Neil Jordan, great Irish novelist

 

FICTION REVIEW: Mistaken, by Neil Jordan


KEVIN THUNDER had two lives. No, he had no life, merely a vicarious existence, a kaleidoscope of memories, sexual diversions and a guilt that stalks him like a jeering shadow. But, far worse than any sin, he had a double. Neil Jordan’s fifth novel, his first since Shade, in 2004, is astonishing. In using a stock device from European literature he has achieved the performance of a lifetime, the culmination of a long, intense engagement with language, storytelling and the erotic darkness of the imagination.

Mistakencomes complete with a plot as precise and as crafted as that of the finest thriller, filtered through an insistent narrative voice that holds the stricken reader as if at gunpoint. For all the revelation and atmosphere, all the yearning and the anger, it is the writing, the linguistic artistry that ultimately leaves one gasping. Be warned: this is a great international novel, a great Irish novel and, most of all, a great Dublin novel that thoughtfully heeds Joyce and then breaks free the way a child eventually shrugs off even the most loving and beloved of parents.

It is also as unsettling as it is seductive. Not that Kevin is particularly charming or vulnerable: he is brutally honest, shaped by the battered candour that comes of being not as much defeated but numb, detached, pushed to the outer limits of experience and emotional response, if still remaining transfixed as if in mild disbelief at the horror and the sequence of events created by fate. If the reader feels no sympathy for him it is because in common with Kevin we become paralysed bystanders. Within pages it is obvious that the assured prose is almost competing with the superbly handled narrative voice and its tone of laconic menace. It is also impossible not to ask, when faced with fiction writing as fine as this: why does Neil Jordan, Oscar-winning screenwriter, bother making movies?

Yet perhaps the secret of the mastery of language he displays is that his gift, apparent from his first book, Night in Tunisia(1976), and that mesmerising title story, has been honed and polished by disciplined years of writing scripts in which every word counts. There is not a superfluous phrase in its 314 pages. It is also important to remember that Jordan’s first novel, The Past(1980) remains the most under-rated Irish novel ever written, while its virtuoso successor The Dream of the Beast(1983) is also shamefully ignored. Jordan the writer, in tune with Irish and European myth and legend, has always been gifted. Mistaken shimmers with lingering images. A city, its street corners, its coast, its geographical and social divides, are evoked with a surging clarity.

Possibly the finest element in this novel of many strengths is the dialogue. Kevin speaks to us as if he were sitting across a table. Equally, the other characters, even at their most dreamlike, such as the troubled mother, or his inept old father and a nervous young working-class girl aware that sex is the barter for romance, all convince. It is both monologue and ensemble piece. Kevin tells the story. A fragment of it is his, but the rest is a drama he was forced into as an unwitting understudy, a hapless proxy wandering into situations.

Jordan, born in Sligo but raised in Dublin, uses his city as the maze in which Kevin moves closer to the crazy truth that Jordan, shift by shift, eases into place by dropping clues with cunning as subtle as a sigh.

Early in life Kevin begins to realise that he is being accused of deeds he hasn’t done; girls approach him with a knowing familiarity. There are other unsavoury encounters. He is being mistaken for another boy, Gerry. This happens throughout his life. Even as a mourner at Gerry’s funeral the dead man’s dog seems to recognise him or, at least, acknowledge the similarity. His double is privileged, unhappy and dangerously reckless.

But Kevin has other problems: a fragile, doomed mother and a chilling awareness of a vampire that tracks his movements. But then imaginative, haunted Kevin grew up in a house next door to where Bram Stoker once lived. The vampire motif glides through the narrative as one of many inspired touches. “There was a humming in my head and I thought of the power lines on the Clontarf Road and the Count with his open cape and the shadow with the beret in the cement bathing shelter, and I came half out of sleep and reached for the phone but the vampire whispered, no, it’s the door this time. And I woke up then and saw the pale light washing through the windows and the door bell was ringing.”

Kevin makes a career out of architectural drawings; Gerry, the High Court judge’s son, attempts law but becomes a writer. His first work is published using Kevin’s name, deeply unsettlingly for Kevin. Eventually he grasps that Gerry suffers “from happiness” – he even writes a novel called Happiness. Kevin’s odyssey takes him many places; his experience consists of flight – “I had to get away . . . I had to leave the city to him” – broken by episodes of contact. His story is delivered through a series of conversations with Emily, his double’s daughter. Kevin speaks to the grown woman while images of the child he never knew drift into his mind. In telling her his story Kevin pieces together the life he acquired through being mistaken for Gerry. The only time the pair deliberately conspired to exploit their resemblance it ended in an unplanned disaster, creating more guilt for Kevin, a man who lives with the burden of being an identity thief.

“We are our own punishment, I realized, standing with the lights off in that Fitzwilliam Square flat,” he thinks while musing over “that delicate game of insinuation and nuance that was Irish conversation”. Kevin is a man lost in the life of another; he has no real self; and yet he does have a questing intelligence that drives this novel as he attempts to solve his own mystery.

Part of the way he does this is by reading Gerry’s fiction as it appears, noting the impact time has on the ever-changing, then ageing, face of the author. In noting his disappointment at the increasingly conventional turn Gerry’s fiction took, Kevin makes an intriguing comment: “That strange obsession with past decades, the fifties, the forties, the twenties, that bedevilled Irish fiction. Didn’t they ever write about the present?” It appears that Jordan is asking larger questions, even making a slight reference to his debut, The Past. It is very much in keeping with the powerful sense of a life lived and experience gained that he has brought to this remarkable novel. If nothing else, the reader believes that Kevin has lived, however badly.

Themes from Jordan’s previous fiction prevail: the lost mother, Dublin as a theatrical setting, Ireland’s literary legacy, a marginalised self facing exile. Possibly the only other Irish writer possessing the stylistic panache to write this novel would be John Banville, and there are slight echoes of Mefisto(1986). But this is Jordan’s moment; he alone has pushed narrative and has broken free of everyone. Irish fiction needed a cohesively great novel, pulsing with darkness, intelligence and revelation. Here it is.


Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Timesand author of Second Readings: 52 – From Beckett to Black Beauty, published by Liberties Press