To go on a starvation diet in terms of the comma (including the inverted ones that designate speech), as Eimear McBride does in her remarkable, harshly satisfying first novel, may not seem a particularly drastic discipline, set beside such feats as eliminating the letter ‘e’ (Perec’s La Disparition, Englished by Gilbert Adair as A Void) or telling Ophelia’s side of the story using only the words Shakespeare allots her (Paul Griffiths’s Let Me Tell You). McBride compensates by scattering full stops with a liberal, raisin-loaf-making hand, but her avoidance of commas is enough to shake up other conventions.
Commas bred freely in the favourable conditions of proto and early modernism. The priority for many writers seemed to be to defer grammatical closure for as long as possible, subjecting direct statement to parentheses and qualifications of every kind, and keeping the maximum number of plates spinning with flicks of punctuation. It would do Henry James’s vision more violence to translate his books into an English deprived of intermediate stops than to render them in a comma-rich Esperanto. The novels of Proust and Mann would lose much of their intellectual flavour if commas were rationed. Céline took away the sting of finality from the full stop itself with his obsessive use of the ellipsis, making it a sort of super-comma – the equivalent of Tristram Shandy’s dashes. A reluctance to abide by the arbitrary curfew of the sentence-end or paragraph-end is strong in Broch, Bernhard, Bolaño.
There were short sentences before Hemingway, but it was Hemingway who made the short sentence part of both a literary and a moral agenda, a matter of looking at the world frontally and without distracting elaboration, of seeing things as they are, as if words could ever do that, and giving precedence to described actions over spelled-out feelings. Hard-bitten understatement became a way of being in the world without illusions. Short sentences in this tradition have an impersonality that codes itself as male (odd that you can disown personality while continuing to insist on gender).
Hemingway’s style, with its anti-aestheticising aesthetic, is still influential. Cormac McCarthy dispenses with the apostrophe in shortened forms like ‘doesnt’ and ‘wouldnt’, though the need for clarity requires him to keep it in ‘can’t’, with the result that the impression of imperative sparseness suffers, chafing so inconsistently against typographical convention. (James Kelman has the same parsimonious way with an apostrophe.) If the short sentence can be characterised as masculine, that doesn’t mean that the long sentence is any less so, symbolically, even if Joyce, in the final section of Ulysses, proposed Molly Bloom’s endless unpunctuated flow as an archetype of femininity, a visionary notion at the time even if it has come to seem rather quaint.
Reversing the formal procedure of Molly Bloom’s monologue, chopping up its continuousness with frequent full stops, putting the emphasis on sentence fragments, would give some sense of the impact of McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing:
It’s only the first time. After that it’s just. The ordinary. Do it. And think no more about it why can’t you? Kiss a man. Without going and marrying him. First. You sometimes love to. Wildly. When you feel that way. So nice. All. Over. You. You can’t help yourself. I wish some man. Or other. Would take me sometime. When he’s there. And kiss me in his arms. There’s nothing like a kiss. Long. And hot. Down. To your soul. Almost. Paralyses you.
Even with this drastic syncopation Molly is more at peace with her emotions than McBride’s unnamed narrator, who often shoots out sentences that are as blocked in their rhythm as they are molten in feeling.
In the earlier, day-lit episodes of Ulysses, Joyce used sentence fragments to cue transitions from narration to interior monologue. A passage like this of McBride’s is recognisably of that lineage: ‘That water. Smells like onions. Growing in the hot tap. Flake of scale there. Mine. Rough skin. Scalp. Hard water soap doesn’t lather and shampoo going down the drain. Gully lets the cold in like an open door.’ The difference is that McBride’s book is all interior monologue, with only incidental description of any outside world, and fragmentary sentences outnumber full ones. Speech is faithfully notated, and sometimes also the not-speech that Joyce treated with hardly less respect, in the case of sea sounds or a cat’s voracious miaowing. ‘Thoo pthoo’, for example, mimics the dental and plosive sounds made when someone spits out stray strands of tobacco while smoking a roll-up.
There’s a ‘you’ in the book as constant as the ‘I’: the narrator’s brother, addressed from inside the womb on the opening pages. Birth is seen as a diminishment of faculty (‘I saw less with these flesh eyes’) if not a fall from grace: ‘Dividing from the sweet of mother flesh that could not take me in again.’ Before ‘I’ was born ‘you’ had already had cancer, either halted by the wonder-working power of prayer – the mother’s chosen version – or else gone into remission after aggressive therapy (‘Scared and bald and wet the bed’). ‘I’ can feel the tumour lurking, ‘cosy kernelled in your head’, though the mother, choosing not to see, has ‘turned her good eyes blind’.
The word Hugh Kenner chose in The Stoic Comedians to describe the style of phrasemaking in Ulysses was ‘unmortared’. Joyce brought together words that seemed to have no affinity and made them fit flush against each other, leaving no gap. He built dry-stone walls of language, held up by their own weight. That isn’t at all McBride’s approach. There’s a lot of give in every sentence, and a refusal to be bound by formal grammar. Her prose couldn’t reasonably be described as vague – perhaps indeterminate is the better word. There’s a reluctance to yield up exact meanings that is reminiscent of poetry, but she’s not lyrical, and she avoids the stasis that announces poetic moments, the halo of hush around beauty.
McBride is closer in her aesthetic to Jack Butler Yeats than to William, with her preference for smudges and streaks, abrupt smears of language, her avoidance of the sort of brush-stroke that vanishes, its job done, into the likeness of the thing represented. Her prose has a tactile, built-up texture, so perhaps what she holds in her hand is a palette knife rather than a brush.
This is an extreme prose idiom, but extremity isn’t exciting in itself, only when it’s well controlled. The prevailing shortness of the sentences puts a limit on how far the reading eye can stray. The navigation may not be the easiest, but you’re never more than a few words away from the marker buoy of a full stop. McBride takes the biggest risks in the shortest sentences: ‘My thud cheeks up’ , say, or ‘Chew it lurks me.’ Those who have read E.E. Cummings’s poem ‘Anyone lived in a pretty how town’ (with up so floating many bells down) know how quickly inverted formulations and games with parts of speech can become twee. It doesn’t happen here.
One of the effects of the constantly broken rhythm is that any sustained utterance becomes shocking in itself. At one point the mother launches into a half-page list of complaints about her son, starting: ‘He’s got this job and he won’t drive but won’t get a lift with yer one and he won’t give me his pay now and won’t move to his own and he won’t help around the house and he won’t fill the buckets clean the fire and his bin is full of sweets and he’s getting tub now …’ It’s as if she’s giving birth to a whale among all these thrashing and broken-backed sprats. Elsewhere, prayers have a solidity and weight unlike anything in the narrator’s own experience. They seem to be made of marble, oppressive or comforting in their hardness of outline.
This timeless provincial Ireland of suffering, sentiment and bigotry, with sexual shame both a form of background radiation and a recurrent lightning-strike, risks seeming generic:
In the post office they’d say he was a real type of gent. Held doors for women. Kind to dumb animals. Gave generously to the plate on Sundays and could teach you a thing or two about a godly life. Gave up the drink for his mother on her deathbed. Bad he was and all with it. He says himself it was the hardest thing he ever did but if you’re bad to your mother you’ll never have luck. He doesn’t know about that but he knows what’s right. Never touched a drop again after. All those children too and each one a regular communicant.
There are few novels that even try to broker their reality without a heavy reliance on detail, the established preference being for the deluge of specificities, as if one more brand name would finally do the trick. Here the period of the setting emerges only obliquely. An early reference to a man’s hair being gelled rather than oiled suggests the 1980s, a hint confirmed when the narrator’s new schoolmates listen to their personal stereos: ‘Those herd. Such bovine singing heifers. Come don’t hate me. All your walkmans fizz in tune.’ The Encyclopaedia Britannica the narrator consults is recent enough to have an entry on ‘sexism’.
It’s at school that ‘I’ learns to separate emotionally from her brother, who can’t compete intellectually. She doesn’t stay the younger sibling for long. He longs for ‘the comrade nudge of adulation’ but she can’t bear watching him being mocked as he tries to play football during the lunch break:
That bad eye I know cannot keep up with a ball nor does it see one of them and his doing you for the crowd. Behind your back. For their laughter is a mighty thing to invoke. Your little limp. Sometimes the way you shake your head. It’s brilliant that the worst one on the whole field doesn’t know it. See him do it. For their roaring. For their great lads fun.
A virtual first-person narration in fiction is like a video camera at the central character’s shoulder. A true first person is like a handheld camera, only this one is like a micro-camera attached to the narrator’s head, facing in new directions with every nod and nervous movement. Other characters, including the mother and brother, are consistently developed but can never be free-standing in a book written like this. And though it may be an exaggeration to say that you get used to this way of writing, you learn to trust it.
Young writers are routinely advised to find their voice, but for Irish writers voice is as much the problem as anything else. To indulge the national stereotype of garrulousness is one sort of trap, but it’s possible to react against it too much. Dublin talk is a big part of what keeps Ulysses afloat, with even the supposedly repellent figure of Buck Mulligan failing to cloy as he’s meant to, though its disembodied voices aren’t enough to give Finnegans Wake much in the way of breath and a pulse. You could see Beckett’s career as a long struggle against his own charm and eloquence. His intermittent practice of writing texts in French rather than English was a drastic sort of blarney filter, debarring him from parochial material and quirks of speech. Yet he never quite abandoned the cadence, the fall of a sentence shaped by a breath, without which his negations would lose their vitality. Even in How It Is, no picnic for the reader, he doesn’t outlaw the consolations of rhythm from his prose: ‘the fingers deceived the mouth resigned to an olive and given a cherry but no preference no searching not even for a language meet for me meet for here no more searching.’ As to whether it’s admissible to combine a rigorous philosophical pessimism with the ghost of a lilt, well, that’s either the clinching proof of Beckett’s humanity or a bit of a cheat, depending on your point of view. In stage works he fought to limit the actors’ potential for expressiveness: just you try winking across the footlights when playing Mouth in Not I, with only a small area of your face left visible. He went to great lengths to strip the humanity from the speaker in that play, who possesses nothing but the words she disowns (by making out she’s recounting someone else’s experience), and then reconstituted it in the neuter figure of a listener downstage audience left – the Auditor – who raises ungendered arms at specified moments in ‘a gesture of helpless compassion’.
Coming after Joyce and Beckett, archetypes of plenitude and abstention, was for generations of writers (not just Irish ones, of course), something that combined the difficulties late 19th-century composers faced after Wagner with those their 20th-century successors experienced following Webern. Where to go when all the options from extreme expansiveness to utmost compression have been explored and contradicted? Of course there’s nothing to prove that McBride has given Beckett a moment’s thought, though given that she studied at Drama Centre London, according to the back flap of the book, it seems likely that she’s given him more than a moment.
She opens up space where there shouldn’t really be any, by bruising the cadence and roughening up the grammar. The charged inconclusiveness of ‘I look him back from looking right at me,’ for instance, reproduces those aspects of the encounter. A group scene can be rendered more or less all at once: ‘People stoking up the range and crossing over teapot stretch to pour a pan of sausage out.’ The book is much fuller in its intensely cohesive fragmentation than a more conventionally finished literary product. The overlapping emotions don’t settle down, and combine differently on rereading. McBride takes particular risks with her presentation of dialogue, withholding not just the marks that Joyce called ‘perverted commas’ but any help from the layout of the page. James Kelman indents his dialogue as a matter of course, and Irvine Welsh, following Joyce, accords his readers the additional courtesy of the French-style dash. McBride lets the registers mix within the paragraph, with results that are mostly worth the effort: ‘I make my breakfast. Eat that. Don’t look. Don’t be letting my face get warm. I’ve done worse much more times again but. Drink up. Say I am going out. But love. But love. So much to do. Sandwiches and cakes. All hands on deck. Too many Mammy in here. Anyway you know well I can’t cook.’ The repeated ‘But love’ turns out to be the mother’s reproach to her daughter for selfishness, muted for company’s ears, yet it isn’t entirely divided from the sense it first seemed to have.
At 15 and 16, McBride’s ‘I’ and her best friend lose themselves in books and fantasise accordingly: ‘Read Milton and feeling moved discuss the heavens and the earth and the film stars we’d do with a chance.’ Then there’s Scott Fitzgerald: ‘know that I must drop the F. Think American twenties just divine and I’d be Zelda if I could. Think suffering’s worth it. To be mad a fine exciting thing to be for those short times in those mad years. Wearing pearls and drink champagne and bob my hair and show my knees.’ There’s something a little jarring about the relative richness of detail here, or perhaps it’s just the surprise of authors having names when family members don’t. The light dropping-in of ‘suffering’s worth it’ is relatively conventional irony-building by McBride’s standards.
Perhaps these innocuous literary references don’t quite fit because the book itself is so laudably unliterary, in its favouring of the provisional over the definitive. First and second thoughts jostle against each other, in ‘Where God is looking in he isn’t if he was’ or ‘Your will be done not mine no let mine let mine.’ ‘Half-formed’ certainly earns its place in the title, though the chosen clause has a misleading whimsicality, a jauntiness very foreign to a book that is exhilarating to read despite its predominantly negative emotions. These sentences seem to have been grown from seed, without reference to previous traditions of putting words together. Even when there’s a strong convergence with Beckett (‘Go on go on you can go on’) it seems remarkably unselfconscious, less a matter of stepping in someone’s footprints than of sharing a shoe size. In recent years ownership of the Irish-inflected ‘go on’ has been a sort of tug-of-war between the ending of Beckett’s The Unnamable (‘You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’) and the wheedling housekeeper in Father Ted played by Pauline McLynn. It’s nice to feel confident that Mrs Doyle’s victory won’t be permanent.
By virtue of not being ‘correct’ McBride’s writing doesn’t have the alienating effect that comes when an educated manner is used to handle highly charged material. The beauty of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man becomes over-sleek towards the end, and no doubt this is part of the design, to indicate that Stephen needs to be laid open by new experiences before he can fulfil himself. The final shift to diary form breaks up the rhythms and allows for a more conflicted rhetoric. McBride herself tries to pull out yet more stops towards the end of the novel. Violence to the person of the narrator is accompanied by violence done to the font, with upper-case letters bursting out in the middle of words. But there seems no point in McBride reaching for another gear when she’s been in overdrive a lot of the time since page one and just barely holding the road. If your technique is adequate to evoke the experience of a foetus sitting in the womb, already knowing her brother has cancer, it’s up to most things and shouldn’t be tinkered with. There’s also a shrewd, reader-conscious side of McBride canny enough to step back when her volatile book threatens to get out of control. The mother may be referred to as ‘she’ in early sections but she becomes ‘our mother’ or ‘Mammy’ at family gatherings where a little more help is called for. In a crucial passage of dialogue late in the book McBride briefly recants her page-layout protocol and indents for clarity.
If every book was as intense as this, reading literature would be even more of a minority pursuit than it is already. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing makes that rapturous lament By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept look like Hotel du Lac. But then you wouldn’t want to go to Not I every night of the week. It’s hard to imagine another narrative that would justify this way of telling, but perhaps McBride can build another style from scratch for another style of story. That’s a project for another day, when this little book is famous.