After half a lifetime spent curating literary events, there is one audience question to which I remain violently allergic. It usually comes at the end, when all the good questions have been asked and the moderator proposes “time for one more?” Up goes a diffident hand in the back row and a tremulous voice pipes up “I just wonder if you could tell us where you get your ideas from?” It’s at times like these you wish you had one of Graham Norton’s lever-operated red chairs to dispatch the questioner into richly-merited oblivion.
Naive readers do seem to cherish the illusion that somewhere in the attic, writers keep an old box-file stuffed with high-concept ideas all clamouring for expression. The truth is at once simpler and more complex. Neil Gaiman used to tease questioners mercilessly; “from the Idea-of-the-Month Club” or “from a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis” he’d say until, tired of dissembling, he would patiently explain that his ideas were made up from within the confines of his own chaotically capacious mind.
In Paul Murray’s recent novel, The Mark and the Void, the writer protagonist confronts the problem head-on; “coming up with an idea is just like the entrance ticket into this enormous f***ing labyrinth,” he complains. Of itself, the golden ticket is never enough; it’s what you do when you’re in there, how you navigate the enveloping darkness that matters. Mixing the metaphor, Robert McCrum echoes the theme in his introduction to the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels: “the free range of our imagination is the only departure lounge in flights of the mind for which, mercifully, there’s no GPS”.
With or without GPS, why do writers choose one flight of the mind over another? What makes one writer attempt a long and wildly ambitious meta-fictional satire on the financial crisis while another takes us on a picaresque road-trip with a sociopathic narrator and his savage, one-eyed dog for company? Paul Murray and Sara Baume are two of Ireland's finest young novelists and their novels have been among the most talked-about of the year so far. Both writers have proved adept at navigating the darkness but The Mark and The Void and Spill Simmer Falter Wither could hardly be more different in literary terms. Truly, the contemporary Irish novel, in Whitman's phrase, "contains multitudes" but alongside this healthy diversity there is fevered debate about how to "make it new" and the need to escape the old cliches.
Fiction laureate Anne Enright embraces the ambiguity inherent in these seemingly polar opposites. In a glowing review of Eimear MacBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, she highlights the familiar dramatis personae of the old Irish novel: a ranting Catholic mother, a disabled brother and a pervy uncle; in other words, "the bog-gothic standards of any Irish book season". Her latest Booker long-listed novel, The Green Road, conforms to template, featuring a monstrous mammy, a failed priest, a drunken actor and a cute hoor estate agent. In both cases, "bog-gothic standards" are deployed but skilfully transcended. Then again, some might say, haven't we heard enough from these ghouls? Is there no way out of the Bog of Catastrophes?
One author who has nailed his colours firmly to the mast is Julian Gough who in 2010 wrote:
“If there is a movement in Ireland, it is backwards. Novel after novel set in the nineteen seventies, sixties, fifties. I mean, what the feck are writers in their 20s and 30s doing, copying the very great John McGahern in the 21st century? Reading award-winning Irish literary fiction, you wouldn’t know television had been invented. For me, the only writer to grab the Celtic Tiger by the tail and pull hard while the tiger roared was Ross O’Carroll Kelly.”
Splenetic and scatter-gun, Gough’s provocative analysis nevertheless frames a potentially fruitful debate about Irish fiction. In reality, of course, prescriptive dogmas are futile. Writers write what writers write. Furthermore, as most writers would tell the questioner in the back row, books have a mind of their own. Books have an obdurate tendency to write themselves, often in ways that baffle the ostensible creator. In addition, different generations harbour disparate ideas about literature and out there in the long grass lurk Young Turks who believe that Irish writers, for all their perceived virtues, need to get with the programme. Listen to the Guardian reviewer on Paul Murray:
“This is it, at last: a fine work of fiction set in the present day that kicks all those asses that so urgently need to be kicked. The Mark and the Void is philosophically engaged with the great questions and circumstances of our times. It is the answer to the question of what a serious and seriously talented contemporary novelist should be writing.”
Rob Doyle, a talented young writer – crudely bracketed with others like Lisa McInerney, Kevin Barry, Gavin Corbett and Colin Barrett as "dirty realists" – shares this sense of a tradition ignoring certain aspects of contemporary experience. Of his debut novel, Here are the Young Men, he writes:
“I felt that I had had a very extreme experience of growing up in this city. Something painful; something that was curdling inside me; and something I had never seen represented, certainly not in fiction. I had a very strong urge to write about atrocity porn, if you want to call it that; growing up in a culture where you’re assaulted by images of violence, playing violent video games and all that.”
That same desire to confront the “circumstances of our times” is urgently expressed in Louise O’Neill’s second novel, Asking For It, where issues of sexual violence, slut-shaming and cyber-bullying are graphically dissected. Untroubled by Auden’s defeatist lament, “poetry makes nothing happen,” O’Neill’s didactic intent is explicit, full-on and, just in case you didn’t get it, hammered home in a strange, explicatory afterword.
But of all recent Irish novels, none addresses the dilemma of the Irish writer caught between the rock of tradition and the cold hard place that Ireland has become more urgently than Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void. Because in a sense Murray’s real subject is not so much the banking crisis but the crisis of the novel itself, the crisis of knowing what subjects are fit materials for the novelist in the not-so-new century. All of the pressing questions about the viability of the novel, indeed of art itself in the digital age, are posed in a work of sharp intelligence and Vesuvian imagination. He might be pulling the Tiger’s tail as per Gough’s prescription but he’s also posing the question “What do we write about now?”
At one point, his Seanie Fitz character, Miles O’Connor, applauds the chutzpah of Ireland’s young property developers. “They’re not dragging the f***ing past around after them like some mouldy old f***ing blanket they had as a bloody kid,” he says, “They’re chucking it in a skip and starting from scratch.” Would it be a stretch to extend the metaphor to Irish fiction? Murray, however obliquely, seems to be doing so.
Throughout the novel, echoes of Philip Roth’s seminal 1961 Commentary essay are clearly audible. Back then Roth wrote:
“The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
The same qualms, mutatis mutandis, could be expressed about the collective psychosis that overtook Ireland during the boom and Murray’s view is essentially analogous to Roth’s. Like Roth, Murray strives to make credible the unreality of that period. Porter Blankly, the shadowy CEO peddling his Forrest Gump aphorisms, is precisely the sort of figure “the culture tosses up”. Like Roth, Murray laments the contraction of the novel’s readership:
“That ship has sailed. Here people don’t want them (novels) any more. People don’t want the truth. They want better-quality lies. High-definition lies on fifty-inch screens. They’ve got other things. Phones. Games. Porn. Horse tranquiilisers. I’m not complaining. I’m just saying these are the market realities.”
What’s remarkable is the manner in which Murray, undeterred by the apparent futility of the exercise, asserts the non-viability of the novel by using the supposedly defunct form to explore its own redundancy. It’s like someone calling on a landline to offer you an upgraded mobile package.
Lending his own brand of lugubrious drollery to the jeremiad, John Banville seems to take an equally dim view of the novel's usefulness in his recently-published The Blue Guitar. Reviewing it in this newspaper, Belinda McKeon described it as "one long shrug of the shoulders at the novel form" although a "shrug" doesn't quite do Banville's disillusionment justice. Protagonist Oliver Orme is not shrugging but drowning in the despair of discovering that art no longer works for him and while one must always beware of the biographical fallacy, it would be dispiriting indeed to posit a philosophical equivalence between our pre-eminent novelist and his protagonist.
Of course, reports of the Death of the Novel have been wildly exaggerated over the decades. In 1936, George Orwell was pointing out that “the prestige of the novel is very low, so low that the words ‘I never read novels’ are uttered in a tone of conscious pride.” As recently as 1989, the English critic DJ Taylor published A Vain Conceit in which he asserted:
“The old guard of writers are working, feebly, in the fag-end of a tradition which is no longer sustainable. How little they tell us about the society in which we live. The vast chaotic canvas of our reality has left art far behind.”
Odd then that Taylor should still be writing old-fashioned novels like The Windsor Faction, set during the late ’30s appeasement period, as recently as two years ago.
It’s almost as if the vigour of the traditional novel grows in direct proportion to the volume of solemn eulogies declared over its cold, dead body. Like Tim Finnegan, that gentle Irishman mighty odd, it refuses to connive in its own Wake. Speaking of his novel Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín asserts that “If the novel can’t dramatise the story of an ordinary person in a provincial place, then the novel itself is doomed.” Robert McCrum concurs: “not one of these 100 books or their authors is indifferent to the demands of story. With our stone-age brains, we are still a storytelling species. The narrative gene is part of our DNA.” Clearly, if the straight-ahead narrative novel is a “mouldy old blanket” then it is one we still cling to with the tenacity of a child clinging to a comfort blankie.
In a recent review of Thomas MacCarthy’s Satin Island, Kevin Gildea referenced an essay which caused something of a stir when it first appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2008. In her eloquent exposition, Zadie Smith discusses two novels which she describes as “antipodal”, one being “a strong refusal of the other”. The novels in question were Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and McCarthy’s Remainder, the former being a classic example of lyrical realism, the latter an experimental exercise in undermining the realist tradition which, according to Smith, has held sway for too long, sealing off all other routes to the hearts of readers.
All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.
The Irish novel may be at just such a crossroads but whether our writers are dancing to the old tunes or flirting with the devil – the crossroads was often a sanctuary for Satan, Lady Wilde reminds us – the truth is that Irish fiction is now as vibrant and multifarious as fiction has ever been in any culture at any point in literary history. Does it have to be an either/or proposition? Why not both/and? The older generation may still have issues with the De Valeran verities that turned so sour, but a new generation is striking out in new directions, cutting multiple roads, in Zadie Smith’s formulation, and that surely, is something to be celebrated.
Ultimately, good writing is never primarily about what, why or when; it’s about how well, and little else matters.
Bert Wright is administrator of the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards and curator of the DLR Voices Series and the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival