Tag Archives: Will Self

How big are the words modernists use?

It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.

Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*

*The previous graph had twice as many authors and was far too noisy, with not enough distinction between the colours to make it anything other than a headwreck to read.

In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.

As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.

Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.

By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.

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Collocations in Modernist Prose

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 14.51.47I have recently begun to experiment with Natural Language Processing to determine how particular words in modernist texts are correlated. I’m still getting my head around Python and NLTK, but so far I’m finding it much more user-friendly than similar packages in R.

Long-term I hope to graph these collocations in high-vector space, so that I can graph them, but for the moment, I’m interested in noting the prevalence of the term ‘young man’, Self and Baume being the only authors that have female adjective-noun phrases, and the usage of titles which convey particular social hierarchies; Joyce, Woolf and Bowen’s collocations are almost exclusively composed of these, as is Stein’s, with the clarifier that Stein’s appear shorn of their ‘Mr.’, ‘Miss.’ or ‘Doctor’.

Here’s all the collocations in the modernist corpus:

young man; robert jordan; new york; gertrude stein; old man; could see; henry martin; every one; years ago; first time; long time; hugh monckton; great deal; come back; david hersland; good deal; every day; edward colman; came back; alfred hersland

Canonical modernist texts:

young man; robert jordan; gertrude stein; henry martin; new york; every one; old man; could see; years ago; long time; hugh monckton; first time; great deal; david hersland; come back; good deal; every day; edward colman; alfred hersland; mr. bettesworth

Contemporary texts, Enright, Self, Baume, McBride:

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; first time; per cent; could see; old man; one another; even though; years ago; new york; front door; young man; either side; someone else; dave rudman; last night; living room; steering wheel; every time

Djuna Barnes

frau mann; nora said; english girl; someone else; long ago; leaned forward; london bridge; come upon; could never; god knows; doctor said; sweet sake; first time; five francs; terrible thing; francis joseph; hôtel récamier; orange blossoms; bowed slightly; would say

Eimear McBride

kentish town; someone else; first time; last night; jesus christ; something else; years ago; five minutes; every day; hail mary; take care; next week; arms around; never mind; every single; little girl; little boy; two years; soon enough; come back

Elizabeth Bowen

mrs kerr; lady waters; mrs heccomb; major brutt; mme fisher; lady naylor; miss fisher; good deal; said mrs; first time; lady elfrida; one another; young man; colonel duperrier; aunt violet; last night; ann lee; one thing; sir robert; sir richard

Ernest Hemingway

robert jordan; old man; could see; colonel said; gran maestro; catherine said; jordan said; richard gordon; long time; pilar said; thou art; pablo said; nick said; bill said; girl said; captain willie; young man; automatic rifle; mr. frazer; david said

F. Scott FitzGerald

new york; young man; years ago; first time; sally carrol; several times; fifth avenue; ten minutes; minutes later; richard caramel; thousand dollars; five minutes; young men; evening post; old man; next day; saturday evening; long time; last night; come back

Gertrude Stein

gertrude stein; every one; david hersland; alfred hersland; angry feeling; family living; independent dependent; jeff campbell; julia dehning; mrs. hersland; daily living; whole one; bottom nature; madeleine wyman; good deal; mary maxworthing; middle living; miss mathilda; mabel linker; every day

James Joyce

buck mulligan; said mr.; martin cunningham; aunt kate; says joe; mary jane; corny kelleher; ned lambert; mrs. kearney; stephen said; mr. henchy; ignatius gallaher; father conmee; nosey flynn; mr. kernan; myles crawford; cissy caffrey; ben dollard; mr. cunningham; miss douce

Marcel Proust

young man; faubourg saint-germain; long ago; caught sight; first time; every day; one day; great deal; des laumes; young men; could see; quite well; next day; one another; would never; nissim bernard; victor hugo; would say; louis xiv; long time

Samuel Beckett

said camier; said mercier; miss counihan; lord gall; miss carridge; mr. kelly; panting stops; said belacqua; mr. endon; said wylie; said neary; one day; otto olaf; dr. killiecrankie; come back; vast stretch; mrs gorman; push pull; something else; ground floor

Sara Baume

even though; tawny bay; living room; old man; passenger seat; bird walk; maggot nose; shut-up-and-locked room; stone fence; food bowl; lonely peephole; low chair; old woman; kennel keeper; rearview mirror; shih tzu; shore wall; safe space; every day; oneeye oneeye

Virginia Woolf

miss barrett; mrs. ramsay; mrs. hilbery; young man; st. john; could see; years ago; peter walsh; mrs. thornbury; miss allan; said mrs.; young men; mrs. swithin; human beings; wimpole street; mrs. flushing; mr. ramsay; mrs. manresa; sir william; door opened

Anne Enright

new york; per cent; eliza lynch; dear friend; years old; even though; first time; came back; years ago; long time; michael weiss; señor lópez; living room; every time; looked like; could see; one day; said constance; pat madigan; mrs hanratty

Will Self

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; one another; old man; could see; first time; per cent; dave rudman; let alone; front door; young man; skip tracer; quantity theory; jane bowen; los angeles; young woman; either side; charing cross; long since

Flann O’Brien

father fahrt; good fairy; father cobble; said shanahan; mrs crotty; said furriskey; said lamont; mrs laverty; one thing; sergeant fottrell; said slug; old mathers; public house; far away; cardinal baldini; monsignor cahill; mrs furriskey; red swan; black box; said shorty

Ford Madox Ford

henry martin; hugh monckton; edward colman; privy seal; mr. bettesworth; mr. fleight; young man; mr. sorrell; sergius mihailovitch; young lovell; new york; jeanne becquerel; lady aldington; kerr howe; anne jeal; miss peabody; mr. pett; great deal; marie elizabeth; robert grimshaw

Jorge Luis Borges

ts’ui pên; buenos aires; pierre menard; eleventh volume; richard madden; nils runeberg; yiddische zeitung; stephen albert; hundred years; erik lönnrot; firing squad; henri bachelier; madame henri; orbis tertius; vincent moon; paint shop; seventeenth century; anglo-american cyclopaedia; fergus kilpatrick; years ago

Joseph Conrad

mrs. travers; mrs verloc; mrs. fyne; peter ivanovitch; doña rita; miss haldin; mrs. gould; assistant commissioner; charles gould; san tomé; chief inspector; years ago; captain whalley; could see; van wyk; old man; dr. monygham; gaspar ruiz; young man; mr. jones

D.H. Lawrence

young man; st. mawr; mr. may; mrs. witt; blue eyes; miss frost; could see; one another; mrs bolton; ‘all right; come back; said alvina; two men; of course; good deal; long time; mr. george; next day

William Faulkner

uncle buck; aleck sander; miss reba; years ago; dewey dell; mrs powers; could see; white man; four years; old man; ned said; division commander; general compson; miss habersham; new orleans; uncle buddy; let alone; one another; united states; old general

Chris Morris’ Blue Jam Monologues

CW: Everything, all the bad things

Chris Morris’ television show Jam was originally a radio series called Blue Jam, in which five to ten minute ‘sketches’ played out above an ambient soundtrack bed. When it was imported to television, the actors lip-synced to these pre-recordings, intensifying the surreal effect that the show gave off. Jam is subversive, hilarious, absurd and if you’ve never seen it, I’d advise you to keep it that way. Every episode contains at least one thing that is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, let alone the worst thing I’ve ever seen in show that it supposedly a comedy. In one episode, a couple are only slightly irritated that their child has been abducted and murdered, in another, a woman near fatally maims a cyclist in order to have someone to talk to, and in one of the show’s legendarily creepy cold openings, a homeless man is abducted and forced to wrestle pigs for sport. These are some of the milder scenarios of the show’s one-season run.

One of the running sketches that appears in Blue Jam never made the transition into the television show, one in which an unnamed character relates a narrative in monologue. Based on the addictions he outlines, he seems to have a neurological disorder of some kind. We only get snatches of his backstory; his narratives are far too fragmented to provide any specific detail. We might get some bits of information regarding the narrator’s wife and his childhood, but this isn’t to say that can necessarily trust what it is that he says; take this example:

I began to remember the time when I was seven and a gerbil had started swearing at me. Amongst other things it had told me that my dad was having an affair. I told my mum and soon afterwards the family had split up.

While none of these sketches made it into the television show, one of the monologues, in which the narrator is goaded by a talking dog, supposedly acting as his lawyer, goads him into doing various things, was adopted into a short film My Wrongs 8245–8249 & 117 in 2002, starring Paddy Considine. It’s not quite successful however, the original medium in which these sketches appeared, discontinuous monologues within the context of a radio sketch show, are definitely more suited to rendering them. The short film brings the viewer too close to the psychosis by representing the dog as actually talking, and loses the overall effect of having the listener dependent on the narrator’s perspective, however unreliable. Added to all this, it isn’t really one of the best monologues, one has the feeling that the joke is going on for too long.

The most successful pieces are the ones rooted within social comedy while maintaining the surrealist vibe, in such a way that is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett or Flann O’Brien, which has had I think, a far greater impact on UK/Irish comedy than is generally acknowledged. Compare the fundamental uncertainty touched upon in these monologues with the opening of Beckett’s novel Molloy:

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got there thanks to him. He says not.

with the third episode:

I had been in the pub three hours talking to a guy I used to work with named Ian before I realised he wasn’t called Ian at all and I was in the wrong pub. By that stage he was very cross. He poked me in the chest and asked me if I was some kind of puppy squeezer.

And another one because it’s rather good:

I had wandered into a children’s park under the influence of Prozac and I had beaten up an ostrich while several toddlers looked on and cried…I begged a little girl to kill me. She left with her mother shortly afterwards.

It is in the second instalment of the show that the target of Morris’ satire becomes a bit clearer, as the narrator is mistaken for a piece of conceptual art after he goes blind. His blindness is a side-effect of his codeine overdose, it should be noted. Morris is clearly taking aim at 1990’s Britain, and the growth of ‘Cool Britannia,’ not to mention the urban chattering classes who propagate it. In this New Labour era, almost every character the narrator encounters is more a bundle of shallow affectations than a real person; when he is exhibited in an apartment, they are reported as saying things like: ‘this is what art should be. Moving in a relevant way.’ Novelist Will Self even makes a cameo, declaring that he ‘has never seen a more kleptomasturbatory entropoid.’ One can imagine Morris, an increasingly feted, critical darling in this media landscape of this era, casting an eye on his peers who lacked his critical eye regarding the media establishment.

In another, he meets a comedian named Tony at a party, ‘standing next to a huge ice sculpture of his head.’ One thinks of David Baddiel and Rob Newman playing Wembley Stadium, and the belief that British comedy in the nineties was to be ‘the new rock n’ roll’. Merely by being in attendance, the speaker’s career seems to be getting off to a good start:

By the time I got back to the crab tartlets, I had an agent, a transmittable pilot, a five year development deal and someone with a mobile phone told me Jarvis Cocker wanted to meet with me.

The highlight for me, is probably ‘The Suicide Journalist,’ in which a journalist named Clive has announced in his weekly column, his intention to commit suicide, and to document process over a number of weeks. The column is a big hit among the bright young things, who all attempt to impress Clive at a dinner party with tales of their own mental anguish and self-harm: ‘Look at my scars. They are beautiful, but not as beautiful as your columns.’

Goby Jovler (in theory rather than execution) is another probable highlight, as a parody of a vapid Pinter imitation, responsible for a play called Fuckers: ‘critics had said it was the devastatingly accurate play that will ever be written about sex,’ which tackles the subject of urban alienation ‘as a sexual malfunctioning zeitgeist.’

It’s worth reflecting on these sorts of media edifices Morris satirises in amidst the nineties nostalgia arising in our current era of political turmoil, and remembering that, while they might have been a good time for journalists and cocaine users (significant overlap here) they weren’t a golden age of affluence for everyone. The seemingly homeless, indigent and drug-addicted narrator is probably not there are a means of furthering the show’s social critique, but serves as a disembodied presence through which the era, in all of its absurdity, becomes clear. He’s at his best when used as a foil to the absurd commentariat, as in the quotation below:

I said I’d had no money for a bottle of wine and the homeless bloke at the tube station who usually subs me a couple of quid because he says I look worse off than his dog was being mugged when I’d asked him this time, and hadn’t given me a penny. And then I’d got lost because I’d forgotten whether Susie’s house was opposite some trees or opposite no trees at all. Several conversations had started by the time I’d got to that bit.

Will Self’s Umbrella and post-modern modernity

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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.

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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’.

Anne Enright Sesh Part 3: The Green Road

When I went to London, it was important to me that I got to the London Review of Books bookshop. I regularly see the London Review of Books bookshop cakeshop advertised in the London Review of Books, particularly when I want cake, which, true, is most of time. I’m going to go there and get some cake when I’m in London, I always think.

When I got there, I bought a croissant, a coffee and cake (sticky toffee, I believe) all of which tasted much the same as croissant, coffee and cake available on the Emerald Isle. I then went on to fall in love with someone doing not much except sitting and reading, another thing I regularly do in other bookshop cafés closer to home. I went about deciding what book to buy and wondered where it is that Jacqueline Rose or Will Self stands when they give lectures here.

I think I spent about an hour or so doing circuits of the place, trying to figure out what book is the one that you buy when in the London Review of Books bookshop. The shelf stocking method is refreshingly idiosyncratic – rather than having the spines face outward, arranged by size, all running in strict, straight lines, with perhaps the occasional cover facing forward in order to compensate for some troublesome volume that won’t adhere, the books are arranged by genre, alphabetical order and not much else. Spine heights zigzag about the place. This is presumably done in order to simulate the kind of ramshackle, dusty, character-having second-hand bookshop display of a bygone age, which might never have existed, but is nice to think about all the same.

I saw a lot of books I wanted, but none that presented themselves as the one book that you buy when you’re in London, in the London Review of Books bookshop. Mindful of my baggage allowance on the return, I had to be choosy.

I eventually decided the fifth volume of Proust would be the one. I had the first four, Proust was sufficiently prestigious, and may even get the approval of the teller. This would do. While handing it across the till, I saw a display Anne Enright’s The Green Road, in hardback, which I didn’t think was out yet, all signed ‘by the author.’ I changed my mind mid-transaction, and the teller was moderately scandalised.

‘Are you, are you jolly well sure?’ he asked.

‘Yeah man, she’s my favourite living author, it’s signed, no-brainer.’

‘Well it is good, but it’s good in a very silly way, Proust’s world is so rich.’

So here’s the signature, I like that Enright puts a line through her printed name and wrote her own, like a riposte.

 

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There was a brief period of great optimism among progressives in Irish cultural discourse in the early 90’s. This might seem like a digression, and it is, but bear with me. I don’t have a whole lot of first-hand evidence, my political imaginary wasn’t exactly honed back then, but there is a certain tenor struck in a number of academic publications of the time, books written on the New Voices in Irish fiction, discussing the work of the young up-and-coming writers coming to international prominence, such as Colm Tóibín, the aforementioned Enright and Roddy Doyle. I think that this optimism can be largely attributed to Mary Robinson becoming president at the end of 1990 (or an IRA ceasefire which seemed conclusive at the time), an event which, for many of these academics, (bless them), surely heralded the coming of an Irish socialist matriarchal utopia. This was before the X case, tribunals, and revelations about the Magdalene laundries and child sexual abuse within the church reminded us all how awful we really are.

Much of what these books narrate is the spaces that the new ‘Robinsonian politics’ open up and there is furthermore, much discussion of ‘the fifth province’ and preliminary murmurs of Celtic Tiger discourse. These concerns all get to the heart of The Green Road’s broader societal themes. First, both of Rosaleen’s sons, Emmet and Dan, form a part of that diaspora symbolised in the light in the window kept in Áras an Uachtaráin. For the cosmopolitan Dan and the politically informed Emmet, Old Ireland is an irrelevance and an embarrassment respectively. This comes across when Emmet inwardly apologises to his Kenyan housemate Denholm for not inviting him to Christmas dinner in Ardeevin: “I am sorry. I can not invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad.

The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill once wrote on the rejection of the sentimentalised figure of Cathleen Ní Houlihan/Dark Rosaleen, saying that she’ll do “anything just to keep this batty old woman quiet.” Ciarán Carson translates this line through his own prism and gives it quite a bit more emphasis, if not necessarily weight:

“anything, anything at all

To get this old bitch to shut the fuck up.”

It can be hard not to envision Rosaleen Madigan’s character as existing in this continuity of writing back against the embarrassing personification of Ireland as a ghoulish old crone, keening mournful demands that the blood of young men be spilled so that she can regain her lost youth. But in The Green Road, we don’t want ‘this old bitch to shut the fuck up,’ Rosaleen gets some of the best lines and scenes in the whole novel, (followed closely by Emmet (‘Mind the Belleek!’)).

I held off on reading The Green Road for a while, despite devouring any and every review of the thing, because I was afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as The Gathering. I was anxious that the conversations The Green Road was having with other texts wouldn’t come off. Just as Rosaleen’s name harkens back to some foundational myths of modern Ireland, her plans to divide the monies acquired through the selling of some land that she owns aswell as her frequent reprimands to her offspring for their perceived ungratefulness evokes King Lear and thereby The Green Road amounts to an ambitious interfolding of Saxon and Irish mythology, or perhaps more to the point, the blending of William Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats.

One is tempted, when reading such an allegorically flirtatious text, (see also, Hood, Ulysses) to find neat little correspondences for every last detail. My favourite one as regards King Lear was Rosaleen’s daughter Constance describing an affair that she had had years ago:

“’I thought, you know, it would be like jumping off a cliff,’ she said. ‘The big leap.’

‘And?’

‘It was like landing in a fucking puddle. A bit of a splash, that’s all. It was like standing out in the goddamn rain.’”

This chimes with the scene in King Lear in which a disguised Edgar tricks his blind father Gloucester, into thinking that he stands at a cliff-edge, perfectly suited to bring about the death that Gloucester wishes for. Gloucester jumps off a not-very- steep verge and Edgar has to presumably change his voice in order to pretend to be someone else at the base of a cliff, amazed to have seen a man landing in front of him and survive. At a number of points in The Green Road, various members of the Madigan family think of jumping off the nearby cliffs. Hanna imagines doing so with her baby in her arms:

“they twisted slowly in the black air, drifting towards the sea, and then hitting the sea. The water was hard and the baby bounced up out of her arms and they were swamped and sank, both of them, and even that sinking was just a slower fall, as they turned and found each other, and lost each other again.”

The register here is bizarrely epiphanic, with Hanna fantasising about emancipation from her failing career as an actress, her alcoholism and her sensed duty to raise her son responsibility to raise her son, while engaging in a gesture that she seems to believe is a loving one, in some way. Rosaleen thinks similar thoughts, though as more a vindictive reproach to her children.

It’s fairly obvious that the analogues aren’t totally neat, their half-echoes and distorted resonances play in suggestive ways, depending on how long you want to stare at words on a page for. I was fairly sure Constance would be a Cordelia analogue, Lear’s only non-scheming and favourite, daughter. The name was also a bit of a hint. But Constance’s constancy is more a cause of Rosaleen’s ire; Constance’s self-sacrificing gestures just get on her nerves. The mutually assured destruction of their relationship is just one of my many, many favourite things about this novel, they truly sing like birds i’ th’ cage.

Many parts do gel rather neatly. It is during the storm scene in Lear that we begin to feel some sympathy towards Lear, the autocratic patriarch. This is, at least, what was drilled into me by my Leaving Certificate teacher. Lear studies the disguised Edgar and becomes enraptured by his feigned suffering, displaying the kind of sustained interest visible heretofore only when he engages with his flattering daughters at court. Whether it is the case that one feels sympathetic for Lear in this scene, before or after, is beside the point, I think that its analogue in The Green Road, when Rosaleen walks along the green road on Christmas Day, remembering a conversation with her husband while they were young and ‘courting,’ is certainly the first time we feel sympathetic for Rosaleen. And it is, like the storm scene, utterly unsparing and very, very raw:

“What did it mean, when the man you loved was gone? A part of his body inside your own body and his arms wrapped about you. What happened when all of that was in the earth, deep down in the cemetery clay?

Nothing happened. That is what happened.”

I read what follows in a way that I don’t remember having read anything for years, that is, my eyes moving too quickly over the words to track the significance of each one, or even what the sentences were cumulatively up to, because I was so eager to find out what happened next. I can’t remember the last time I read a book where the momentum of the plot coalesced so successfully with verbiage of the highest order of pulchritude.

Read this book.

Hypertext and Textuality

The current trend within literary studies is to define a text as being a discontinuous, contradictory and open-ended entity. In Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992), George P. Landow argues that there is a continuity between these traits that are ascribed to text, as put forward by theorists such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and how hypertextual literature actually functions. For Landow, what these theorists have in common in that they “argue we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of centre, margin, hierarchy and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks.”[1] This nebulous approach  as regards hypertext is fitting because what is innovative about hypertextual narrative is that it contains links that allow a reader to click on a particular word and arrive at a different part of the text. Other navigational aids can also be a part of a hypertext’s interface. Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) allows the reader can click on different parts of the Patchwork Girl’s anatomy. The reader is exposed to different lexia or units of text depending on how they navigate and therefore, each reader could ostensibly have a quantifiably different experience of reading the narrative. For Landow, this constitutes a breakthrough in textual theory and means that the theories of the poststructuralist critics mentioned above are vindicated.

Landow identifies Barthes writings in S/Z as productive in describing how hypertext creates meaning. For Barthes:

the good of literary work…is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. Our literature is characterised by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of its text and its user…between its author and its reader.[2]

What Barthes is describing here is the familiar idea of the death of the author. Under this schema, the intention of the author in the creation of meaning is marginalised in favour of the reader’s ability to read the text in a more unrestricted way. When reading a hypertext, the reader is allowed freedom of movement within a textual network. The reader is allegedly emancipated from the tyranny of linear, sequential reading and is free instead to plot their own course and develop their own understanding.

This presents the question as to whether pre-hypertextual narratives did not allow the reader free reign of interpretation. A pre-digital or analogue text that may prove illuminating in this context is J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country (1977). The novel is narrated by Magda, an unmarried South African woman living in the veld. Magda is an unreliable narrator and often informs the reader directly that what she is saying is not necessarily to be believed. It is also possible for the reader to notice inaccuracies for herself. On more than one occasion, Magda describes murdering or assisting in the murder of her father in a number of different ways, yet he appears to be alive at points following on from these various murders and also by the end of the narrative. The novel is arranged into lexia in much the same way that hypertexts are. They are rarely longer than a few paragraphs and are numbered, from “1.,” at the start of the novel, to “265.” at the end. Also, like hypertexts, they are non-sequential; the narrative thread that the reader follows depends on their own view of the events that Magda narrates. Perhaps Magda did succeed in murdering her father at the start of the novel and everything that follows after is a contrivance, a justification or a fantasy. Or maybe it is the other way around, and Magda is, as he suggests that she is at times, making the whole thing up.

At first glance In The Heart of the Country may not be visibly replete with links or concordances in the same way that Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, a story (1990) is but this is to underestimate the ability of the reader to recall links that in analogue novels are more subtly embedded, in descriptive motifs or in imagery. For example, when Magda is narrating, she will often use language that relates to knitting or braiding textiles: “When I was a little girl (weave, weave!)”[3] and “More detail I cannot give unless I begin to embroider, for I was not watching.”[4] This is used to draw attention to the gap that exists between events as the really happened and how amenable they are to being related in narrative form. If In The Heart of the Country was to have a hypertextual interface, uses of the word ‘weave,’ ‘braid’ or ‘embroider,’ would presumably be linked, in the same way that the hypertextual concordance of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is. This would have the effect of concretising or making overt the more subtle connotations of word usage. In short, it would be an interpretative mechanism that would, rather than lift the restrictions on the reader to form individual impressions of the text, coerce them into particular readings that are pre-ordained by being constructed within the hypertext.

Landow conceives of hypertexts as having an encyclopaedic functionality, wherein each word would provide the reader with related information that would in turn branch off in different directions ad infinitum. One of the examples he presents is a hypertextual edition of a novel by Charles Dickens that would provide a historical background, such as information on child mortality, harsh conditions within factories of the time and a history of nineteenth-century London that informs so much of Dickens’ writing. What is problematic about this amount of information being contained within a hypertext is a similar one to the point raised about the overt interleaving of words with one another; it is an interpretative act that would incline the reader towards a socio-historical or Marxist critique of the text. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, of course, but rather than leaving the reader open to pursuing their own autonomous lines of inquiry, interpretations are instead codified into the structure of the text they are reading.

Despite hypertext seeming to be a proof for literary critics who in their theories view text as having neither centre nor periphery, the question is whether hypertext really is a proof, or indeed if this really needs to be proven. Is it instead the case that hypertext is codified to be labyrinthine and interconnected and therefore a visualisation of the kind of text that Barthes describes in S/Z. This is not to say that hypertext is wholly without merit or does not present the critic with useful means of analysing texts, particularly literary works that pre-date the advent of computation to which hypertexts are heavily indebted. The aforementioned Patchwork Girl contains references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913) by L. Frank Baum and also includes a number of quotations from the writings of Jacques Derrida. The title of Afternoon, a story (1990) is derived from a line in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), a short story about contingency, infinity and concatenation.[5] The sustained engagement of authors of hypertexts with canonical predecessors can be seen in more recent examples of the form, as in Will Self’s digital essay Kafka’s Wound (2012), which borrows both from Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller. While hypertext may not have much to offer to contemporary textual theory other than a fabricated proof of the infinite referential potential of any given signifier and differential networks of meaning et al., it is perhaps in theories of media or film theory in which it can prove rewarding or productive. Kafka’s Wound, as an example of hypermedia rather than hypertext may serve as a good example of the kind of meaning that is generated when different forms are so closely interlinked and connected, something that could be understood as being truly innovative or at least to some extent without precedent.

[1]Landow, George P., Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (The John Hopkins University Press: 1992), p.2

[2]Ibid, p.4

[3]Coetzee, J.M., In The Heart of the Country (Vintage: 1999), p.6

[4] Ibid, p.1

[5] Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths (Penguin Classics: 2000), p.48

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths (Penguin: 2000)

Coetzee, J.M., In The Heart of the Country (Vintage: 1999)

Jackson Shelley, Patchwork Girl (Eastgate Systems: 1995)

Joyce, James, Ulysses (Vintage: 1993) http://www.doc.ic.ac.uk/~rac101/concord/texts/ulysses/

Joyce, Michael, Afternoon, a Story (Eastgate Systems: 1990)

Self, Will, Kafka’s Wound: A Digital Literary Essay by Will Self (London Review of Books: 2012) http://thespace.lrb.co.uk/

 Secondary Sources

Gabler, Hans Walter, ‘The Segments and the Whole: An Aspect of Joyce’s Art of Construction,’ (Modernist Versions Project: 2012) http://web.uvic.ca/~mvp1922/gabler/

Greetham, D.C., Theories of the Text (Oxford University Press: 1999)

Landow, George P., Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (The John Hopkins University Press: 1992)

Schreibman, Susan, Siemens, Ray & Unsworth, John, A Companion to Digital Humanities (Blackwell Publishing: 2004)

Siemens, Ray & Schreibman, Susan (Editors), A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Blackwell Publishing: 2007)