Monthly Archives: November 2015

Martin Amis’ ‘Dead Babies’ and tapping out

Before I blocked Will Self’s brother on Twitter for making fun of me (never, ever tweet at your heroes, I’ve never had one tweet interpreted in the tone in which it was intended), he said an interesting thing about reading books and how to know when to set an unfinished one down. For Will Self’s brother, time is of the essence. When one has a limited amount of time to read all the books, which we do, with the simultaneous aspiration to read all the books, which we do, it is vital to cultivate the ability to know when to tap out of a novel, particularly a long one, which could amount to as many as two other novels. Will Self’s brother’s rule is if he comes across one false note, he’s out. I’ve tried my best to emulate this methodology, despite the rift that has come between us in recent times. However, it is often more complicated than this.

I’ll tap out quite a bit and will feel no, or almost no, or at least very little, shame. I tapped out of Madame Bovary because of one character’s indulgence in a two-page monologue about agricultural methods and the changes in the social order of rural France being wrought by industrialisation. It would have been less discordant if said character introduced himself as Mr. Metaphor for the Ideology of the Enlightenment Man.

I generally feel entitled to leave such undisputed classics unfinished because I managed to plough through Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time over the course of a month, forever after ensuring that I will not be mistaken for some fly-by-night dilettante. This is not to say that it often wasn’t a struggle, Proust is riven with the kind of false note that would lead Will Self’s brother to bruise a spine against a wall, something that the novel has in common with Moby Dick had, another classic I tapped out of. The veiled references to and vague criticisms of homosexuality, aswell as women from two authors who were not heterosexual and lived in times where it was socially unacceptable to be so turned me off, it was just dishonest, boring, didactic and a bit sad.

Martin Amis’ novel Dead Babies was one I recently finished but nearly tapped out of twice, but didn’t. I was initially put off by the first fifty pages, in which Dead Babies revealed itself to be not so much a novel as a textual device constructed for the humiliation of fictional women. Misogyny, particularly in the form of extended essentialist diatribes, is a big reason while I’ll tap out, which, by the by, makes it difficult for me to enjoy anything written before 1900. I stuck with it, enjoying Amis’ turns of phrase and metatextual fiddling enough to keep me going. It then picked up a steady clip, as I began to see these insufferable grotesques were heading for a rude awakening as regards their current lifestyles and their treatment of women. I’m enjoying this, I frequently thought. This is a lot of fun. And then it dragged itself out and got awful again. I stuck with it but I should’ve bailed earlier really.


Easter 1916, Sean O’Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and re-invention

Historian Roy Foster recently gave a lecture in Trinity College entitled: “”An Inheritance From Our Forefathers”? Historians and the Memory of the Irish Revolution.” In his speech, Foster proposed a radically different reading on the events surrounding 1916. For most people, 1916 marks the ostensible beginning of the modern Irish independence movement moving beyond the cultural sphere, events which follow neatly through to the War of Independence, the civil war, the declaration of the Republic and the establishment of partition as a political framework. In this decade of commemoration, already a cliché, a more unified, or retrospectively conscious perspective may be welcome in buckling existing narratives. They’ll help to assuage to tedium of an apparently endless sequence of vapid panel discussions on radio that rarely seem to move beyond a Leaving Certificate level of historical analysis, window-dressing Republicanism to keep Sinn Féin out of government, or worst of all, newspaper supplements.

Rather than seeing the Rising as the beginning, Foster proposes viewing it as an end-point or termination of pre-revolutionary trends, a marker of a generational crisis. For Foster, the real revolution was the series of land acts of the late-nineteenth century which incentivised English landlords to sell their land to Irish farmers, who in many cases, turned out to be more draconian in extracting rents from  their tenants than their English counterparts. This massive transfer of capital and establishment of a native land-owning class could explain why Ireland was capable of ‘settling’ so (relatively) quickly after its revolution and consequent political convulsions, why its quite radical rising became conservatised with such rapidity. Those who were most involved the rising and inculcated its participants were members of a radical, educated middle class and Foster frames them as somewhat immature angsty young people, rebelling against their parents and fashioning their own values in opposition to forces that they regarded as oppressive.

This notion of Easter 1916 as an exercise in re-invention or the formulation of a novel identity interests me as I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on a trilogy of novels, in which identity and the re-invention thereof forms a substantial part of its subject matter, namely Roddy Doyle’s The Last Round-up Trilogy, in the three novels,  A Star Called Henry, Oh, Play That Thing and The Dead Republic, we see the protagonist, Henry Smart conceptualise himself as a mythic figure from out the Celtic mists, a working class hero, linchpin of the IRA, self-conscious exile, self-made man, immigrant hero, inveterate capitalist and finally, a family man, of a sort. I should add, that while he’s doing all this gallivanting, he’s abandoned his wife, daughter and son.

One also thinks of Johnny’s line in Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, probably the only point in the play when he isn’t complaining about noise, (a potential gesture towards his fairly obvious PTSD, a result of his role in fighting for Ireland during the War of Independence) when it is made known that the Boyle family is to inherit a small fortune. Johnny’s immediate contribution is: “We’ll be able to get out o’ this place now, an’ go somewhere we’re not known,” perhaps indicating how closely related re-invention and revolt was in the mind of the revolutionary generation.

This is all covered more thoroughly in Foster’s recent study, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923. At least, I imagine it is. I haven’t actually read it.

William H. Gass’ ‘The Tunnel’ and the Sad Man Monologue

William H. Gass’ novel The Tunnel strikes me, in one way, by its similarity to a particular kind of fiction written by a particular kind of novelist of a particular age and gender, a sub-genre I call ‘The Sad Man Monologue.’ This form was, I would argue, pioneered by Samuel Beckett in his Trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt and L’innomable, though I am open to being corrected on that, (damienrants at suggests Goethe, Heinrich Von Kleist and Fyodor Dostoevsky as plausible pre-modernist progenitors) and is practiced nowadays by the aforementioned Gass, occasionally by Paul Auster and exclusively by John Banville.

Below are some key features of the genre, for your perusal and edification:

The narrator is a middle-aged man – This is a fairly consistent feature of the genre, as these texts generally depict the narrator as writing the account as we read it, hopping back and forth in time, from a bathetic present to a Kodak-distant youth in which feelings were felt intensely. The neither/nor in-between space of middle age is crucial for bringing together the pathos of departed days with the anxiety of a more proximate death.

The writing is of an extremely heightened sort – More so, I think than any other invented sub-genre today, the authors of sad man monologues embroider with densely worded baroqueries. The reason behind this linguistically charged and seductive register is that the sad men are, generally speaking, shits, and often unrepentant shits at that, probably necessitating its glossy surfaces and (sometimes) exquisite proliferation of sub-clauses.

The narrator complains about the unattractiveness of their spouse – A bugbear I have as regards this genre is that each sad man finds time, ample time in fact, to denigrate the attractiveness of their wife and log their resentment over how little gratifying sex they get. I find it so bizarre that in the works of these writers, time and time again, half the novel is devoted to the fundamental pain of the human condition, epistemological, phenomenological uncertainty, the unreliability of memory, the indignity of having an infinite intellect yoked to a decaying body, yet the narrator still finds time to harp on his petty domestics chauvinistically, as if this had some sort of universal significance. This annoys me because 1) I suspect the narrator is no spring chicken, 2) I have no idea what they expect, holing themselves away authoring the story of their life and being so angst ridden all the time, 3) it comes across like a male author getting a dig in at their wife.

The narrator is an erudite and studious sort, well up on contemporary thought – These novels are shot through with flirtations of references to The Jacques. This is fun, but wears quickly, especially when one reads Gass, who makes the effort to traduce this theoretical terminology into his own inimitably mad register, then returns to these other authors, who make use of phrases like ‘unconscious,’ ‘meaninglessness,’ ‘fracture,’ or god help us, that familiar clattering of the undergraduate, ‘signifier.’

Scanning my bookshelves for a gender counterpoint, the sad woman monologue, (again, examples please), I come away with J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Both bring productive knottiness into the formulae above, Enright’s Veronica moves back before her own birth, introducing impossible pre-natal perspectives, just as Coetzee’s Magda, allows others to speak their own pieces in dialogue, committing a cardinal sin against the genre. This is complicated by the fact that both narrators inflect what they see or narrate to suit their own interests; their supposed capacity to deal in heteroglossia in fact points towards a more insidious variant of monomania.

The Gathering is class. Read The Gathering.

Margaret T. Pender: Irish Woman Poet

Elliptical Movements

Margaret T. Pender (1865-1920), was born Margaret O’Doherty in Ballytweedy, County Antrim. She was a novelist and short story writer as well as poet. An Active Irish nationalist, she was a regular contributor to the FreemanUnited Ireland and Ireland’sOwn. ‘Ignoring the Irish’ was published in the Sligo Nationalist on 4 October 1916

Ignoring the Irish

Oh, many a star-bright tale is told
Of deeds of glory and of gold,
Since this dread war has first begun
Its deathly strafe against the Hun;
And yet, the listening world has heard
From England’s Generals—not one word
Of the Irish at Gallipoli!

New Zealand’s hearts of fire were there
With Erin’s sons the fight to share;
And from Newfoundland’s misty shore
Came gallant lads, a handful more;
And not one soldier failed to play
A hero’s part that dreadful day
With the Irish at Gallipoli!

To take the railway…

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Herman Melville: The Bright Young Thing/Upstart in contemporary American letters and his alleged magnum opus ‘Moby Dick or, ‘The Whale’’

I’ve recently attempted to read Moby Dick, a novel which despite its recent publication, has already been hailed by critics as a classic, appearing as it does (at least in my edition) in a Penguin Classics cover, a tasteful caprice reserved usually for 1) actual classic texts which have accrued enough regard over time to be regarded as indispensable, or 2) opportunistic singers who enjoy holding beleaguered publishers in a post-print era to ransom for their turgidly written score settling autobiographies. Forgive me if part of me recoils from this trivialisation of what a ‘classic’ is, and if I require a century or so of a grace period before I’m comfortable with the delineation. It is always a disquieting experience to have such a recent novel tipped as a mainstay in one’s lifetime, it sets a worrying precedent, perhaps I’ll be spending the rest of my life reading only contemporary literature, but I was determined to figure out what all the fuss was about so I sat down to read Moby Dick.

First of all, and this may account for the raucous applause that greeted Melville when he burst from quiescent anonymity onto the literary scene this year with his six-hundred page novel (a length which suggests Melville is pitching for Jonathan Franzen-type respectability via girth), this text is committed to upholding the pretence that the last one hundred and fifty years of American literature simply has not been written. In an introduction to the text, Melville provides a sequence of quotations from scripture, philosophy and poetry that take whales as subject matter, in an obvious and egregious plundering of the methodology of Mark Z. Danielewski in House Of Leaves, based on introducing as many literary antecedents as possible, to simulate the experience of a digital hypertext on the page. Such well-worn postmodernist jazz hands won’t cut the mustard with even the most naïve illiterate. Secondly, Melville also robs Thomas Pynchon blind in making use of self-consciously antiquated syntax and appeals to the reader, those who have read Mason & Dixon (that all-too exclusive sub-coterie of a sub-coterie) will groan in recognising Melville’s unrepentant cribbery and for thirdly, worstly, Melville opens the text with an extended digression on a piece of visual art:

“But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast…there was a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it.”

He follows a muddy description of the painting with a sequence of opinions about the painting that are spoken allowed, unsignposted, perhaps giving the reader an insight into the fundamentally over-determined, irreducible and endlessly referential nature of art itself? Old hat. I put it down after four-hundred pages, Melville will have to drop the plagiarism and tryhard spectaculars of ‘device’ before he gets me to take him seriously as a contemporary American novelist.

Judging a Book by its Cover


What a clever device the book is. It is compact and light, yet contains hundreds of pages that hold an incredible amount of information. Moving forward or backward in the text is as easy as flipping a page, while the book’s square shape and flat bottom facilitates easy shelving. Still, the object is useless if the information it contains cannot be found. And so tools were developed to help the reader do just that, such as page numbers, running titles, and indices. As familiar as these aids may be, they are older than you think. The page number, for example, is encountered in papyrus manuscripts made some two thousand years ago (see this older blog post).

Crucially, to look up information in a book you must have first located the object. And so the shelfmark was invented, the equivalent of our call number. By the end of the medieval period it had become as clever as the book to which it was added: letters, digits, and even colour coding…

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Not Exactly What I Wanted to Say about Don DeLillo but Almost


DeLillo has always been the most treacherous member of that Golden Generation of male American writers born in the 1930s. (Heartiest sympathies go out to Messrs Gass and Gaddis for being born a decade too soon.) Harold Bloom once made a presciently Wikipedia-friendly knighting of four of these gentlemen – DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth – as the greatest American novelists of his lifetime, and however one feels about old Bloomosaurus rex his methodology does have some taxonomic advantage.

All four novelists are, in their own ways, self-conscious stylists. They all were lucky enough to come of age at a time when the living, omnipresent memento mori of nuclear annihilation – ah, halcyon days! – must have been to writer’s block as the scythe is to the corn. Providence smiled on them enough to show a middle way through the Red Sea of postmodernism, whose more interesting affectations they carried…

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