An Octopus at the Window
- Long Time, No See by Dermot Healy
Faber, 438 pp, £12.99, April 2011, ISBN 978 0 571 21074 9
After publishing a prize-winning volume of short stories and an accomplished early novel, Dermot Healy won the plaudits of the literary world with A Goat’s Song, one of the most powerful pieces of fiction to emerge from Ireland in the past few decades. It was published in 1994, just as the Celtic Tiger was starting to roar, but belonged in spirit to an earlier, less well-heeled and self-assured society. Most of the book is set on the wild western coast of County Mayo, a place with some symbolic resonance in Irish letters. It is the setting for Synge’s great drama The Playboy of the Western World, and has come to be associated with all that the Celtic Tiger was busy putting behind it: priestcraft, mythology, the Celtic Revival, folk wisdom, romantic nationalism, dancing at the crossroads, an English language replete with the rhythms of Irish.
Synge, as it happens, was allergic to some of this as well. The Playboy of the Western World is a devastating critique of the rural west that so many of the Revivalists idealised. It is as full of violence, illusion, futility and sexual frustration as any of Martin McDonagh’s wicked parodies of the traditional Irish play. As the years of prosperity rolled on, some of the more doctrinaire modernisers grew increasingly contemptuous of their own history. The suggestion that aspects of traditional Irish culture were to be valued was only a breath away from wielding an Armalite. To speak of the Great Famine became morbid nostalgia. One of the half-dozen best Irish plays of the 20th century, Brian Friel’s Translations, evoked a few well-bred sneers from the Dublin literati for being set in 19th-century Irish-speaking Donegal. The play also takes the odd swipe at the British, which in liberal middle-class Irish circles is equivalent to cavorting around in a green suit brandishing a shillelagh.
In the years when the Gate and the Abbey were the two main theatres in Dublin, the former was run by a gay couple while the latter was noted for staging traditional Irish plays. The theatres were known as Sodom and Begorrah. Around the time of A Goat’s Song, Ireland was in transit from Begorrah to Sodom, from leprechauns to gay nightclubs. For the first time in its wretched colonial history, it was savouring the fruits of modernity: a booming high-tech economy, feminism, multiculturalism, secularism, liberal values, drugs, pornography, bent politicians, voracious greed, huge social inequalities and spectacular financial corruption.
A Goat’s Song fitted uneasily into this world. Healy’s west is not a region of computer chips and pharmaceuticals, but a place where clothes are boiled in a saucepan, brides-to-be are roped to poles and pelted with bags of soot, and men occasionally take their pleasure with donkeys. Not much Mary Robinson there. The novel includes a portrayal of a Northern Irish Free Presbyterian, done magnificently from the inside (Healy lives in County Sligo, which is within hailing distance of the North) but a good deal more cold-eyed than anything one would expect to find in the work of Sebastian Barry.
Like Jack Ferris, the drunken protagonist of A Goat’s Song, Ireland binged for a few euphoric years, then woke up with an almighty hangover. The champions of progress have accordingly been forced to confront the uglier aspects of modernity. Meanwhile, as the Celtic Tiger rolls over and dies, Healy has broken a long silence with his new novel, Long Time, No See. This, too, is set on Ireland’s west coast: the rain lashes the characters and the winds threaten to lift them off their feet. No tree can survive in this weather. There is talk of fairies, the clipping of donkeys’ toenails, the need to bury the clippings in case an animal chokes on them and whether it is fair on a dog to feed him through a letterbox. Sentences like ‘Da came with a rope to collar the dog, and an empty spud bag to take up the shite’ remind us that we are not in the world of John Banville. The odd reference to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the fact that there are immigrants around and a young woman, saying, ‘I was just like Oh my God,’ alert the reader with a mild shock that the novel is set in 2006, not 1906.
As frequently in the west of Ireland, nothing much happens. One character falls off his bike and breaks his arm, which provides some transient excitement. A woman has trouble with her chimney. In a venerable lineage of Irish writing, there are bits of cod learning and pseudo-philosophising. Is it true that the hummingbird has to eat the equivalent of its own body weight every day? Somebody wonders whether Wolfe Tone ever got married, and whether it is generally known that all space is crooked. There are reflections on the evolution of the cat. Another character muses that the mind is a terror, and that for a long time he did not know that he had a body. An old man called the Blackbird wakes from a nap to announce apropos nothing that copulation is a mere habit and that we should live alone. The border between sanity and madness constantly wavers. Joejoe asks a priest whether he has ever met the owl in the desert and the pelican in the wilderness. The Blackbird is struck by the curious coincidence that he hears the drone of an aircraft every time he puts the kettle on, then realises that the sound is coming from the kettle. It is not for nothing that Samuel Beckett was Irish.
Long Time, No See is set in the same social and natural world as A Goat’s Song, but not in the same literary one. Among its cast list are the narrator Mister Psyche (known to a local Pole as Mister Side Kick), the Blackbird, Miss Jilly, the Judge, the General and Joejoe, whom the upper-class Miss Jilly mistakenly calls Joejoeing. There is no plot and no evolving narrative, just a montage of episodes. Life in this forsaken corner is not heading anywhere in particular, and neither is the novel. A chapter headed ‘The Death of the Ass’ indicates how much high drama we should expect. We become involved in the remorseless trivia of the characters’ lives as we do in a soap opera. Like Beckett, Healy is obsessed by the ordinary, and displays a Beckettian indifference to the so-called inner lives of his characters. ‘Have you an interior life?’ someone asks Mister Psyche. No, he replies. There is clearly something ironic about his name. There are too many lobsters to be transported and sick cows to be tended to wax Proustian. Dealing with the Dead Animal Removal Service is a more pressing affair than coping with one’s finer feelings.
As with Beckett, it is not the folds and crevices of the mind that fascinate Healy, but the exact, meticulously rendered dispositions of the body: ‘Sorry, I said and he pointed with one finger up the road, then put another finger behind the first, and let one finger follow the other, then fixed both fingers in a line and snapped his thumbs.’ There are strains of this literary behaviourism in two earlier Irish authors, Swift and Sterne, both of whom parody mechanical materialism by hacking the mental down to the physical. Joyce sometimes does the same. Deflating and debunking are common devices in Irish prose. Bathos is one of its most recurrent tropes. Not many high-minded ideals can stand up to those sick cows and lashing rain. In 1916, the nationalist rebels produced posters announcing Irish independence, but forgot to bring paste.
Realism pressed to an extreme capsizes into its opposite. The more scrupulously you detail human action in this relentlessly externalising way, the more you estrange it. This, too, is a familiar technique in Irish literature, from Tristram Shandy to Ulysses. Irish literary realism tends not to be of the loose and baggy kind. Instead, it is typically distanced and stylised, held at ironic arm’s length. There are some intense emotions in Long Time, No See, but the deadpan style levels them all down. The simplest snatches of description begin to sound faintly strange: ‘A woman power-walker strode by. In the field beyond, a magpie stood on a sheep, on the middle of her back, looking off into the distance, and the sheep had her head a little off the ground, wondering.’ The prose refuses expressiveness, so that its careful neutrality of tone becomes a kind of enigma. Sentences which are at one level entirely lucid also have a faintly surreal ring: ‘At eight in the morning my mobile rang while I was breaking a saucer in a dream.’ In the act of depicting a formless world, the novel draws discreet attention to the shapeliness of its own sentences, finding in them an alternative source of order. Style itself is proposed as a solution to life’s disastrous lack of a coherent narrative: ‘Hallo thieves, said Miss Jilly as [the hens] turned their heads and then waddled and hopped with a nip over to her like a group of butlers and altar boys.’
Dialogue occupies most of the novel’s 400 pages. It is not put in quotation marks, as though to suggest that this, rather than a narrative, constitutes the central stuff of the book. Much of it is brilliantly inconsequential, with a deftly underplayed absurdism:
– You say Hallo very often in Ireland, said Dido –
– We can’t help it –
– It’s why we have put on so much weight, said Mister Townsend. I think it might rain.
– We are all savages, said Mrs Dunleavy. And this soup is beautiful. Beautiful!
Speech is terse, elliptical, a set of brief notations that rarely travel more than a couple of inches across the page. It is as sparse as the landscape in which the characters scratch a living. If utterances are slightly askew, it is because, in another familiar motif of Irish writing, men and women escape from these starved surroundings into their solitary dreams, which occasionally break out to merge with reality. Mister Psyche sees an octopus looking in at him through the window.
Someone once remarked that Synge wrote in Irish and English simultaneously. The English of this novel is inhabited from the inside by the tones and rhythms of Irish, so that from the viewpoint of Standard English its idiom is as persistently off-key as its realism. Synge almost never uses an Irishism that you might not hear in real life, but nobody in Ireland talks like that all the time, or ever did. His characters speak in poetry, not prose. Joejoe, Mister Psyche, the Blackbird and their colleagues are far from poetical personages, yet their everyday talk is flavoured with the speech habits of a foreign idiom. ‘It would make a dog think,’ ‘you long black bastard’, ‘It’s a grand class of a day,’ ‘He was like a shook fox,’ ‘trying to keep the chat from going dark’, ‘a lock of food’: such phrases are as foreign to English ears as Healy’s writing is remote from the English novel of suburban adultery. ‘She was like the hare, enchanted,’ Joejoe says of a former girlfriend in an unwonted outbreak of emotion. ‘The hare has a lot to answer for. Filling you with the gra then going down to wash her clothes and hair at low tide and leaving you here be yourself. That’s all I can say, it skips through your mind, all men’s mind, so I’ll leave it.’ The sentences are curious partly because the speaker, like most characters in the book, is obeying the laws of private fantasy rather than public logic, but also because of the spectral presence within them of a language other than English.
Being stranded between two tongues in this way is one reason Ireland proved so hospitable to modernism. In fact, it was the only part of what were then the British Isles in which a flourishing native modernism, as opposed to one imported from abroad, actually took root. Modernism tends to thrive in conditions of political turbulence, which was more in evidence in the Ireland of the time than it was in Britain. Ireland achieved partial independence at the point of a gun at just the time Ulysses was published. Modernist art also tends to spring from the collision between tradition and modernity, which was evident enough in the nation of Yeats and Lady Gregory. It is typically the work of literal or internal émigrés, men and women caught on the hop between different cultures and languages. If literary modernism is the point at which language comes to be about language, taking itself as the object of its own inquiry, this vein of verbal self-consciousness was already obvious in a country for which language had long been a political minefield. The members of the Gaelic League did not just speak Irish; they spoke it combatively, self-consciously, which is not quite how E.M. Forster spoke English.
To be fluent in a particular national culture, yet to sidle up to it from the outside, was the peculiar privilege of Wilde, Yeats, Conrad, James, Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Beckett, nomadic souls adrift between home and abroad. Wilde, Conrad, James and Eliot betray their foreign status by becoming plus anglais que les Anglais, too deeply, self-consciously inside to count as genuine natives. Yet they all write out of a tension between this inwardness and a more estranging cosmopolitan view. Wilde approaches English like some precious objet d’art to be polished till it glitters. Conrad makes small mistakes in his grammar and writes of Latin American anarchists while in the heart of Kent. James’s cobwebby later style, perpetually in danger of disappearing up its own intricacies, is as far as you can get from the tell-it-like-it-is puritan plainness of his native United States. He was, remarked T.S. Eliot (who was also thinking of himself), European in a way that only a non-European could be. The same could be said of Pound. Eliot’s macaronic poetry is not exactly what one would expect of an Anglo-Catholic Tory. Joyce observed that it was his freedom from English convention, including linguistic convention, that lay at the source of his talent. Because he was not hidebound by the English language, he could experiment with it more freely, and in doing so could plumb its riches more prodigally than any insider could. Beckett estranged English by writing in French and having his work translated back into English. It is said of some of the Celtic Revivalists that they translated their work so often from Irish to English and back that they sometimes forgot which language they had written in to begin with.
Healy’s prose draws much of its power from this doubled idiom. Like Synge, he writes in English and Irish simultaneously; unlike Synge, he does so as a form of irony, not as a kind of homage. Synge ends up turning both the languages in which he writes into strange, burnished aesthetic objects, whereas for Healy they are the stuff of everyday discourse. Since Mister Psyche, the narrator of Long Time, No See, speaks in this hybrid tongue, one formal problem of the novel is that it is unable to transcend the consciousness of its narrator. Jack Ferris does not narrate A Goat’s Song, so the novel is able to portray him both from the inside and the outside, drawing in the process on his complex inner life. But Mister Psyche has no inner life, beyond the wit to know that he hasn’t, and this constrains what the novel can say. It chooses to sacrifice richness to a magnificently consistent austerity.
Or rather it would do if the text did not cheat occasionally. Take, for example, these few beautiful sentences, which record how Psyche is building a wall out of stones originally laid down by a medieval monk:
He drew the stone from the coral beach by ass and cart to the spot I was taking them from. As he built alongside me, I was pulling his work down. As he dropped a stone into place, I lifted it and carried it away. He built towards me, and I built away from him. I could feel the way he carried himself.
Thoughts like these are only ambiguously Psyche’s own. He cannot really carry them off without the author’s unobtrusive assistance. Or take this brief description of a meal by candlelight: ‘We sat there in the dark by the one fluttering butt. Our faces swam. We disappeared from each other. Then Ma served the meat and spuds in the dark. It was touch-and-go. Thank you very much, said Joejoe, you could be feeding us anything. She was a shadow.’ Two different forms of speech are interwoven here, one ordinary and one poetic, one Psyche and one Healy. ‘It was touch-and-go’ means you had to feel for the spuds in the dark, but it also means more than that. Long Time, No See reins itself in, but it is conceived on a hugely ambitious scale. It is also wonderfully funny from start to finish.