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Suppression is the road to harmony, the true way to us all getting along – myth-making the past, forgiving and loving and carrying on, sublimating the truth behind truth. Truth makes a soap opera of relations, manufacturing a hazy warm feeling of womb-like safety. It’s crucial. Truth is what we do to reality. We kill it. Truth is death. It is a prison from which there is no escape. Truth is the most addictive of narcotics. There is no cure from it. Once you are hooked, you die, with it or without it. Try fiction instead.
I remember once reading a, probably aprocryphal, quote attributed to James Joyce stating that all Irishmen secretly want to be the Messiah. I do not care if he never actually said that (he may have done – my google-fu is weak), I just love the notion of the Irish seeing Christ not as a moral example to follow, but a position to aspire to. Catholicism is a large part of the Irish culture, its trickle-down effect one that Joyce in particular set about investigating and exposing in his work. Perhaps my recollection of this supposed quotation is a confusion of the scene from Ulysses when a group of drunken Irish ignore Bloom, who is of course a Jew, all the while loudly proclaiming that they are looking for the Messiah and would follow him anywhere.
We meet our principal narrator, Arthur Kruger, after his suicide in Heuston Station. This nonlife is a confusion of memories and identity, his past overlapping with alternate worlds. The ‘ten short novels’, of the title represent different levels of this existence. Arthur and his lover Aron reappear again and again throughout the novel, sometimes as ghosts haunting the other, sometimes never having lived at all. Arthur typically appears to be a frustrated writer, with Aron his muse, a free-spirited woman with a far greater degree of confidence. When Arthur discovers her sleeping in an abandoned hospital and insists that she is on top of a bomb he had previously left hidden there, she is more bemused than frightened by this evidently disturbed individual.
Each of the ten sections of the novel bear an individual title, either showing us events from a new perspective, or rewriting the lives of these two characters (think Jerry Cornelius running around inner-city Dublin). In Teaching Religion as a Foreign Language a still notdead Arthur engages in jesuitical debate about the existence of god. Policing the Dead Zone has Aron discover a rotting corpse – Arthur again – in her home that no one else can see. Genuinely Interesting People is a genuinely entertaining satire on the pompousness of the Dublin literary scene. Here Arthur in frustrated writer mode is left unimpressed by the success and pedigree of a vampiric academic.
It feels like a collection of short stories, but there is an overarching plot at work here, the theme of how fiction can sometimes be more real than life itself reoccuring again and again. Perhaps author Ryan is arguing that the Irish are haunted by a literary past difficult to live up to. The neologism ‘endbeginning’, that is used occasionally hints at the suspicion that life for authors begins after death. Much like in Alan Warner‘s Morvern Callar, Arthur’s novel is successful following his suicide. References to literature abound throughout, such as an insurance firm named Kafka & Kafka, or Arthur’s train station suicide blithely being described as “an unfortunate Anna Karenin moment“.
What emerges is a novel that is not afraid to adopt a quizzical tone, but also has a sense of humour about itself. Whimsy is intertwined with philosophical musings on life and death. Above all the author has pulled off the impressive feat of throwing Palahniuk, Joyce and Will Self into a blender and nevertheless producing something with a voice of its own. The prose carries the onrushing quality of free verse, which once again ties into the thoughtful style of the writing.
Intelligent, whimsically literate and definitively Irish, a fine novel.
With thanks to Seven Towers Publishing for my review copy.
She turned. When his hat came off, his hair had come off too. In the confusion all she had seen was a chalk-white scalp, so she turned expeting to see a bald albino maybe. But no. With his sunglasses gone and his scarf hanging down, there was no denying the fact that he had no flesh, he had no skin, he had no eyes and he had no face.
All he had was a skull for a head.
Ok, I’ve got my writing music playing (Pat Boone’s cover of Enter Sandman, if you must know) and am in the mood to celebrate. See I get happy when I find an Irish writer I had not heard of before. 2009 was the year of Eoin Colfer for me, whose Artemis Fowl novels I blitzed through in a fortnight. I was excited to find a contemporary author who could take the mythology I had been raised with and update it for modern times.
It appears Derek Landy is of a similar calibre.
This book opens with a mysterious will and ends with a young girl set upon a very peculiar destiny. In between we have skeleton detectives, cthonic gods, wars of magic and a murder mystery.
The death of Gordon Edgley, known as a popular author of portentous horror fantasy novels, comes as a surprise to many but occasions little grieving. Edgley had an uncommon ability to get under people’s skin and was known to move in very unusual circles. His twelve-year-old niece Stephanie had grown quite close to him, being one of the few interesting individuals in the coastal town of Haggard near Dublin. When the reading of the will reveals that Gordon left her both his home and fortune the assembled Edgley clan is left in shock, most notably her aunt and uncle who strongly resent her incredible inheritance.
Yet her sudden good fortune is not the only thing that Stephanie came into that day. She also made the acquaintance of Skulduggery Pleasant – mystical detective. When her inheritance earns Stephanie a powerful enemy, Skulduggery comes to her rescue and introduces her to a world of magic and wonder that exists side-by-side with our own. His talk of ancient weapons, councils of sorcerors and elemental magic all sounds quite plausible to her. After all, Skulduggery is a talking skeleton who can shoot fire from his hands.
On the run from museum vampires and the malevolent Hollow Men, Skulduggery and Stephanie can count on few allies – such as the tailor-cum-boxer Ghastly Bespoke and London monster-slayer Tanith Low – as a malevolent force sweeps through Dublin’s magical community, threatening to tip the world into a mystical apocalypse. All Stephanie has to do is find the key to a magical artifact that can summon gods, prevent the villain from obtaining it first and try to make sure no one learns her real name – as in the world of magic, names have power. Oh and hide all of this from the watchful eyes of her parents.
This book is a delight from start to finish. The plot races along, the banter between Stephanie and her undead companion is hilarious and Landy utilises his experience as a black belt in Kenpo to describe some fantastic fight scenes. When detailed descriptions of blocks and kicks don’t suffice, he’ll then have Tanith perform feats such as run along a ceiling to hack at the heads of attackers from above.
On a related note, I was pleased to hear that Landy practices Kenpo, as when I was just a little nipper in 80’s Ireland I had the pleasure of meeting Ed Parker (and yes, this is a photo of him training Elvis Presley).
On top of being very funny, thrilling and filled with monstrous creatures such as the unstoppable White Cleaver, Landy also throws in some nods and winks to Lovecraft fans. The ‘Faceless Ones’, are a homage to the New England fantasist’s ‘Old Ones’, and are even credited as such by the book’s antagonist. There is even a hint that Stephanie’s adventures could all be the result of a form of family dementia. Perhaps all of what she is experiencing is a grief-stricken hallucination inspired by Gordon Edgley’s writings. I was briefly reminded of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Normal Again – an association encouraged by the Buffy-esque Tanith, who shrugs off major wounds and even has a catchphrase ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, great fun all round.
“Why did you leave Ireland”?
“I was sick,” he said. “I was sick of Ireland, he laughed.”
“Seriously, if you knew anything about the country you wouldn’t ask me why I left.”
There is a moment towards the end of this book when the protagonist Katherine Procter walks down Grafton Street in Dublin late at night, crosses the Ha’Penny Bridge over the River Liffey, continues on towards Blackhall Place and finally reaches her destination of Carnew Street. I smirked to myself when I read this and remarked to Stephanie that you could tell this book was not set in the present day.
Eight months ago I was mugged at knife-point in Dublin. Every day after that I was scared to go out on to the streets at night. I desperately wanted to leave the city. The date of our departure for Australia seemed an eternity away. When I think of Dublin now, that is what I remember, an unending, oppressive sense of fear. In a very real sense, I saw my travelling to Australia as escape.
Katherine is also looking to escape. Born and raised in Wexford, she has left her husband and child and fled to Spain. When she thinks of Ireland she remembers the dead relationship between Tom the man she married and her herself; her estranged son, who takes after his father in every respect; and finally she remembers the local people in the area who hated her family for being Anglo-Irish Protestants, who burned down her house when she was only a child. Her own mother left Ireland afterwards, terrified of the Irish and refusing to return from London. Now Katherine has followed in her foot-steps.
Barcelona is a world away from Enniscorthy. Katherine discovers an enclave of bohemian artists and begins to receive training in becoming a painter herself. She meets Miguel, an enigmatic man who uses art to frame the political upheaval in Spain following the Civil War and falls in love with him. Her mother sends her enough money to support herself and together with her new lover, she begins to reinvent herself, leaving her past as a member of the Irish landowner class behind.
The arrival of Irishman and Enniscorthy native Michael Graves in Barcelona puts Katherine on edge. Not only is he an insistent reminder of the life she ran away from, as a Roman Catholic he symbolises to her the same mob that attacked her home causing the breakup of her family when she was a child during ‘The Troubles’ in the South of Ireland. Furthermore he attaches himself to Katherine and Miguel from the moment they first meet him. She wakes up the first morning after encountering the Irishman to find him asleep beside her lover.
It appears that not only is her past not finished with her, but Miguel’s own history has caught up with the couple. He refuses to hide his anti-Francoist fervour, risking imprisonment. His status as a former revolutionary and a Catalan makes him a target for police intimidation. Katherine cannot understand why he insists on reliving his hatred for the Spanish fascist regime, why he cannot simply plan a future for them together. She slowly comes to recognize that Miguel’s wartime activities are not so different from the actions of the landless Catholics who attacked her family thirty years ago.
This is a beautifully written first novel by Colm Tóibín. The parallels drawn between the Irish and Spanish Civil Wars are cannily illustrated, with Katherine’s blinkered inability to recognize the hatreds of her own upbringing causing her to view the historical wounds of Spain as exotic curiosities. Tóibín’s writing is reminiscent of John Banville’s European Irish fiction, with protagonists finding inescapable echoes of Ireland on the Continent.
I strongly identified with Katherine as my own relationship with my homeland has become twisted by fear, despite knowing how irrational that feeling is. Funnily enough I continue to meet Michael Graves all over Sydney, the Irish accent reappearing at the oddest times. This is the life of an emigrant, I suppose, finding reminders of home wherever I go. More importantly though I am no longer afraid of returning home. Australia, and in part writing for this blog, allowed me the opportunity to heal.
This book is beautifully observed, thematically insightful and ferries its haunted protagonists to a welcome peace of sorts.
“Georgian Dublin”, rots in constant damp,
The way it always has, I guess – although
Only weeks have passed since I moved in,
And I’m in no position yet to know
The letter from the flashy postage stamp;
Which decay comes from without – which from within.
One of the categories I created for tagging purposes on this blog is ‘Poetry’, but sadly I have not reviewed much for the site. This is a shame, as there was a time I loved reading poems. My dad often describes poetry as ‘condensed thought’, an idea captured in verse with an exactness that can elude prose writing.
The poet is also a role more suited to an outsider than a novelist, as s/he in transcribing thought and action to verse is already describing the world in a skewed fashion. That perspective lends itself to the estranged observer, a narrator who questions what he sees far more readily. The scene is not set for the slow unravelling of plot, it is an eruption, a sudden reveal of intimate feelings that would go unsaid otherwise.
I am also curious as to why there is not more well-known poetry derived from an urban setting. So many of us spend each and every day living, working, socializing within the concrete and glass borders of cities. Surely there is plenty of material there for a poet, however, poetry today carries a nostalgic cachet, with ‘poetry lovers’, insisting on the bucolic poems of yesteryear over the urbanised sprawl. Cities have been occupied by prose stylists, let the poets labour in the golden fields of memory.
Quincy R. Lehr’s poems situate themselves directly within the city landscape. There are repeated themes of urban alienation, the suddenness of violence, the isolation of people trapped together in close spaces, with the poet just another anonymous face in the multitude. Why there is No Socialism in the United States of America neatly encapsulates the malaise that sets in on a late night on the town, with fellow commuters eyeing each other suspiciously, constantly aware of the threat posed by ‘strangers’. In New York everyone’s a stranger –
Each one of us was tired, pissed-off, and bored,
Angry at the hour and with those pricks –
That fat-assed bitch, who muttered at a cell phone,
That rat-faced airline worker at the front,
That punk-ass hoodlum, glaring at his feet,
That stuck-up twat, that sad-eyed brown-haired schmuck
Gawking at New York’s predawn, backlit blackness.
The anger that comes with this anonymity is coupled with Lehr’s own frustrations with adult life, the precarious negotiations of romance and the expectation of matrimony, as well as coming face to face with the vision of his father’s self sapped by cancer. The ugly inevitability of death throws the idealism of youth into question; all the poet’s adolescent dreams and plans seemed to have fluttered away like dry leaves caught in a gust of wind. Sex and life seem like traps, chipping away at anything individual, or distinct about the person who dreamed once about what waits in the future.
Lines For My Father addresses this disillusionment with the promises of a better life that come with youth, promises that in their heedless enthusiasm can set the older generation and its offspring at each other’s throats. When younger the poet expressed contempt for the “Ambitions of an ordinary size” of his parent, but concludes that he and his peers are even worse off, “we’re no happier than you, and can’t quite seem to sit for tests that you had failed”.
Drink and eager lust are engines for youthful action and reflecting back on them can cause embarrassment, yet those were the times the poet felt most alive, when he was “A bookworm almost trying to be mean”. In rejecting the symbols of the past, the young fail to learn how to live in the present, instead relying on pretension, shows of quick wit, or aggression.
The lonely city lives captured by Lehr, with the spirited arguments of drunks whose voices are already cracked by tobacco inhalation and broken relationships that fade in the memory (where therapy fails, a friend’s invite to watch Dario Argento giallo flicks succeeds!) display a certain kind of beauty, reminiscent of Beaudelaire’s inverted elegy to his city in Le Spleen de Paris. There’s a honesty to the ugliness on display that makes the imagery delicate and precious. Recommended.
With thanks to Seven Towers Publishing for the review copy.
“There were great writers, Joyce among them, who dealt at length with the seedy as an aspect, an inescapable aspect of human affairs, but this was to throw something else into perspective. They did not rejoice in it for its own sake. And they were men with wide experience of life. They did not have this weak fascination with the sordid. Most of those who dealt in it now though, he thought, were actually sheltered middle-class males and females, playing a game, trying to be toughies, to show their laddishness. And they really knew very little about it, very little about the criminal and his mind, or the mind of his symbiotic twin, the policeman.”
Anthony Cronin, Roddy Doyle, Hugo Hamilton, Marian Keyes, Frank McCourt, Pauline McLynn, Conor McPherson, Joseph O’Connor, Gerard Stembridge, Donal O’Kelly, Owen O’Neill, Tom Humphries, Charlie O’Neill, Gina Moxley and Gene Kerrigan. Fifteen writers, one narrative, shared between them. The Irish have a love/hate relationship with their culture, this insistence on the soggy island being the home of ‘saints and scholars’. There was a great little show last year called The Savage Eye that dedicated an episode to lancing the pomposity of Irish writers and artists. Yeats Is Dead is title notwithstanding, a broad parody of James Joyce’s fiction that mixes crime and satire into the proceedings.
With each chapter a different writer takes control of the story, setting off a dizzying chain of one-upmanship. Roddy Doyle is the first up to bat, commencing the proceedings with an accidental murder. Two crooked cops have been working for Mrs Bloom (ho ho!) as hired thugs. Ordered to intimidate an elderly hermit named Tommy ‘Stanislaus’ Reynolds into returning a stolen item, they inadvertently cause the man to have a heart attack. Then he is shot. The chapter closes with the two Gardaí reporting their misadventure to their employer. Mrs Bloom is a formidable woman, who has made a living from theft from an early age. Doyle even includes a stolen ‘papal throne’, from Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979 in her home. The scene is set, with an intimidation racket gone wrong, a crime dame with a controlling interest in many areas of Celtic Tiger Ireland and two bent coppers fearing for their lives.
As each chapter follows, however, things quickly escalate beyond this humble beginning. Soon corpses are pilling up; more characters are introduced; there are adulterous affairs; wild swerves in plot; book forgery scams; chaotic trials and political corruption. The McGuffin is revealed to be a lost work of James Joyce’s, an unfinished novel, or possibly a chemical formula, known as ‘Yeats Is Dead’. The story rambles on in a shambolic manner, with each of the characters unknowingly being controlled from behind the scenes by the canny criminal mastermind Mrs Bloom.
I laughed twice during the fifteen chapters of this book. The first time courtesy of Roddy Doyle having a bent copper’s mistress reply to a request to talk dirty by simply saying ‘The Flood Tribunal’. Owen O’Neill, spotting an opportunity to poke fun at all the Joycean namedropping throughout the book, names a character after the famous Irish broadcaster Eamon Dunphy, which also raised a chuckle. The remainder of this book is a train wreck, especially the chapter written by Marian Keyes. Here we have an author trading in lazy stereotypes and dated references, who is over-indulged by the Irish reading public. She introduces into the plot a Dublin Southside rap music fan named Micky McManus, who secretly wants to be Black. It is an insulting and ridiculous character portrayal, which is quickly mocked by some of the later contributors by transforming Micky into a blackface sporting, would-be Rastafarian homosexual.
I chose the above quote from Anthony Cronin’s chapter as it summed up the weaknesses of this book perfectly. At times some of the writers attempt to introduce some social realism into the proceedings, but for the most part Yeats Is Dead trades in Irish stereotypes and clichés. Frank McCourt wraps up proceedings with a smutty parody of James Stephens that owes more to the Carry On series.
Vulgar and farcical like the Celtic Tiger era that inspired it, this is an absolutely toxic waste of time. ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone…’ and spinning in its grave.