what matters.
So give yourself the chance to read it. It’s more than readable, and far more interesting than Foster Wallace’s persona as it has been construed in the pop-culture landscape since his death; as an icon, he simply cannot compare with the questions that his work throws up.
8. William Gaddis — The Recognitions
William Gaddis’ The Recognitions is a very conflicted novel. It is a profoundly generative work, one which may have given us every maximalist, encyclopaedic 500+ page text in contemporary American letters since, and it is also a profoundly angry text, one which lashes out at everything: organised religion, the commodification of great art, the hyper-mediation of our reality via advertising, the complacently bourgeois creative class, all these and more are targets of Gaddis’ ire.
However, it is also a novel based on profound erudition and cultural awareness. Its most proximate literary cousin is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and just as gallantly as Proust does, Gaddis manages to balance many portentous thematic concerns with Being, death and sex, alongside a vibrant social comedy. If I had to guess, I would say about sixty-five percent of it is spent convincing the reader how shallow the hipsters of 1950’s New York are.
And of course, the sentences are very powerful
Undisciplined lights shone through the night instructed by the tireless precision of the squads of traffic lights, turning red to green, green to red, commanding voids with indifferent authority: for the night outside had not changed, with the whole history of night bound up inside it had not become better or worse, fewer lights and it was darker, less motion and it was more empty, more silent, less perturbed, and like the porous figures which continued to move against it, more itself.
It can often be a struggle, Jonathan Franzen tried, and mostly failed to deal with it (in a public article no less), but the bonus of my edition is a foreword by William H. Gass himself, who provides us with a great key to the work, as well as a get-out clause, should we find it too difficult:
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.
9. William H. Gass — The Tunnel
10. James Joyce — Ulysses
I was once challenged to sum up a novel’s plot in six words, and for Ulysses, my attempt was ‘2 sad men meet. a woman thinks.’ This is a perfect example of how, when it comes to summing up Ulysses, its hard to know where to begin. Humour, bathos, beauty, poetry, history, love, death, family, sex, great writing, it has everything you could ever want.
I won’t contest that it’s a grower, and if you come to it fresh (‘fresh’ in this case meaning, having read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which will be necessary), expect to find yourself moving your eyes over large tracts of text without quite knowing exactly what’s happening. Reading aloud helps.
For those who may be used to more genre fare, there are sections for you too, there’s an episode written in the manner of a nineteenth-century romance novel, and while the line attributed to Joyce about enigmas codified into the text in sufficient quantities to keep the professors busy for hundreds of years is definitely apocryphal, what it tells us about the novel is definitely true — the novel is so dense with allusion, red herrings and unresolved questions that you’ll find yourself in the role of a sort of detective, which, is not a wholly inappropriate tack to take with Ulysses, since Joyce designed his one day in Dublin with meticulous attention to detail, his notes on how long it takes to walk down particular stretches of urban walkways, or the businesses Bloom encounters in his perambulations, were all derived from sources, and correspondences with people Joyce contacted in Dublin. A staggering work, everyone should make time for it.
11. Ben Marcus — The Flame Alphabet
12. Flann O’Brien — The Third Policeman
13. Marcel Proust — In Search of Lost Time
The term ‘baggy monster’, so often applied to the novel, is a rather ingenious one, as it captures a central ambivalence regarding the form in relation to itself. Both terms can be read negatively, in fact, they are perhaps more on the negative end of the spectrum than not, but taken together there’s something alluring about it, particularly when you have come to know, over the course of reading many of them, how successful a novel can be in reaching for exactly the kind of excess that ‘good taste’ might seem to advise against. Well there’s plenty baggy and monstrous in Proust’s seven volume work In Search of Lost Time, but, as much as it could be said to be in need of an editor, its vices are perhaps indissociable from its virtues.
And this is itself a virtue. What other work of fiction can be so assuming as to impose itself on you 1,267,069 words? Well it isn’t for no reason, and a close reading of fin-de-siecle French bourgeois culture next to the metaphysician Bergson is more than worth the time you’d spend on it. Yes, it is occasionally tedious, and seemingly repetitive, but you’re unlikely to come away from Proust without recognising yourself in at least a few of the characters, nor coming to some disturbing conclusions regarding the way you live your life. Write down your definitions of habit, love and time before getting into these novels. It’s unlikely they’ll have remained intact in your journey through these texts.
But don’t come to it with a pious reverence. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, writes in his introduction to the second volume that
Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even…His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.
Far from being a virtuoso of words, or a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept, or amateurish, and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; the idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliantly bizarre novel.
14. Thomas Pynchon — Gravity’s Rainbow
15. J.D. Salinger — The Catcher in the Rye
Yes, I know, I should definitely have grown out of thinking this novel is great. Well, every time I’ve gotten back to it, convinced that this time, this time, I’ll realise that I am an adult, and that Holden Caulfield is an annoying idiot, and The Catcher in the Rye is a novel for teenagers, well, it doesn’t happen, and I could read him a hundred novels with him just going about his business, being judgemental and obnoxious inside his own head forever and ever. My liking him is somewhat beside the point, and perhaps proves my immaturity, so I’ll try to deal with why these critics are wrong, for the fact that they seem to miss the rather big reveal at the end that Holden’s been institutionalised, and the oscillation between two different periods of time in his narrative; a representation of his thoughts in the moment and his recollection, attest further to his divided state of mind. It’s a bit odd to hear literary critics condemn him so roundly when his curmudgeonly attitude surely doesn’t lack for a cause.
It’s a great testament to Salinger’s skill as a writer that the surface level of the text, a brash, abusive narrator, can seem so available, that going any deeper into it would seem wrongheaded, but I think he, like all unreliable narrators, provides you with a clue up front. The novel begins, after all, with an act of self-censorship, an invocation to silence, as Holden refuses to provide a holistic appraisal of his self or his place in the world, something that he dismisses as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”
As has been repeated in any number of the literary outlets which give Will Self column inches, Self has thumbed his nose at the British literary establishment, readers and writers alike, by returning to the ground zero of avant-garde prose writing in his trilogy of Umbrella, Shark and the forthcoming Phone. I held off reading Umbrella for some time, for the same reason that one generally doesn’t read a novel written by one of the authors that one might rate highly, sensing in advance that it will be in some way a disappointment, particularly when said author has set themselves the task of re-invigorating an dormant genre in which one is steeped in, on a semi-professional basis.
But I did listen to, and read, an awful lot of interviews in which Self spoke on why he’s returning to modernism as a wellspring for his own fiction. In one of these interviews, which unfortunately, I can’t seem to find, Self says that one of the things he was trying to avoid, was writing a post-modern version of modernity. At the time I heard it, I had no idea what that might mean, or what a post-modern modernity might look like. After having read Umbrella, whether Self intended it or not, I have a far better understanding of the phrase, because I think that a post-modern modernity is exactly what Self has stumbled upon in Umbrella.
The plot moves between roughly three time frames, centred around four individuals, the primary one being Zack Busner, a fixture in many of Self’s works, Busner generally functions as a composite of the author and the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. In Umbrella, Busner is a psychiatrist based in London, treating Audrey Death for her encephalitic lethargica, which has left her in a catatonic state for decades. In some parts of the novel, Busner is doing so in 1970, and in other parts, he looks back on the affair in 2010. While this is happening, the narrative will jump back to the Audrey’s early adulthood in the opening decades of the century, working in a munitions factory, getting involved in radical socialist circles. Her brothers, Stanley and Albert, are also focalisers of the narrative at points, albeit in very different ways. Indirect discourse and interior monologue are probably the two best known characteristics of modernist prose, and these two take the lion’s share of the novel’s foray into experimentation, allowing for the character’s voices to blend suggestively with the narrator’s, making it difficult to tell where Audrey, Busner, Albert and Stanley are speaking amidst the barrage of music-hall pieces, street rhymes and song lyrics. Side Note: Azaelia Banks and The Kinks feature. Unfortunately, Self generally does so through use of italics. Here’s a typical example:
The boyfriend hadn’t minded gotta split, man and Busner was split…a forked thing digging its way inside her robe. She fiddled with bone buttons at her velvety throat. His skin and hairs snagged on the mirrors, his fingers did their best with her nipples. She looked down on me from below … one his calves lay cold on the floorboards. There was the faint applause of pigeons from outside the window —
Italics are used here to allow us access to Busner’s mind, his memory, and for Lear references. There’s nothing bad in here (or in the novel overall, Self’s sentences are staggering for how rhymically attuned they are, particularly when he dallies with academic verbiage and sub-clauses to the extent that he does), the problem is you sort of know where these turns are coming from the typography. There was a ‘Remastered’ version of Ulysses published about six years ago, produced by Robert Gogan, in which the interior monologue appeared in italics. The three or four people in the world who care about such things were outraged at the simplification, seeing the text as having been purged of its ambiguity. I think this periodic italicisation is to Umbrella’s detriment overall; it substitutes a reading that might have demanded even more of you for a more surreal-looking typeface.
My own notion of Umbrella’s modernism would therefore be rather distinct from the identification made between Umbrella and this rather inflexible and monolithic modernism made in some literary journalism, because I don’t see it as modernist in the same way that the ‘men of 1914’ are modernists. Although they might have one thing in common.
Self’s modernism is a selling point serving a rather specific function in today’s literary marketplace. Self’s modernism builds upon his persona as a surly performer on television news-panel shows and newspaper columns, going out of his way to discourage people from reading his books by his performative hauteur and dismissive attitude regarding everything. Returning to a praxis of literary art some six decades out of date is the logical conclusion of being Will Self. For Self, being a latter day modernist is to reject the commodification of the literary artwork, and insist upon the right of the author to write something wholly non-commercial. Umbrella therefore carries with it a critique of commodity culture, and the proliferation of screens, which Self also decries regularly, believing it to signal an end to the novel. However, the canard of modernism’s opposition to commodity culture has been overhyped after postmodern novelists made such a point of engaging with the novel as a commodity, and one should remember that modernism was deeply involved in the marketplace of its time; Ezra Pound began using zeitgeist-y words like ‘modern’ and ‘futurity’ to draw Marinetti’s audiences, who were substantially larger than his own when he first came to London. Performative modernism, cultivated for the purchasing attentions of a well-groomed and discerning élite is one of the things that Self gets right regarding his channeling of the genre.
Umbrella also seems to draw on modernism’s sometimes overlooked heritage, as it is at least somewhat to blame for the volume of secondary literature written subsequent to its boom and bust. From even a vague knowledge of these texts we might produce some foundational aspects of modernism; that it is taken to entail a shift in consciousness and human subjectivity, that exposure to slaughter and death on an industrial scale led to an ambivalence regarding technology and a sundering of rigid social hierarchies, an increasing mediation of our reality through mass media, growth of radical political movements such as feminism and socialism, etc. etc. etc. Our responses to these texts are thereby pre-determined; we know what we can expect from a canonical modernist text.
Which is why the modernism of Umbrella seems post-modern. It’s hard to read Audrey’s re-animation in the 1970’s, or Busner’s recollection of the time in 2010, as a meta-commentary on Umbrella’s resuscitation of the genre. The fact that Audrey worked in a munitions factory, as a radical socialist and feminist, that one of her brothers, Stanley, went to fight in the war, while her other brother, Albert, Pynchon-like, became an arms manufacturer selling weapons which fuelled the conflict, that in her comatose state she rehearses the actions of her time at the lathe, seems to have been dictated by our relationship to modernism in our contemporary setting. In the novel’s closing stages, Audrey’s status as a symbol of technology’s encroachment into our subjectivity is made overt:
The final words Audrey Death had spoken before relapsing into a merciful swoon were a string of nonsensical fractions — eighteen over four-point-two, ninety-four over fourteen-point-seven, sixty-six-point-three over thirty-three…that, even as he accepted the futility of the exercise, Busner had tried to fit into some conceptual framework. Were they, perhaps, the numerical analogue of her brain-chemistry’s intro-conversions between the discrete and the continuous, the quantifiable and the relativistic?
The irony here is that the paragraph in which Self is telling you exactly what the novel is about, features a character attempting to make sense of a random string of numbers. This is far from what the book is, a novel which has been compulsively over-determined in any number of columns, interviews and lectures which, taken collectively, probably come to a length equal to the text. While the modernists can be considered guilty of pushing particular interpretations — they often wrote about their own work, in the way that authors often do, by pretending to write objectively on other authors, The Waste Land came with annotations (parodic ones, but annotations nonetheless) — it feels as though Self’s foray into it is too overtly packaged as such. It’s probably my own fault for consuming it as I did, a book has to be sold after all, and no one made me read those six Guardian interviews. I should wrap up by saying that this novel is very good, and that you should read it, and, in true modernist style, ‘the rest is noise’.
A few weeks ago I saw the inaugural event of the Dublin Book Festival, which was a panel discussion between the novelists Anne Enright, Lisa McInerney and the poet Pat Boran. They were speaking on the publication of a book entitled Beyond the Centre, a collection of 26 essays reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the Irish Writer’s Centre, from the perspective of various figures from within Dublin’s literary scene. It was a great panel, and Seán Rocks did one of the best jobs as a moderator that I can recall seeing. Enright was caustic and witty, going off on how The Irish Times will commission hundreds of articles by female writers about being a woman watching the US election, but none about policy, how she doesn’t think men have a gender, and her recollections of the younger writers of her generation being shunted into the backs of vans at the start of their careers while the Johns Banville and McGahern were driven around in limos.
As someone writing a doctorate which involves an analysis of Enright’s fiction, I was hoping that the things she said would stray into areas pertinent to my work. I knew she was unlikely to talk about quantitative analysis, and the sorts of things that my dissertation will actually be pivoting around, but if at all possible I hope to cram some stuff about the socio-economic milieu that the new modernists come out of, into my dissertation, as a refutation to the infuriating yet pervasive canard of industrialisation + world war = first-wave modernism.
Enright obliged, and I got a substantial amount of notes on how the currently established generation of authors got a leg up early in their careers from a cultural exchange in the nineties arranged by the then Irish and French presidents, Mary Robinson and François Mitterand. Enright has written in the past on what it was like to live in the Ireland of the 80’s, with the intensifying contradictions between the Republic of McQuaid, with its laws against suicide, contraception, homosexuality, and the newly globalised, open to foreign investment Ireland, beginning to become apparent in our public discourse.
As Diarmaid Ferriter writes in his book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970’s, these signs of ‘increased modernisation, secularisation, Europeanisation and consumerism have to be placed in the context of a republic that…had ultimately created a conservative, authoritarian governing culture, that…created a very wide definition of dissent’. There is in this quotation, a nuanced and useful reading of these two different Irelands in tandem with one another, rather than as divergent. Too often in cultural studies of Ireland, I’m made aware of the phenomenon of the ‘time warp,’ and the ways in which parts of the Irish political landscape seem to be rooted in truisms not from the last century, but the one before that. Ferriter’s take is more subtle than this, thankfully.
The time warp is a conceptual tool that tries to account for the ways in which Ireland as a state can simultaneously manage to be the beneficiary of an economic boom powered by the development of information technologies on the West coast of the United States while being complicit in the captivity and enslavement of women, to give just one example. As we well know, the capitalist nation state, both historically and in our present moment, is not a static enough concept to abhor contradictions of this kind. It might even be said to thrive on them. It is for this reason that the concept of the time warp is a bit useless, in that it instantiates a notion that we are always moving forward in some way; despite the appearance that some of these ‘kinks’ might give off, they’ll be ironed out in good time. (There’s a well-meaning senator with a report on the matter brewing in some back office on Kildare Street for nigh on half the term of the currently sitting government, and a seventieth of the Dáil might even show up on the day it’s to be discussed, just sit tight.) In order for particular ideologies to function, pockets of our society in which the most vulnerable reside must have their existences subject to relegation or dismissal as time warps, as if artefacts of the nineteenth century have the habit of peskily colonising the twenty-first. This gesture allows us to dispense with aspects of our national identities which might otherwise bring us to a point of contradiction. To take one example, Ireland can simultaneously believe itself to be a nation that is charitable, and LGBT-friendly, while placing many of those fleeing persecution (sometimes for their sexual orientation) in detention centres for an indefinite span of time.
Enright, among other things I’m sure, considers herself a product of this particularly Irish cultural discord, writing rather brilliantly in her work, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, about a particularly divisive time in Irish public life, the eighties, and its role in her attempted suicide, which I will now quote from at length:
I fell out of the world, temporarily, on Easter Monday 1986…Maybe I had Seasonal Affective Disorder, maybe it is genetic, maybe it was me being in my twenties, maybe it was Ireland being in the 1980s.
The older I get the more political I am about depression, or less essentialist — it is not because of who you are, but where you are placed. Ireland broke apart in the eighties, and I sometimes think that the crack happened in my own head. The constitutional row about abortion was a moral civil war that was fought out in people’s homes — including my own — with unfathomable bitterness. The country was screaming at itself about contraception, abortion, and divorce. It was a hideously misogynistic time. Not the best environment for a young woman establishing a sexual identity, you might say, especially one with adolescent morbidity and tendencies towards ecstatic suffusions of light, one who was over-achieving, but somehow in all the wrong ways, one who was both maverick and clever. I mean, what do we need here, a diagram?
…I…wrote some books. They were fragmented books, because this is what I knew best, but also, I fancied, because I lived in an incoherent country. They were slightly surreal, because Ireland was unreal. They dealt with ideas of purity, because the chastity of Irish women was one of the founding myths of the Nation State (well that was my excuse). But they were also full of corpses. Beautiful ones, speaking ones, sexual ones, bitter ones; corpses who did not forgive, or rot. Who was the corpse? It was myself, of course, but also Christ, the dead body on a stick. And it is the past that lies down but will not shut up, the elephant in the national living-room.
To read these paragraphs, and the other paragraphs in the same chapter (do pick it up, it is so, so good) is to become aware of how irrelevant women’s health and their autonomy was to the Irish establishment of the time. It’s no surprise then, that the Irish literary establishment was mostly suspicious regarding the raft of new wordists who came to a kind of prominence in the late eighties and early nineties, the vanguard of whom was probably Roddy Doyle, though Enright also named Patrick McCabe as a trailblazer. This generation’s early novels weren’t reviewed, and when they were, they were eviscerated. This apparent lack of a domestic audience, or the unwillingness of the tastemakers to cultivate one, required that Irish authors sell themselves abroad, and only then, by commodius vicus of recirculation, return to the domestic market. This route generally led to euphemistic conversations about formal qualities such as ‘lyricism’ and other such words acting as stand-ins for question marks over one’s authenticity.
This is why the cultural exchange’s timing was so opportune, and made, by necessity, Irish authors far more permeable to international influences. They all gained hugely from it, ‘they’ meaning, I assume Enright, Joseph O’Connor and Deirdre Madden.
Donal Donovan and Antoin C. Murphy’s study, The Fall of the Celtic Tiger: Ireland and the Euro Debt Crisis requires us to take a leap forward about by just under two decades and outline the ways in which Ireland’s position changed from a peripheral, insufficiently industrialised state, ‘the poorest of the rich,’ to a contemporary globalised market economy within the framework of the European Union. No Irish citizen who remembers the eighties will be unaware of the effect that this union has had on our general standards of living. I think. I wasn’t alive at the time. But I am interested in what this change from peripheral backwater to post-modern globalised economy has on our self-perception. It is perhaps inevitable that we encounter the time warp once again, albeit in the context of Ireland’s leap into means:
while the ‘catch-up’ paradigm explains part of the story, the speed and extent of Ireland’s transformation was primarily driven by high-tech multinationals, the vanguard of a major worldwide revolution in information technology…in the post-industrial high-tech world, these concepts had started to become anachronistic.
So too do many governing metaphors of the literary landscape become de-legitimised. The matter of literary influence in particular, becomes increasingly knotty in a global marketplace. Brian Dillon writes in the London Review of Books that if there is a modernist resurgence in Irish literature today, it is less a return, than a demonstration of the extent to which authors today can draw from any number of traditions, even experimental ones. As such, it is less important to talk about the new modernists because they’re Irish, but what this literary self-identification signifies. Not all of this is voluntary, of course; just being a female novelist in Ireland has a profound political resonance, as anyone familiar with the career of Edna O’Brien will know.
The Irish free State made clear its suspicion regarding modernism and modern art in general, by introducing film censorship in 1923. The first Irish review of Ulysses was also blocked by the printer of The Dublin Magazine, forcing its author, Con Levanthal, to set up a one-off journal, Klaxon. The Catholic Truth Society took an active role in Ireland’s cultural life over the next few decades by stymieing the dissemination of anything perceived as indecent, modern, or Protestant. Those of the literary world reacted to this with outrage, as these bans generally effected avant-garde works rather than pornographic ones, but their objections never translated into popular political support. David Dickson, in Dublin: The Making of a Capital City,points out that this emphasis on censorship can ignore the extent to which musical and theatrical forms often thrived, but for the most part, Dublin was a place to leave in favour of other urban capitals, where one was more likely to obtain a patron, public or private.
This policy didn’t make for good neighbours, of course. As Eavan Boland wrote, ‘No two establishments in this community regard one another with more suspicion than those of the Arts and the State.’ This was due to the fact that the Free State’s scepticism regarding modernism extended, to the arts in general. The Arts Council existed, in name only, up until its role was formalised in the late seventies. Up until then, it provided cheques to artists on a hand to mouth basis, had no women on its board and had no particular remit or code of behaviour. Public funding for the arts was also about 30% less than in the United Kingdom.
Related to this, (I know I’m moving around a lot, but it’ll come good in the end), Garret FitzGerald’s analysis of Ireland joining the EU was as follows:
Our independence was won for us just in time to enable most of Ireland to enter to European Community as one of Europe’s ancient nations, rejoining once again the Europe from which for so many centuries she was cut off by the imposition of British rule. We shall negotiate our entry as a sovereign state…the voice of Ireland will be heard in Europe in the decades ahead. But for the sacrifices of those who won our freedom, none of this could have been. We have the right to believe that they will feel as they view this prospect that their sacrifices were not all in vain.
Despite the gloss that FitzGerald puts on Ireland’s joining the union as in a continuity of Irish independence movements, Ferriter argues that Ireland joined primarily because England was joining. The dominant understanding of Ireland’s membership is one of economic, social and cultural gain; lucrative agricultural grants, social justice legislation, worker protections, consumer and environmental regulation, all have their origins in EU initiatives. In a cultural sense however, it can be seen an inducing another form of peripherality, relative to the wider continent, rather than to England. Ireland is, after all, a relatively small state in a union driven by larger nations. Joe Lee has argued that joining the union has had the effect of encouraging our leaders to continue to apportion blame for their failures to external factors, rather than scrutinising and reforming our own industries and regulatory frameworks. The playwright Brian Friel viewed the Irish state around this time as a ‘tenth-rate image of America’ and indeed, there seemed to be little to distinguish the Ireland open to multi-national capital and foreign direct investment, a consumer-driven economy in the post-modern sense, from any other Western city.
Works from Enright’s oeuvre such as The Portable Virgin, The Wig my Father Wore and The Forgotten Waltz, all fit rather nicely within this interpretation, and inventively engage with the conversation between traditional mainstays of Irish identity and the post-modern market economy which had grown up around them, which made the old certainties complicit, as much as it ‘unsettled’ them.
I’ll talk about the ending of the short short story ‘The Portable Virgin’ because it seems to encapsulate a lot of what I’m talking about:
I am sitting on Dollymount Strand going through Mary’s handbag, using her little mirror, applying her ‘Wine Rose and Gentlelight Colourize Powder Shadow Trio’, her Plumsilk lipstick, her Venetian Brocade blusher and her Tearproof (thank God) mascara.
My revenge looks back at me, out of the mirror. The new fake me looks twice as real as the old. Underneath my clothes my breasts have become blind, my iliac crests mottle and bruise. Strung out between my legs is a triangle of air that pulls away from sex, while my hands clutch. It used to be the other way around.
I root through the bag, looking for a past. At the bottom, discoloured by Wine Rose and Gentlelight, I find a small, portable Virgin. She is made of transparent plastic, except for her cloak, which is coloured blue. ‘A present from Lourdes’ is written on the globe at her feet, underneath her heel and the serpent. Mary is full of surprises. Her little blue crown is a screw-off top, and her body is filled with holy water, which I drink.
The narrator is having an affair, the ins and outs of which we can never be totally certain -each player’s identities remain fluid throughout the story. Dollymount Strand is a significant enough place to consider sumjex and objex, but when one’s extra-marital activities have been ironically genuflecting before a Judi Dench costume drama, also about infidelity and inappropriately stately furniture, the stakes feel as though they have been heightened. The various accoutrements of contemporary female identity ‘Gentlelight Colourize (note the American zee) Powder Shadow’ are to the fore, and while the tacky symbolic representation of old Ireland has been discoloured by the errant make-up, it’s still there. At least until it’s sent surging out to sea at the end. Enright, being a sophisticated as well as an intellectual novelist, doesn’t foreground this sort of thing, that is to say, it doesn’t place demands on the reader as such, it never gets in the way of the fun.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, with its profound sense of formal dislocation, and an origin point within the economically depressed, culturally stifled Ireland of the 1980’s, is another important node of discussion here; McBride has encouraged such analyses by making reference to it as a sort of a refracted autobiography. But while tracing over the wrecked and bloodied sockets of a fragmented subjectivity, it also aims to revivify the cornerstones of the institutionalised modernisms as practiced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. No part of the novel makes this point clearer than the novel’s beginning, because it is its beginning, and uncompromising off the bat:
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.
Not as much to ‘play’ with as Enright might give us, shorter sentences, shorter words, less things, but more baggage, meaning this, of course, in the best possible way. What we have is a swift and deep immersion into the materiality of language, all the rhymes, assonances, repetition and rhythm of which it’s capable, which, in an increasingly bland literary marketplace, is revolutionary. After having read The Lesser Bohemians, and Claire Lowdon’s review of the two of them, I’m slightly loathe to praise it without clarifiers, but I do think there is a lot that it is good in its incorporation of the elements familiar to the Irish misery memoir within a high modernist register. Because misery is for life, not just for the realists.
I hope it will be clear from all this that contemporary modernists draw on a history of formal experimentation, regarded with suspicion by the Irish state with a view to challenging the received wisdom of its theocratic tendencies, marginalisation and violent oppression of women.
I found the second part of the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to be in equal measures utterly singular, beautiful and unsatisfying. This blog post aims to elucidate some of the reasons why I have reservations about A Love of Swann’s, the second of three parts in The Way by Swann’s.
A Love of Swann’s outlines, over the course of some two hundred pages, a love affair between Charles Swann, a friend of the narrator’s family and Odette de Crécy. There is such an excess of detail provided in this section, descriptions of how attraction works, limerence and the inevitably trite courtship rituals that it can be difficult to know where to begin when parsing it, but the essential point to grasp while reading it is that Swann is a jealous, possessive lover.
Swann’s biggest problem is that he has fallen in love with Odette, who isn’t really a character at all, but a harsh metaphor about the inscrutable nature of other humans. We can never know what passes through other’s minds, we don’t know how closely their actions reflect their true feelings for us, we don’t even know if they can be said to have true feelings at all. This problem is added to by the fact that Odette seems to be more capricious than your average. Swann hears second hand that she thinks very highly of him when he had just convinced himself that she has become utterly exhausted by his clinginess. Furthermore, Swann is doomed to interpret her actions mediated through a number of upper middle class rituals of behaviour, giving him even less insight into Odette’s ‘true’ character than would be possible without them. This section therefore describes how he deals, or fails to deal, with his overwhelming jealousy.
As such, Swann conceives of a number of scenarios that involve Odette’s cheating on him, even among a group of his closest friends. When he shows up at her door one night, he bangs on it insistently and contrives an extravagant scenario wherein Odette escorts the man she is in bed with at that moment out the back door, lying about who is banging at the front at this hour of the night in order to cover her tracks. Swann becomes so convinced of this having happened, despite any actual evidence to attest to it, that he begins to read her letters behind her back and replays the scenario over and over in his mind, altering it to fit the little in the situation that he did apprehend.
On first reading this section, I enjoyed it, because I believed that what I was witnessing was the process of Swann alienating Odette and driving his love away from his forever. And who doesn’t love reading something like that? But in the back of my mind I was aware that Swann ultimately does end up marrying Odette, the narrator has told us as much earlier in the text.
So I was surprised to find myself disappointed that Odette has in fact been unfaithful. Extravagantly unfaithful, in fact, indulging in all manner of sexual hedonism, with both men and women, sometimes both at the same time. On one hand I’m interested that late nineteenth and early twentieth century Parisian salon culture provided a safe haven for homosexuals, bisexuals, pansexuals and ambisexuals, as it must have done for Proust, but on the other I’m moderately perplexed.
I thought Swann’s jealous embroideries functioned rather like Leopold Bloom’s obsessions with who has slept with his wife Molly in Ulysses. In the penultimate episode of James Joyce’s novel, ‘Ithaca,’ it is revealed how many men Bloom has been suspicious of in this regard, no matter how improbable it would have been for Molly to have had this many sexual partners in a city as small as Dublin was then:
“Penrose, Bartell d’Arcy, professor Goodwin, Julius Mastiansky, John Henry Menton, Father Bernard Corrigan, a farmer at the Royal Dublin Society’s Horse Show, Maggot O’Reilly, Matthew Dillon, Valentine Blake Dillon (Lord Mayor of Dublin), Christopher Callinan, Lenehan, an Italian organgrinder, an unknown gentleman in the Gaiety Theatre, Benjamin Dollard, Simon Dedalus, Andrew (Pisser) Burke, Joseph Cuffe, Wisdom Hely, Alderman John Hooper, Dr Francis Brady, Father Sebastian of Mount Argus, a bootblack at the General Post Office, Hugh E. (Blazes) Boylan and so each and so on to no last term.”
For Swann’s jealousy to have been bettered by Odette’s sexual reality seems to me to have missed the point, though it is possible that I’ve missed the point instead, that this blog post should have a more sociological import, as A Love of Swann’s is an important component of a marginalised history, rather than about how possessive male desire can actualise itself as being.
In the previous post I confessed to having a first-year-of-undergraduate-itis when it came to annotating books that I was reading, taking up space in margins that should probably be reserved for my future self who (hopefully) knows a thing or two more about a thing or two than I do.
In the library, it’s generally the texts that are prescribed in first year that are in the worst nick, not least for the often jaw-dropping levels of hubris exhibited by its readers. If you want to see a sequence of teenagers who have recently encountered Karl Marx for the first time quibble uselessly with Terry Eagleton about his definition of a novel, you’ll know where to look. It sometimes impresses me that students in later years make an effort to respond; as if the page functions as an analogue comment board and that the conversation is some way ongoing.
As was made clear below, I wasn’t immune from the tendency myself, I also once explained Roland Barthes’ theory of the honest sign as reminiscent of the way Heath Ledger’s Joker moves in the Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight. But occasionally my notes aren’t as oppressively baffling, as I found in my copy of James’s Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The paragraph in question reads as follows:
“Now it seemed as if he would fail again but, by dint of brooding on the incident, he thought himself into confidence. During this process all those elements which he deemed common and insignificant fell out of the scene. There remained no trace of the tram itself nor of the tram-men nor of the horses: nor did he and she appear vividly. The verses told only of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon. Some undefined sorrow was hidden in the hearts of the protagonists as they stood in silence beneath the leafless trees and when the moment of farewell had come the kiss, which had been withheld by one, was given by both. After this the letters L. D. S. were written at the foot of the page, and, having hidden the book, he went into his mother’s bedroom and gazed at his face for a long time in the mirror of her dressing-table.”
My note helpfully notes: “Women, Freud, Lacan.”
What set me of on this trail was the presence of the mirror in the above scene, a bit of home décor that can get the interpretative ball rolling in any novel handily.
This is due to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, a juncture in a person’s life in which their self begins to exist. According to Lacan, this happens when a child first perceives themselves as an individual subject, a being that is distinct from their mother. It doesn’t necessarily involve an actual mirror.
This is fitting and is a loaded scene because of how Portrait is a novel concerned with how its precocious child Stephen Dedalus grows into a pretentious aesthete.Portrait is an extended exploration of Dedalus’ mirror stage, as he begins to see himself ‘mirrored’ as a literary artist. This can be seen in Dedalus’ emulation of Narcissus, cosying up to his new self-image as a writer.
Anne Enright once said that becoming a writer is to adopt a position of importance. Dedalus’ swollen ego certainly comes across in his preening, gazing and autographing a piece of juvenilia with his whimsical pseudonym “L. D. S.,” as if mindful of future antiquarian Christmas addicts who will come calling for the relic of the author’s manuscripts.
Joyce is ambivalent about his creature, not just in the above quotation, but in this novel in general. Throughout, he leans a bit more heavily than he does inDubliners on the irony dial, giving us plenty of hints that the reader shouldn’t be taking the antics of this aesthete seriously. Far from a budding Joyce, Dedalus may be what Joyce was at risk of becoming, if his self regard and consciousness had overwhelmed his capacity to write anything of note.
The rather ingenious way that Joyce has this come across in this scene is the fact that Dedalus’ mirror stage takes place while he inspects his reflection in his mother’s mirror, after having written what sounds like a horrendous poem.
It is just as likely that Dedalus’ mirror stage marks the futility of his adolescent declaration of “Non serviam!” He pinched the line from Milton anyway.
During an encore to a gig in the Olympia Theatre, Benjamin Clementine expressed a desire to live in Ireland in order to develop his understanding of Irish folk music. Dublin wouldn’t hold much interest for him though. Throughout the evening, having dealt with an intermittently attentive and somewhat rude audience, he realised he’d prefer to live somewhere more remote. The suggestions from the crowd came almost immediately.
Someone yelled up ‘Waterford!’ which got a laugh, as a Dublin audience getting reminded of other counties without warning can often be induced to guffaw. Another audience member warned him against living in Cavan, but however the acoustics in the theatre work, Clementine took Cavan as a suggestion also, making clear that he preferred the sound of it, to the ‘scary’ sounding Waterford. He then began musing on his pastoral Cavan idyll, picking out a few sparse notes and chords on the piano while singing and talking through some lyrics. Anything related to Waterford tended to be accompanied by the bass end of the keyboard, whereas Cavan, with its ‘pigs, cows and precipitation’ (‘rain’ didn’t quite ring correctly) was accompanied by more uplifting, higher notes.
This escape to the more remote parts of Ireland has a long history, as part of the communal living experiments practiced by those participants in the Age of Aquarius, as the character of ‘John,’ an analogue for John Lennon that appears in Kevin Barry’s novel Beatlebone, realises when he, wrestling with angst, depression, restlessness, fatigue, etc, attempts to escape to a remote island he bought, called Dorinish, off the coast of County Mayo.
Many ‘back-to-the-land’ intentional communities took to the West of Ireland in the sixties and seventies. Accounts of this bohemia emerge fleetingly in Edna O’Brien’s In the Forest, by the bye, and many of them thrived, enduring as pragmatic and solvent communities driven by the hard work and dedication of its members. John’s fictional journey to Dorinish, with the help of the local Cornelius O’Grady, is analogous to the impulse of the stereotypical would-be communal liver, a desire to reject ‘society,’ escape into the wilderness and rid himself of residual emotional baggage from his childhood via primal scream therapy, in typical Freudian fashion.
Very few remote parts of Ireland remain to be escaped to in 1978, especially when the British gutter press is trailing him. John encounters plenty of the locals in a pub, the residua of a primal scream-based commune called ‘Black Atlantis’ and a talking seal from Formby. John isn’t terribly successful in purging himself of everything that he might wish to, perhaps subverting the notion that isolating oneself from society and curing oneself through self-reflection is viable.
John spends some time with the Black Atlantis commune and adopts their therapeutic methodology, by getting ‘the rants on,’ removing the filter that would normally discourage one from speaking one’s true thoughts on someone else, or even reaching for nasty, negative things to say, with the rationale that they’re better expressed than repressed:
“SUE . . . all you want is others to give, give, give and justify all you’ve fucking done and said and you want us to say oh John, John, all your choices were the right choices, John and you didn’t want to hurt nobody never but the truth is you’re a fucking sell-out, John, and you’re a liar, John, and you’re just suck-suck-suck, it’s everybody else’s energy you feed on, John….”
This section goes on at some length, with no narrative interpolations, just stage directions, of a sort, in italics, depriving us of a hold on John’s thoughts, the interiority that indirectly colours the narration in other parts of the novel, giving our viewpoint an immediacy, as if the reader were participating in the process. The utilisation of the formal structure of a play within a novel comes from Ulysses and in a similar way to the ‘Circe’ episode in which this happens, we feel as though John’s character may be on trial, but in a synthetic, performative sense. The members of the commune seem to be reaching for subject matter to irk John with. When the break does happen, and John’s sarcastic, defensiveness disintegrates, it also seems synthetic, and not addressing the root cause of whatever his issues may be:
“JOHN Do you really want to know what I am? Do you? Well I’ll tell you exactly what I fucking am. I’m fucking anxiety. And I’m fucking lust. And I’m a fucking booze hound and I’m a fucking dope fiend or I was and I’m a fucking sad sentimental Scouse sentimental bastard…I want to scrape his peasant fucking eyes or what’s left of em from the sockets of his skeleton head and tear his fucking bones apart with me fucking teeth or what’s left of his fucking bones.”
It’s visceral dialogue, but I think that’s most important to derive from it, if you’re in deriving form, is to regard its excess, rather than see it as a breakthrough moment. When the press do find John, not necessarily on Dorinish, but on one of many islands he finds similar enough for his purposes, he slips right back into his media-playing persona, adeptly having them hanging on his pseudo-profound verbiage:
“Any follow-ups, gents? Any further enquiries? A little more Manley Hopkins? Certainly. Blue-bleak embers shall fall, gall themselves and gash gold-vermillion. He was a fucking laugh, wasn’t he? Good night, gentlemen. Safe home the sea road.”
Amidst all this, and there’s no shortage of extended, semi-sensical rambles of the sort in Beatlebone, there’s the following: “Nature? I’ve had my fill of it, gents. Turns out it’s all an illusion. Pull the fucking drapes back and it’ll disappear.” Barry has spoken on the inevitability of the Irish writer’s lyrical response to the landscape, and how easy it can be to lapse into the extolling virtues of the scenic mode, but in Beatlebone, you can see Barry resisting it. At a number of points, there are references to the night moving around John, or enfolding him, in an almost sinister way. Nature isn’t facilitating John’s flight from himself, ‘ he is very much the John he is when he sets out for Dorinish as he is when he significantly, fails to complete the journey.
That said, I hope Clementine does move to Cavan. The bleakness of the landscape could hardly do his next record harm, and seeing someone of Ghanaian descent re-invent Irish folk, because you know he would, would be class.
For novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, or novels within the tradition of novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, where the length or complexity thereof acts to a certain extent as a deterrent, endings are difficult things. Finnegans Wake, Ulysses or Infinite Jest are densely referential, intricate and occasionally intractable narratives and the very notion of ending them can seem antithetical to the impulse that motivates an author to write a book that brushes up against a thousand pages.
For each of the novels I’ve named above, different strategies are adopted where the notion of an ending is elided or dodged. Those who are familiar with Finnegans Wake will know that Joyce deliberately constructed the novel to have a circular structure, where the ending, in theory, brings the reader back to the beginning. I say ‘in theory.’ I have to doubt myself that any reader who, having made her way through the Wake in its entirety finds herself now naively leafing back to the front page, on and on ad infinitum. This is to leave aside Joyce’s final inscriptions onUlysses and the Wake with the city he wrote the novel in, and the years spent writing it. As such, the circularity of the Wake can only really be conceptual. All novels have to end, so it is, as I said, a dodge. But an interesting dodge.
The final lines of the Wake read as follows:
“We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved along the”
The beginning reads:
“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”
If we were to read these lines sequentially, we can detect a definite shift in tone, the ending is told in almost a fervent hush, lots of haitch sounds and staccato repetitions. I’m never usually one for syllabic analysis, but ‘grass behush the bush to’ seems to insist on a certain mutedness, a sense of petering out. So too the elegiac ‘Coming, far! End here. Us then’ Equally I suppose, it could summon memories of Father Ted‘s ‘small, far away’ schema. The final ‘sentence’ ‘a way a lone a last,’ seems particularly evocative, rather than serving an adjectival function, as in ‘alone’ or ‘away,’ they become nouns, alone-ness or last-ness incarnated, before we are rushed forward into the panorama of Dublin Bay once again, Howth Castle and Environs where Bloom proposed to Molly, and at the same time evoking the generative, fertile image of H.C.E., which stands for a lot of things in the course of the Wake, but may as well, for the moment, mean Here Comes Everybody.
Speaking of the Blooms, in Ulysses, Molly is permitted to close things out, with an extended soliloquy of sixty some pages, with about eight full-stops. It’s an ingenious structural technique, especially after the comparatively ‘dry’ episodes that precede the final ‘Penelope’ episode, ‘Eumaeus,’ and ‘Ithaca,’ the latter of which takes the form of a series of questions and answers that seem to pride themselves on the cool detachment, pedantry of their tone. In this way, Molly’s closing sentences seem more like a celebration of the fecundity of language and the body, without wishing to get too Earth Mother about it.
“then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
One should note that Molly have Bloom’s proposal in mind as she thinks this, equally, she might be thinking about her other great love when she was younger in Gibraltar. Either this is an affirmation of her relationship with Bloom, that there may be hope for them to re-kindle their ailing (depends on how you look at it, all the same) relationship, or she might continue to feel nostalgia for past loves, what might have been. Or both. They’re not mutually exclusive. On a final note, that ‘s’ sound transmutes fairly easily into the opening salvo, ‘Stately plump Buck &c.’
Infinite Jest presents us with an interesting negotiation of this issue, its one hundred pages of footnotes means we have a choice when deciding what ‘the ending’ is. I don’t have a copy to hand right now, but I think I remember the last footnote being arch and self-aware in some way. The final sentence of the prose narrative proper, takes place I think a few years, maybe a decade before the thrust of the actual narrative gets underway, it consists of a flashback of a extended drug binge the venerable Don Gately indulges on in some point during his years spent in the Massachusetts drug scene. But Foster Wallace has us in deciding on a beginning too, the start of the novel takes place a few months after the main events of Infinite Jest have concluded, long after the Quebecois separatists have shown up at the Enfield Tennis Academy and after the dust has settled with everything regarding the samizdat, that great scene with Hal Incandenza failing to make himself understood to a panel of interviewers working in the University of Arizona. With all these conflicting, interwoven chronotopes based around establishing the novel’s beginning or ending, Foster Wallace seems to have pulled off a successful elision of finishing Infinite Jest; the novel ends more or less arbitrarily, leaving the reader to try and figure out the chronology of the action-packed climax that the novel has supposedly been building to. Not only does Infinite Jest not have a proer beginning or end-point, there isn’t really a coherent middle-point to speak of either.
The ending to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow takes a different, no less self-conscious tack. Much of the novel’s arc is concerned with Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of an experimental V-2 rocket, and a component thereof known as the Schwarzgerät, or ‘black device.’ Many, many other things happen too, this being a Pynchon novel, but I will endeavour to keep myself focused on the ending, which relates the actual launching of the device at a cinema, a real-life actual event in Antwerp, where 567 people were killed. Just as the rocket is about to strike, the jovial correspondent narrator halts its momentum in mid-air:
“And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely forever and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.
There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs…or, if a song must find you…here’s one…sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:
There is a Hand to turn the time,
Though thy Glass to day be run,
Till the Light that hath brough the Towers low
Find the last poor Pret’rite one…
Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,
All through our crippl’d Zone,
With a face on ev’ry mountainside,
And a soul in ev’ry stone…
I don’t think it’s too extravagant to view these last two words as an invective to the reader, to every potential reader, to partake in the communal sing-song, one that is quite morbid, not to mention laden with references to the narrative that precedes it. The fact that it takes place in the briefest moment before the rocket’s impact adds to the poignancy, and casts all the other apparently whimsical vaudeville old-Hollywood sing-alongs in an altogether different pall, perhaps they are just for the purposes of distracting ourselves from our own demise, whether it be for the onanist or the happily coupled. In the pages leading up to this, we get a throwaway reflection on the nature of endings:
“He thinks of their love in illustrations for children, in last thin pages fluttering closed, a line gently, passively unfinished,”
which is of course what we get in the above hyphen. It would be a straightforward matter, also, to link this with the Hansel & Gretel pantomime that Roger Mexico and Jerssica Mossmoon attend with Jessica’s nieces, during the production, (significantly, just before Gretel is about to dispose of the witch by beating her into the furnace) the Germans bomb a building down the street. The children become distressed, and the actor playing Gretel leads the crowd in another, seemingly innocent tune, which addresses the fact of our existences as transitory and contingent:
“And the lamps up the stairway are dying,
It’s the season just after the ball…
Oh the palm trees whisper on a beach somewhere,
And the lifesaver’s heaving a sigh,
And the voices you hear, Girl and Boy of the Year,
Are of children who are learning to die…”
This is only an excerpt of the song, and there is plenty of it to unpack, but I’ll stick to the topic for the moment. The fact that Gravity’s Rainbow‘s ending is caught in a moment of indefinite postponement, a kind of narrative caprice, is crucial, bearing in mind what Pynchon encourages the reader to dwell upon in the moments leading up to it, and in sections of the novel that anticipate the ending. Namely, death. Which is omnipresent, and inescapable. We all know this, and singing songs about it are all very well and good to distract us, but Pynchon seems to be focusing on the ending as an instrument through which we can re-assimilate our understanding. Death is an ending, of course, but an ending doesn’t have to be death. It, like the moment of Molly Bloom’s yes, can be just as affirmative and celebratory as a story’s beginning.