Nowadays, because understandings of the world come plummeting at us through wires and space on a 24/7 basis, there seems little need for the kind of meditation the novel once offered as a reason for its existence. Many people still think they read novels, but generally read soap operas migrated to paper to escape or divert themselves.
But, with the newspaper industry brought to its knees by the trendy folly of its immediate custodians, the novel may be about to enter a phase of renewed connection to mainstream culture and reality.
This thought struck me reading Colum McCann's fine new work, TransAtlantic, which seems to rest in a unique gully between fiction and reporting.
TransAtlantic is a book about Ireland, set in the world – a remarkable tapestry of fiction and reimaged reality. It ties together the stories of four outsiders whose lives have touched the spiritual life of Ireland: the peacemaker George Mitchell, the flying pioneers Alcock and Brown, and Frederick Douglass, a black American anti-slavery campaigner who visited Ireland during the famine years. But the true-arch of the book follows a line of fictional Irish characters, starting with a Dublin housemaid, Lily Duggan, whose life and those of her descendants intersect with the trajectories of the book's "nonfictional" heroes.
McCann started out as a journalist, and retained the reporter’s disposition towards “facts”. Of course, the essence of a fact is not that it is the antithesis of fiction, any more than the essence of myth is that it is the opposite of truth. Great novelists have always known facts exist at a deeper level than man-built structures.
Interviewing Bono of U2 20 years ago for a "factual" book I was writing about the assassination and resurrection of Irish culture, he half-joked that Joyce created Ulysses as an act of revenge on the English: they'd screwed up our country, so he screwed up their language. The attempts to retrieve and describe some sense of ourselves mislaid in the mutilation of our language and culture led Irish writers to create webs of words that weaved around the truth about ourselves but never quite nailed it.
Irish fiction has latterly – if you judge from the self-congratulatory tone of the literary pages – been going through a minor golden age. But this is may be a function of the Irish novel’s absorption into British culture, where Irish writers box slightly above their weight in contests for various literary prizes. Yet, the Irish novel has not of late been remarkable for any capacity to cause Irish society to stop up short and look keenly at itself.
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.