On the highway

Jonathan Coe

  • Desperadoes by Joseph O’Connor
    Flamingo, 426 pp, £14.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 00 224301 6
  • Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee
    Picador, 233 pp, £14.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 330 33274 0
  • Stir-Fry by Emma Donoghue
    Hamish Hamilton, 232 pp, £9.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 241 13442 0

Young English novelists have a hard time of it these days. Not only must they work in the knowledge of an informed critical consensus which holds that their current productions are generally timid, moribund and insular; but to add insult to injury, they are confronted by the galling spectacle of mini-literary-Renaissances springing up all around them among their English-speaking neighbours, as supportive networks of publishers, small presses, magazines, young writers and editors foster the emergence of new and confident national literatures. No doubt this is, to some extent, an Englishman’s ingenuous view of things: but it does seem to me that the majority – the substantial majority – of interesting new writing coming out of these islands at the moment is either Scottish or Irish.

One explanation for this phenomenon, fairly obvious but persuasive nonetheless, is put forward by Dermot Bolger in his introduction to the recent Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction. Today’s Irish writers, he claims, have inherited a self-confidence ‘and (through Joyce and Beckett) a sense of belonging within the mainstream of European literature’. This simple fact of literary history might also go some way towards explaining the comparative demoralisation of English novelists: perhaps it was our failure to produce a single great Modernist in the early part of this century that condemned us to the sidelines. (Or, to import a metaphor from Westminster, perhaps the English novel has been stuck in the slow lane, ever since we put paid to the chances of full European literary union by choosing to ‘opt out’ of the clause on Modernism.) Nor have we seen the emergence in the last few decades of anyone who might be capable, by a Herculean effort of imagination and formal ingenuity, of wrenching the national literature back onto the Modernist highway, as Alasdair Gray was able to do for the Scottish novel with Lanark.

Whether this theory holds water or not, Bolger argues convincingly that the build-up to the recent explosion of Irish writing is literary-historical and has nothing to do with politics. Hence he undermines another of the fantasies which English novelists like to fall back on. Look how much good writing, we plead, has come out of oppressive regimes (Eastern Europe, South America) or post-colonial societies (India, Ireland). By comparison, what sort of inspiration are we supposed to find in our own nostalgia for empire and stagnant parliamentary democracy? What do we have to chafe against? Well, setting aside for a moment the fact that British politics nowadays offers quite enough in the way of corruption, unaccountability and human rights violations to see any latter-day Dickens through at least a couple of dozen novels, there is still no intrinsic connection, as Bolger is at pains to point out, between political upheaval and literary activity. In particular he is keen to refute, on Ireland’s behalf, the seductive notion that either post-colonialism (a phrase he dislikes) or ‘the Troubles’ (likewise) provide anything special in the way of stimulus for contemporary writers. Reminding us that the British Army was expelled more than seventy years ago, he claims that it is absurd to expect writers from the Republic to be ‘somehow obsessed with its relationship with a former colonial power ... It is simply not possible to allow a phrase like “post-colonial literature” still to wander about like a decomposing chicken in search of its head, and to have it foisted upon the backs of younger writers.’ And while recognising the ‘major and continuing importance of the Northern Troubles’, he denies that ‘this terrible slaughter’ represents the only material available to the Northern writer – or indeed that writing about it confers any particular cachet, given that over the last twenty years it has ‘exercised the minds of an extraordinarily large number of second-rate, non-Irish novelists who flooded bookshops with stunningly ill-informed and ill-conceived novels’.

The reason I’m laying so much emphasis on the dangers of regarding all new Irish writing as essentially politicised is that I approached these novels burdened by exactly that fallacy, and had my expectations confounded in every case. Joseph O’Connor’s Desperadoes seesaws between Dublin and Nicaragua, and seems at first to be drawing political parallel between the two locations; but it turns out to be primarily a raw, highly emotional account of marital breakdown. Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man follows the rise and fall of a Loyalist paramilitary; but it is less a political novel about the Troubles than a prolonged meditation on the psychology of violence. Emma Donoghue’s Stir-fry appears to offer a portrait of incipient lesbianism confronted by a repressive morality, but in the end its intentions turn out to be much airier than that.

Joseph O’Connor’s novel is the most wide-ranging and the most fun to read. O’Connor is unusual in being a novelist of deeply serious intentions who makes a virtue of accessibility. As a result, there’s not much in the way of pressure behind his language, no dense, elliptical sentences to negotiate, no flights of figurative fancy: instead you’re more likely to find easy charm and an undercurrent of throwaway, slightly macho humour reminiscent of Tom Sharpe or Howard Jacobson. (A character called Smokes decides not to tell his girlfriend that he’s been unfaithful to her; after satisfying himself that he is morally justified in the deception, he reflects that ‘this scenario would have the added advantage of allowing Smokes to continue life with both testicles still attached to his body.’ That sort of thing.) At the same time, he’s a properly ambitious novelist. At first Desperadoes seemed too long for its subject matter, until I realised that it is really two more or less separate novels dovetailed into one: a picaresque jaunt through post-revolutionary Nicaragua, and the story of a marriage falling apart on the back streets of Dublin during the Sixties and Seventies.

Frank and Eleanor Little are a middle-aged couple, married but estranged, drawn to Nicaragua in search of Johnny, their dropout son, who seems to have disappeared while involved in some sort of shady dealings with the Contras. Johnny belonged to a band called Los Desperados de Amor, dedicated to the task of bringing rock and roll standards to the salsa-satiated Nicaraguans, and before long Frank and Eleanor have got to know his fellow musicians, with whom they strike up a warm rapport (which is not the most believable thing in the book). Frank and Eleanor’s expletive-littered Dublin combines with the often cliché-ridden American of Smokes and his friends (‘Jesus H Christ’, ‘Right on, brother’) to create a confusion of dialects which babbles throughout the novel. Essentially it’s a book about confusion, about the emotional and – to a much lesser extent – political circumstances (marriage, revolution) which yoke unlikely combinations of people together. This finds a good visual correlative in O’Connor’s most striking image, that of a huge and elaborate coffin bought in anticipation of finding Johnny’s dead body, strapped to the roof of the Desperadoes’ van and wedged between two surfboards decorated with cartoon women.

Although it rather dutifully celebrates, then, the crazy, mixed-up atmosphere of a revolutionary Central America peopled by renegades and misfits, the novel’s heart lies in nostalgia for a more genteel age. Lending support to Dermot Bolger’s theory that the common ground shared by many new Irish writers is ‘the sense of being engaged with understanding both their own and their parents’ past’, O’Connor interleaves his Nicaraguan scenes with a sequence of flashbacks which describe, in tender and regretful detail, the complete progress of Frank and Eleanor’s courtship, marriage and slow decline. His portrait of Eleanor as an alcoholic and abusive mother is audacious, and there’s a commendable unwillingness to apologise for or explain away her behaviour. It’s this rigorous absence of sentimentality in the flashback scenes which allows O’Connor to make his account of Frank and Eleanor’s subsequent reunion so emotionally forthright and candid: for example, at the moment when Frank stiffly tries to comfort a tearful Eleanor as she faces up to the possibility that her son might be dead, he touches her with a hand that ‘felt awkward as a spanner’ and croaks: ‘Sweet Jesus, El ... how did we ever come to this?’

Where Desperadoes is rambling, generous and episodic, Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man is as lean and grimly purposeful as the demon-driven terrorist whose life it sets out to explore. Like O’Connor, McNamee is writing about someone brought up by unhappily married parents who subsequently turns defiant and unmanageable: but this writer has no patience with the minutiae of family psychology, and all the essentials of his central character’s upbringing are disposed of in a brief, arresting first chapter. As Victor Kelly makes his inexorable progress through the ranks of the ‘men of violence’, however, his mother is never far from his thoughts. There’s a cinematic subtext to the novel which finds analogies for Kelly’s psychosis in the Hollywood gangster movies he watched as a child: specifically, he’s compared several times to James Cagney, and although he never actually gets to shout, ‘Look at me, Ma, top of the world!’ the scene where he is finally gunned down outside his mother’s house has something of the weird grandeur of that moment from White Heat.

Resurrection Man is a relentlessly dark and grisly book, more about serial killing than it is about terrorism, and closer to The Silence of the Lambs than, say, to Cal. But the cinematic thread running through it doesn’t just give Victor Kelly an aura of movie-star glamour: it’s also there as a way of aestheticising the violence. The terrorists have become spectators as well as participants, and through this device McNamee crucially manages to show us how disconnected from their own actions they are able to feel. Two gunmen watch in appreciation as their victim ‘started to fall, tumbling down the stairs in a graceful, cinematic manner’, and it becomes a point of honour that each atrocity should get good ‘billing’ on the television news – relegation to third or fourth item is seen as a calculated act of defiance on the part of the media. Kelly’s self-regard and sense of detachment are echoed in McNamee’s slightly mannered prose, which seems always rather too conscious of itself, and can never quite decide whether to settle for austerity or to gesture mysteriously towards large areas of shadowy meaning. A description of Victor’s lovemaking from the woman’s point of view (‘Looking into Victor’s blue eyes when you were fucking was like watching a televised account of your own death’) is McNamee at his best: but the repetitive fade-outs at the end of several of the sections (‘lost in the bleak strategies of deception’, ‘a parched wanderer in the intricate landscapes of memory’) suggest a writer too deeply in thrall to his own turn of phrase. All the same, Resurrection Man plunges without fear or compromise through very dangerous territory; it is an impressively confident book.

O’Connor’s and McNamee’s narratives gain a good deal of resonance from the political circumstances against which they unfold, although both writers know that in order for this to happen these circumstances cannot be taken for granted, and must be sketched in, however obliquely. Emma Donoghue’s Stir-fry, on the other hand, seems to have missed this point, and makes only a cursory attempt to bring its backdrop of repressive Catholicism into a relationship with character or plot. This wispy story of Maria, a Dublin student whose Catholic upbringing has done nothing to prepare her for the shock of sharing a flat with two lesbians, has the potential to involve the reader in a head-on clash between faith and animal instinct. But Donoghue is more interested in recording – with some verve and accuracy – the daily ebb and flow of undergraduate life and the sad comedy of her heroine’s thwarted attempts to find herself a boyfriend. The comparative failure of her pleasant but undernourishing book offers further evidence that interesting social contexts are all very well, but provide no guarantee of vibrant writing.