Tag Archives: Fyodor Dostoevsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 https://iscriptorblog.wordpress.com/ 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.