What might be the relationship between a truncated sentence and a truncated life? What drives syntax askew, makes language stall completely or spill over its proper borders, mess with itself? We have become used to thinking of modernism as an early 20th-century European crisis of representation provoked by the collapse of empires and impending war, when the seemingly fixed barriers of class, gender and racial privilege started to implode. In fact, for one influential version of this account, the crisis begins earlier, in 1848, when revolutions across Europe shredded the belief of the bourgeoisie that they were the class of progress. Up to that point, it was possible to see language as immune to social and political contradictions, lord of all it surveyed, blind to the role it plays in shaping a world it claimed merely, and innocently, to reflect. Modernist writing, famously difficult, is the appropriate form for that crisis. Most simply, it brings to an end the illusion that either language or the world can be made safe.
When Eimear McBride burst onto the literary scene in 2013 with her first published novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, she proudly trailed James Joyce in her wake, claiming her allegiance to a European modernism which some have argued, wrongly I would say, has been betrayed by most of today’s fiction, in the UK at least (as if literature had prematurely taken the path of Brexit). McBride has stated firmly that she wishes to be considered a European writer: ‘I’d like to set up my stall as a European writer … I probably belong in the diaspora set because I only have clarity from a distance.’ At the same time, speaking about this extraordinary second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, she has lamented the dearth – even in the modernist tradition she rejoins and celebrates – of anything approaching an adequate exploration of the perils and pleasures of sex. The lack is especially glaring in relation to women. Only when she read Edna O’Brien did she understand that ‘there was a part of women’s lives that had been absent in everything I had read.’ ‘Bored’ (her word) with the way sex is mostly written about, she has now given us two novels in which language falls apart under the pressure of sex. And violence. After all, sex and violence are two experiences that tend to leave people lost for words (Hannah Arendt described violence as ‘mute’). In McBride’s hands, they re-find their natural affinity, together precipitating a crisis of speech. She is the writer of sexual abuse, now recognised as one of the hallmarks of the new century.
In The Lesser Bohemians, the clue is planted early. The relationship between the two protagonists begins with an argument about whether Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s The Devils is responsible for driving the 11-year-old he rapes to suicide: ‘At least he acknowledges what he did wrong. What does that matter once the irreparable’s done? But he’s sorry. Even if he is, so what? Forgiveness. He’s not entitled to that. Why? Because the child’s still dead.’ There are of course traces of dimly remembered abuse in Virginia Woolf, ghostly visions in corridors, shadows that fall across the page. The woman speaker of Beckett’s Not I is haunted by some ugly, not quite spoken event. And something that’s never named happens to May Sinclair’s young Harriet Frean down the lane where her parents do not want her to go. With McBride, it is all up front (in your face, as one might say). Seen in this light, the familiar account of modernism starts to look a bit coy or straitlaced. What fucks up language is fucking – good, bad or indifferent. In The Lesser Bohemians, there is scarcely a page untouched by the linguistic fall-out of sex. Joyce may have shown McBride that, ‘you could do whatever you wanted with language and that the rules didn’t apply,’ but he doesn’t go here. In Ulysses, Molly Bloom’s euphoric self-affirmation is too lyrical, Gerty MacDowell’s allusions to menstruation too seemly and quaint. McBride has said that her aim is ‘to make language cope with and more fully describe that part of life that is destroyed once it begins to get put into straightforward grammatical language’. ‘Destroyed’ is crucial. Nearly all her characters are in recovery. They do not all make it. In contrast to Girl, The Lesser Bohemians ends on an upbeat, but, given all that has gone before, the reader is left unsure. What, given half a chance, are bodies capable of doing to each other? More or less single-handed, McBride has taken us back to the experiment of modernism and ushered it into an eviscerating new phase: ‘Guts to gorge’. ‘Flesh scraping fear against the Do of my brain’. ‘Then I am back in the world and must understand again how to cover my bones with my skin.’
The Lesser Bohemians is a love story narrated through the mind of an 18-year-old girl from Dublin who comes to London to take up a place at drama school, and falls wildly in love with an established actor more than twice her age. Readers of Girl would be forgiven for not expecting a tale of heterosexual passion to have been McBride’s next move, especially a tale courting more than one cliché: man initiates girl into sex, older man with a girl the age of his own daughter, women who take pleasure in pain – ‘I like of his upon me whatever marks he’s made’ (early in their relationship he refuses her request to sodomise her, then at the end relents). Or even for seeing this as a betrayal of the first novel, whose unnamed narrator, after a lifetime of abuse and the sexual self-harm which is its consequence, takes herself off to the river after her beloved brother’s funeral and drowns (as one feminist paradigm would have it: the abuse of girls by men leads to death). Grief is key, taking its place alongside sex and violence as another experience that brings language shuddering to a halt (you choke on grief). McBride describes herself as a feminist – ‘Decisively so.’ A 13-year-old allowing a 41-year-old ‘to do what he wants to her will probably feel complicity in that act, but is not and cannot be’. But the victim narrative is misleading. The girl also goes on to choose her fate. McBride insists on her agency: ‘Now the reader may not find that the girl has become – and I shudder to say it – “a better person” by the end of the book, but she has, undeniably, become herself.’ Nonetheless, by no stretch of the imagination, can this be seen as a happy ending (the last line of Girl is: ‘My name is gone.’)
By contrast, from the very first page, The Lesser Bohemians makes its lilting bid for life: ‘Here’s to be for its life is the bite and would be start of mine.’ These lines then track through the first part of the novel as a refrain: ‘I will make myself of life here for life is this place and would be start of mine’; ‘What this pleasant present lacks. I will it, hope and dream it. Fine my life’ll be when it comes. When I am right. When I have made myself. When I have. When I’. London is the scene: McBride has described the novel as ‘her love letter to London’: ‘Here’s London spread out for you,’ ‘And I stand strick by its great space.’ Specifically we are in the streets, pubs, clubs and letting houses of North-West London – Camden, Kentish Town – in the 1990s (with occasional references to the IRA, ‘Pakis’ and the poor of the East End). One way of reading The Lesser Bohemians would be as girl given a second chance. The allusion is clear: the female protagonist of the novel wakes from a dream of a drowning girl. We have moved from the suffocating and fraudulent moralism of Catholic family life in Dublin to free-wheeling London where promiscuity, instead of incurring damnation, is more or less the norm. This shift of place, of tone and mood should put paid to the idea that, in her second novel, McBride has repeated herself.
What is constant is McBride’s unswerving commitment to unplugged syntax as it veers between common and uncommon sense. But while Girl was virtually no commas and all stops, commas proliferate in the new book, one of whose most striking syntactic tics is the use of elongated, unfilled spaces between words. It is the difference between a voice that doesn’t pause for breath, stopping and starting in its tracks, and blanks as a way of registering what can barely be spoken. In such moments, the more conventional ellipses would, it seems, have cluttered the spaces too much: ‘like not being fine was alright was fine was how it should be’ (the repetition – ‘alright’, ‘fine’ ‘how it should be’ – underscoring that it was clearly not fine at all). Or again: ‘But do not find so do not ask. Especially about the little girl who is not. And this greater swathe that she cuts through his life, what is its what can it mean?’ (at this point in the story she knows almost nothing about his relationship to his daughter). To the question of Girl – how to speak when the worst has happened? – The Lesser Bohemians adds another: to whom do we tell our stories, especially those we cannot bear to tell ourselves? Girl is a type of inner monologue (with the proviso that she is also almost always addressing her brother). As if partly in response, The Lesser Bohemians sets a different challenge: how on earth does anyone ever manage to talk to somebody else? How close in language can, or should, you try to get? The issues of sexual, and of linguistic, proximity turn out to be one and the same thing. McBride has said that in writing and rewriting the novel, she was most worried about the representation of sex: ‘Actually,’ she then qualifies, ‘it was really about trying to maintain the connection between the inner life and the physical life.’ What makes this novel so powerful is the way she jams the bodies into the speech (another reason why, as others have pointed out, we have never been given sex quite like this before).
Roughly halfway through The Lesser Bohemians Stephen tells his story to Eily (it takes seventy pages). It is his confession – although the content could not be more different, the allusion to Stavrogin’s confession prepared the ground. Since they are named for the first time after he has done so, the message would seem to be that only when you can bring yourself to talk to another can you ever hope to find yourself. Critics who have objected to the way the novel’s voice divides at this point, or see Stephen’s narrative as ‘hijacking’ the narrative, or inconsistent with the novel’s form, are therefore missing the point. The reader of Girl has no cover. There is nowhere for her or him to go other than inside the narrator’s thoughts. The Lesser Bohemians is suggesting on the other hand that in order to survive, you must be more than one. Unlike the continuous present of Girl, the protagonists of The Lesser Bohemians arrive at something like a moment of truth when ‘The past sits forward and the cold comes pouring in.’ They have each been warding off this moment for their own reasons but it marks the shift between the casual sex they had been enjoying and not enjoying up until then, and their full-blown love affair. This, we could say, is the unconscious contract between them (as indeed between many couples). It is what they have been gearing up for – and what the reader has been primed to expect – from the start: ‘Mess is why we’re here.’ ‘How were you fucked up? Let me count the ways!’
According to one psychoanalytic theory, mother-son incest is worse than father-daughter, because somewhere in the great cosmic and social scheme of things, girls are meant to be wooed by their fathers into a heterosexuality to which their own deepest impulses would not otherwise take them. The dire heteronormative view of women’s destiny is therefore tinged with a radical streak (nature has nothing to do with it, girls have to be more or less forced into their role). Mother-son incest, on the other hand, is catastrophic (psychosis-inducing), yanking boys beneath the social radar altogether since their psychological task is to break away from their mothers if they are to have any chance of becoming ‘men’. Just to be clear, this does not mean that it is good for 13-year-old girls to be seduced by 41-year-old men, or indeed 18-year-olds by men of 38. If the distance between 13 and 18, from Girl to The Lesser Bohemians makes all the difference, McBride must have been aware that she runs the ages of the protagonists in the two novels perilously close to each other. Like girl, Eily has been abused as a young girl, in this case by a male friend of her mother, who remains in denial even when Eily confronts her near the end of the book. Momentarily, she also tries on girl’s response to trauma by seeking out sex as degradation and terror: ‘Devil at my navel. Devil at my breast.’ ‘And why shouldn’t I reject my scum-rid history and wherever I’m wanted, go?’ ‘And how much do I already know I can take?’
But alongside Eily’s past, it is Stephen’s shocking story of his repeated seduction as a young boy by a violent mother which takes up the most space (shocking not as in necessarily worse but less familiar or less often told). Although more or less out of her head most of the time, the mother knew exactly what she was doing: ‘I think she thought once she did that I’d never leave.’ He nearly goes mad:
And she hadn’t counted on that that there, in the fucked-up body getting fucked, was a person starting to come to life, starting to want to hurt her and do all the things to her body that she’d done to his. Do worse. Wanting to fucking fling her on the floor and stamp on her face and I could tell I was starting to go off my head.
Eventually he escapes only to destroy, first himself (almost), and then his relationship with the mother of his daughter from whom, when he first meets Eily, he is completely estranged (the mother takes the daughter to Canada to get her out of his reach). But the way this story erupts in the middle of the novel so unexpectedly and for so long is, as I read it, a way of asking: can this story be told, and, like the incest it narrates, once told, will it ever stop?
There is of course a formal problem – shades of Prospero telling Miranda the story of their past at the opening of The Tempest, stretching audience disbelief that he never got round to telling her before. In a stroke of genius, McBride transposes this age-old difficulty into a device for conveying the mind’s resistance to horror:
He dry retches again. Are you alright? He nods but the grey eyes black and the wall they stare through into that past has gone so eerily thin I can almost see her too.
So far so horrible right? But not you, I say It.
Sorry, it’s turned into an epic night. I’m not, I say.
Those who dismiss or gloss over Stephen’s story are, as I see it, complicit with a time-worn silence. In her second novel, McBride has not only lifted an abused girl out of monologue into conversation. She also seems to be saying that the world will continue to run to its end if women only tell the stories of their own damage and refuse to listen to the tale of traumas lived by men. Mothers, it should be said, do not come out so well in The Lesser Bohemians. The second remarkable story Stephen has to tell is of the lengths Marianne, the mother of their daughter, has gone to to make the daughter hate him, including, in a final bid for cruelty, telling the daughter of the incest he was subjected to as a boy. It backfires as these things tend to do, turning the daughter’s anger against the mother and only making her pity, love and long for her lost father more.
There is therefore a type of redemption, although the novel studiously avoids any piety of the cure. ‘I hate a moral,’ McBride has stated, ‘and I’m not much keener on an inspirational tale of survival against the odds.’ After Stephen tells his story, things get better between them, then worse. ‘All the past now collating instead of forgotten. I suddenly misplace the best of myself, allowing a far worse in’ – before getting better again. We seem then to be living in cyclical time – to evoke the title of Freud’s famous article ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through’, The Lesser Bohemians messes with the order of play (‘working through’ is usually evoked clinically to suggest the completion of the psychic process). Despite the euphoric ending, the debris and detritus of these stories will, or so it feels, track the lives of those who will continue to struggle against them. Like all novels with a happy ending, The Lesser Bohemians leaves you asking whether the finale is any match for the sheer magnitude of what has gone before.
Before she was a novelist, McBride was the aspiring actor she portrays in her novel. Both of her novels are flecked with streaks of autobiography (her father, like Eily’s, died when she was eight and, in relation to Girl, she has described the death of her brother as the most devastating event in her life). The Lesser Bohemians of the title refers to the life of the jobbing actor, the artistic life less celebrated, those who never get to be stars and who struggle to pay the bills, carrying on simply because they love the work. But acting is also a pathway out of fear, providing an exit route from one life into another: ‘Converting the self into flecks of form and re-form. Her. Into her. Into someone else.’ ‘Excused of myself by the in out of words.’ In acting, you bring the other to life. It is, one might say, the perfect context and frame for a novel whose main drive is to get two people, finally, to talk to each other. We might note in passing how far this is from one current Hollywood ethos: ‘I don’t think that, as a creative person, you have that much to contribute when your life experiences are limited to those you have while you’re emulating someone else,’ Renée Zellweger explained in a recent interview. In fairness, she was trying to shed the idea that she is Bridget Jones, but the casual dismissal of the idea of emulating someone else is striking.
Such is McBride’s commitment to this project that at moments it drives the writing into a hallucinatory dimension. For example, the daughter, known only from a photograph in the room, starts addressing Eily when she is in the middle of sex: ‘This is my father.’ ‘He made me doing this, what he’ll do with you.’ ‘But he is my father. And your father taught me this, showed me how until I love to and know him like you never can. This is my father. Taking my knickers down.’ In relation to those last two sentences, it is only by doing a double take and distinguishing the voices beyond what the writing quite permits – they are speaking in turn – that the reader can save the daughter from incest (although the form surely also invites the other reading). And only if we halt the flow, will we recognise that Eily, rivalrous to the limit, is also trying to deflect the daughter from harm: ‘And good to be hurt by him in ways you never will’ (the fantasy seeming to be that submitting herself to sexual pain is a way of saving a child). The punctuation gives you minimal guidance – you have to work it out for yourself; along with the suspended blank spaces, this is another repeated stylistic peculiarity of the book. Then, when Stephen tells Eily of meeting up with Marianne, the voice starts splintering to infinity: in Marianne’s words – although it’s Stephen speaking – we are given Stephen’s stepfather’s account, as told to Marianne, of Stephen’s mother confessing as she lay dying what she had done to her son. Faced with all this, any reader would be forgiven for thinking they are going crazy but that, I would suggest, is the point. Formal decorum is hardly appropriate, or has its limits, in a tale of how people find and force their way into each other’s bodies and heads. In a world of such rampant licence, why on earth would you expect to know who or where you are?
McBride has said that her aim in her novels is ‘to go in as close as the reader would reasonably permit’ – a perfect aesthetic formula for the sexual problem that haunts her book. In a rare distancing from Joyce, she describes Finnegans Wake, alongside Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, as ‘obscure’ and ‘obtuse’ for the non-specialist reader (‘kamikaze missions’). Instead, she uses the simplest vocabulary in the hope that this will allow readers to make the complexities of the syntax their own as if the narrative was running inside their minds: ‘from the inside out rather than the outside in’. Wherever she chooses to go next, it is, then, hardly surprising that abuse, incest, passion have been her themes to date. In each case, closeness is the burning issue: whether desired, killing, too little or too much. Aesthetic form and story are twinned. ‘Fright,’ Eily says when things are going badly, ‘goes everywhere like losing blood.’ Sometimes it seems that, as a writer, McBride is chasing her own fear. Without ever passing judgment, The Lesser Bohemians situates itself at that point of moral, sexual and grammatical uncertainty where, in Eily’s words again, ‘pure is indivisible from its reverse.’ For me it is the ability to delve so deeply into all of this, more or less regardless, that makes for the unique talent– the wilful, sensuous generosity – of Eimear McBride.
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