New novel suggests we may be on the verge of a transformation for the Irish novel
McCann’s ‘TransAtlantic’ a remarkable tapestry of fiction and reality
Indifference to utilitarianism
One of the great beauties of art is its gratuitousness: an indifference to utilitarianism and political function. But sometimes Irish novelists have taken this idea too far, disingenuously denying the social roots and debts of their work.
In part, this was down to the unmentionable (whisper it) postcolonial problem: that the ways we describe ourselves are mainly distortions of ourselves – frozen cliches, both false and half-true. Kavanagh talked about the “lie” of the “Irish Thing” – the falseness of the images of cute hoors in thatched cottages got up in shawls and peaked caps. Such depictions, in movies or postcards, have the capacity to render nauseous the modern Irish constitution.
Kavanagh decided that there was “no virtue in a place”, but the real problem was imposed meanings on places and their shapes. A thatched cottage sat on a landscape and seemed to itself and its occupants no more or less than reality, but to the observer it became either a flash of the ideal Ireland or an ironic statement of postmodern knowingness. The problem for the writer was how to write all this into a book – or leave it out – without courting either nostalgic denial or ideological avoidance. Fiction, or perhaps Irish fiction, or perhaps Irish fiction set in Ireland, became a disconcertingly slippery activity. No surprise, then, that we produced no Roth or Rushdie or DeLillo to paint great teeming tapestries of our modern national psyche.
TransAtlantic seems to open a new chapter, stepping fearlessly into the real world of Ireland without breaking step with great literature. Even its “real” characters, including Mitchell, have their lives subjected to a process of reimagining. Yet, the book also contains perhaps the most convincing portrayal of the Irish experience of famine I have encountered anywhere in written form – a stark depiction of the raw reality, stripped of ideological objective or insinuation.
It may not be entirely random that so many Irish writers have of late diverted into memoir-writing in the style of the novelist. The arrival of TransAtlantic tentatively suggests that this wave may have been a testing of the ground of “fact”, that the explosion of misery memoir may have been a transitional phase, a way of cleansing Irish reality of its impurities and freeing Irish writing from the ambiguous legacy of its Anglican roots. Who knows? – McCann’s great book may well be a precursor to a whole new wave of genuinely Irish literature.