Here we all are in Hodges Figgis, taking advantage of a tiny window before social distancing kicks in. Thanks for coming here to celebrate Alan and his wonderful new creation Laura Cassidy. Thanks also to Stephen for making us feel so welcome, and to Cormac Kinsella for organising the publicity on Alan's behalf.
The first thing I have to say is that Laura Cassidy would love this – the drama, the lockdown, the suspense, the will they or won’t they turn up element. She would probably also think that all the kerfuffle was because of her, Hollywood femme fatale and footprint of fame in waiting. She would have a lot to say about the fuss, and she would have us in stitches laughing as her spiel unfolded. I’ll have more to say about Laura later, but for now I’m going to ask her to do her best to take a back seat while I talk about her creator, the formidably skilled Alan McMonagle.
I met Alan first through his work, a story published in Young Irelanders, a 2015 anthology edited by Dave Lordan. Alan's story was called The Remarks and was about a wannabe rock trio who try to make it big, amped up on tears (the crying kind) and poitín. I was struck by the gorgeous surreality of the piece, and at the same time its grounding in psychological reality. It was funny, sad, weird, utterly believable and had a mesmeric rhythm on both a sentence and story level that had me breathless by its end.
Alan and I first met in person at one of the launches for the anthology and had a big long chat upstairs in Toners about life and art and writing and process and the importance of making the stuff that means something to you. From then on I kept an eye out for him, and was delighted any time we met. A train trip back from the Belfast Book Festival in 2017 was particularly memorable, thanks to a conversation about red shirts, Garibaldi and the important work his partner was doing with victims of domestic violence – as we talked a whole hinterland of Alan-as-person opened up for me.
I was also at the launch of his first novel Ithaca, where Donal Ryan gave a stonking speech praising the novel's voice and spirit. He also offered a lovely tribute to Alan, describing his generosity of spirit, his depth and thoughtfulness and his innate razor-sharp sense of the weird comedy that is human existence. And – intriguingly – he discussed a select writing "brotherhood", of which he (Brother Donal), Brother Alan and Brother Paul (Lynch) appeared to be founding members.
About 15 months ago, Alan and I were to spend another fruitful, wine-steeped evening together courtesy of the brilliant Paul Lynch, who had invited us to come out to Maynooth for a reading and chat during his writing residency there. Lots more chat was had and by the end of the evening I wondered if I had entered the hallowed writing brotherhood that Donal Ryan had described with such affection. When Alan asked me to launch Laura I jumped at it, with a narcissism Laura herself would be tickled by. Does this mean I can be called Brother Mia, I asked? Brother, Mamma, Sister, said Alan, whatever you want.
A few weeks ago we met for coffee and Alan filled me in on the context. The book is in a young woman’s voice, he said. Oh, I said. She’s an … actress, he said, and yes, there was a hesitation before the word “actress”. There’s a sister, he said. I got a bit sidetracked by her. But then I made a choice to go back to Laura. And you know what, I’m glad he did, because everyone in the novel gets sidetracked by the sister, Jennifer, and frankly, if I was Laura, I’d be pissed off by my maker doing that on me when Laura is the far more interesting one.
For those of you who haven't read it yet, the story of the novel hinges on Laura Cassidy, a young Galwaywoman in her mid-twenties who is convinced her destiny is to join the femmes fatales of lore on the Hollywood walk of fame, immortalised by a star sunk into Los Angeles pavement. A new theatre is opening up in town, called, pretentiously Story House. Pretty quickly Laura rumbles that its inaugural show will be a production of a Tennessee Williams classic. Her eye on the lead, a role immortalised by Vivien Leigh in the film version, Laura pursues the director with an admirable single-mindedness.
But her mission keeps getting blocked by all sorts of obstacles – her gorgeous, world-saving sister Jennifer's return from Mexico, her mother's meddling and fussing, the theatre community's inability to see her talent, her awful drama school buddy Imelda's stratospheric rise to global domination – and in the end she has to take things into her own hands.
I was chatting to Cormac earlier today about the book and the phrase that kept coming up for me was "deceptively frothy". When I started reading it, the first thing that struck me was its voice. Like the femme fatales Laura tries to emulate – Lana Turner, Gloria Swanson, Veronica Lake – Laura thinks and speaks in a fast, wise-cracking rhythm. I thought immediately of The Killers – You like fast cars? says the racing driver, having sped around the track. Hmm, haven't seen any lately, says the femme fatale, smothering a yawn. Oh, that femme fatale: equal parts guarded tough-gal yet under the surface an all too vulnerable addict to romance.
The pace of Laura's inner speech is itself addictive, with laugh-out-loud lines on every page. These aren't straight comedy, but a potent mix of ironic, hyper-aware self-deprecation and bone-deep frustration. "Mother, mother. More and more I'm convinced she thinks my river doesn't run all the way to sea." "The Doc is a good talker, has eyelashes worth fighting for." I can just hear Lauren Bacall doing that one, in her best you know how to whistle voice.
The more of the novel I read, the more it made me think of Marian Keyes. Watermelon and Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married. It may seem like an unlikely pairing – literary fiction and bestselling popular fiction – but Alan has that same knack Keyes has, one that's not often come by. He pulls you in, he makes you laugh, he makes you believe Laura, he makes you annoyed with her, he makes you care, and then – fuck – he gets the knife in and you're there going, ah no, ah yes, oh yes, yes. Yes. A sidenote: if the Joyce estate were ever looking for a writer to do an updated version of Penelope, Molly Bloom's monologue, they need look no further. I direct ye to pages 101-105. Absolute class.
Laura is funny, Laura can be a bitch, Laura is brilliant at sex and improvisation. Laura has a heart, and that heart is broken. Alan is gifted at hinting at the unspoken, the slow sad waters underlying his heroine’s sharp and sometimes – often? – manic surface. As with Ithaca he understands the potent power of dream, imagination and reinvention for those in our world who are most vulnerable. The protagonists in his two novels share a desperation that drives their actions ever closer to the edge; they share deeply troubled and riven families that are still full, sometimes heartbreakingly, of love; they also share secret friends and secret places.
There is a miraculous supporting cast in this novel. Take Fleming, Laura’s sex companion and truest friend. In two or three short paragraphs Alan nails Fleming’s dysfunctional family – five hard-drinking brothers who engage in violent and borderline homoerotic tussling, dressed only in canary-yellow Y-fronts, string vests and latherings of Deep Heat. Laura’s own sibling, the obnoxiously perfect Jennifer, is revealed indirectly, through flashes and shards of sly insight, to be not all that. Like Laura, she too is a romance addict, chasing after dubious men who leave her, literally, holding the baby.
Mother, who at first glance reminded me of selfish, gabby Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, reveals herself as – well, I'm not going to tell you here, you'll have to read it. There's #MeToo louche director Stephen Fallow (what a name), his smug model-turned-actress "girlfriend" Mia (how could I resist a book with a Mia in it?), and, as fulsome and over the top as a Douglas Sirk domestic melodrama heroine, there is Laura's ghastly, narcissistic, fake as a two bob note frienemy, Imelda J Ebbing. My word, Laura, it's simply divine.
There is tension at play in every line, from the external character-driven conflict to Laura’s own relentless back-and-forth self-questioning. Isn’t that right, Laura? Why yes, Laura. Indeed it is. This repetitive tic is far more than a stylistic device, a hint, for those who want it, to the real dynamics at play in Laura’s extraordinary inner world.
Alan’s descriptions of Galway are outstanding. Here it becomes reconstructed terrorist – sorry, tourist – attraction, its appearances oozing with a wide-eyed, nothing gets past you contemporaneity. Its richest seam is its Hogarthian underworld, of which Laura is queen, her court of beggarmen, thieves, pissheads, moaning singer-songwriters (like Goodtime Ray, who makes people, including me, dread to think what Badtime Ray is like), and the pulsing, vibrant chorus of St Jude’s Mental Hospital – a chorus whose astonishing appearance at the end made me long for a sequel set only in that august institution.
Most memorably of all, in the shadows of the text, directing all the action, lurks Frank, Laura’s Dad. Talented amateur actor, holder of the secret flame and his own dark secrets, responsible for one of the most beautiful lines in the book. “Being on stage is easy, he said. It’s the real world, getting through the days, hours minutes, that’s the difficult part.”
I’m really honoured to be here this evening, braving locusts, plagues and gale-force winds to launch this marvellous novel and welcome you all to the trip that is Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame. Let’s raise a glass, and in the absence of hugs, bump elbows with the famously talented Mr Alan McMonagle.
Laura Cassidy's Walk of Fame is published by Picador, reviewed for The Irish Times by Rabeea Saleem