The oddball narrators of 21st-century Irish literature
Caitriona Lally on Sara Baume’s Ray, Donal Ryan’s Johnsey and Daniel Seery’s Tom, whose outsider perspectives enable them to comment on mainstream Irish society
Caitriona Lally: people on the margins interest me, who act as individuals, who say what they mean, who are true to themselves
In recent years, major economic changes in Ireland have given rise to a host of oddball narrators in Irish literature, outsiders who don’t fit into boom-time society and who remain alienated during the bust. Prior to this, Irish writers have often produced an outsider literature, with stalwarts such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett writing their most famous works about Ireland from outside the country. Furthermore, the protagonists of some of the best-known works of Irish literature – Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, Lemuel Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the eponymous Molloy by Beckett – are outsiders whose musings are used to satirise the ills of society as the writers see them.
My own experiences as an outsider in times of economic plenty helped me to create my oddball narrator, Vivian, in my first novel, Eggshells. Vivian believes she’s a changeling, a fairy child who has been left in the place of the human child that has been stolen. Vivian walks around contemporary Dublin, looking for codes, meanings and patterns in order to find a way back to the world she believes she belongs in.
I decided to make her unemployed because I wanted her to be an observer on the margins of society. I also wanted her to be quite strange: the kind of person you hope doesn’t sit beside you on the bus. Vivian neglects her physical self, including her personal hygiene. She has covered the mirrors in her house, and there are no descriptions of her appearance, mostly because I am fed up of reading about female characters who gaze at their doe-eyed reflections in mirrors while they brush their silky hair and apply lipstick to their luscious lips. I deliberately wanted to place Vivian outside of the highly groomed, expensively highlighted look that had become the norm in Irish life, imbuing her with more power to observe and criticise society from the margins than those who are firmly accepted, like Vivian’s sister. The sister is fixated on appearances, desperate to impress with her choice of kitchen, holiday home location (south of France, of course), and children’s clothes. Everything is matching and perfect, not a speck of dust or strand of hair out of place.
The Irish boom began in the 1990s and ended with the start of the recession in the latter part of the noughties. Until then, people had rarely come to Ireland to work; the migration had been all away from us. And with our long, long history of emigration, contemporary Irish literature has correspondingly produced emigrant protagonists trying to fit into their adopted cities: Eilis in Colm Tóbín’s Brooklyn and Tess in Mary Costello’s Academy Street for instance. But in a reflection of contemporary movements, Oona Frawley’s 2014 novel, Flight, features Sandrine, a Zimbabwean protagonist, who has moved to Ireland and finds herself caring for an elderly globe-trotting couple. The alienation she feels finally mirrors that felt by Irish immigrants who settled in the US, Canada, Britain and Australia over the centuries.
Frawley was born in the United States to Irish immigrant parents, which perhaps contributes to the power of her descriptions of the disconnect felt by Sandrine. The couple’s daughter too, Elizabeth, spent her own childhood in the United States and Vietnam. Frawley, an academic who teaches Irish literature, has said that she had been struck by the lack of novels in contemporary Ireland exploring the lives of the many who had moved here to work, the so-called “New Irish.” Kevin Curran’s 2013 novel, Beatsploitation was “the first novel in Ireland to deal directly with the African experience of living in this country”. As a teacher, Curran witnessed the exclusion of Africans and other groups from the national literature: “We write brilliantly about the challenges of being an emigrant, we don’t write at all about our obligations to the immigrant.” The novel’s character Kembo, the 15-year-old Angolan refugee, is an attempt to rectify this imbalance.
As money became more plentiful in Ireland, a sense of homogeneity crept in. Appearances became hugely important, with designer clothes, expensive make-up and hairstyles, manicures and pedicures becoming the norm, rather than a luxury, for many women. Kitchens and bathrooms were ripped out and replaced with sleek units that had actual names, like children or dogs. In the boom years, lots of Irish people travelled to New York with the sole intention of shopping, bringing empty suitcases to fill at designer outlets – in my opinion the most depressing waste of a few days in New York, unless you’re talking about filling a suitcase from the eighteen miles of books in the Strand Bookstore.
But the boom bypassed me entirely. I was in school and then university for the start of it, and being a broke student in a boom is worse than being broke in a bust; everything is more expensive. I taught English in Japan for a year and then took a meandering route home, backpacking around countries that had a more fluid sense of time, with no mobile phone or laptop. When I returned in 2006, I felt like I had entered a different realm. In Dublin, I found that people walked fast, clutching takeaway coffees (from chains that had expanded to Ireland in my absence), and shouting godawful corporate-speak into headsets. Everyone seemed to be “going forward” and “reaching out” and doing all sorts of other meaningless business verbs.
I found a badly-paid job writing abstracts, with no ladder to climb even if I had a notion to climb one. Lack of career ambition was almost seen as a character flaw then, and I found myself defending my decision to work in a low-paid job to people who had gone the money route: “But I like my job.” For my part, I couldn’t understand the obsession many people had with their jobs, the sense of identity they gleaned from their work, which seemed to be mostly aimed at helping the company’s shareholders to buy newer, bigger cars or newer, bigger houses. But then the recession swung into gear and I was laid off in 2011, at a time when unemployment was well over 14 per cent in Ireland. Later, naturally, I wrote about how losing my job formed me as a writer.
In the aftermath of all that money, there is now a worrying lack of concern from Ireland’s leaders for the most vulnerable members of society, with funding to organisations that help these individuals continually being slashed. It’s those people on the margins who interest me: the ones who act as individuals, who say what they mean, who are true to themselves, whatever those selves consist of. Those who join groups and act within those groups, are surely suppressing some part of themselves. I’m more interested in the purer, more honest motives of the oddballs.
Several novels published in the last few years in Ireland feature oddball protagonists, characters whose outsider perspectives enable them to comment on what’s happening in society. That these misfits gained even more relevance as commentators during these changes in Irish society is indicative of how nimble Irish literature can actually be.
Tom in Daniel Seery’s novel, A Model Partner (2014), is an outcast who speaks his mind and who is trying to find love and acceptance in a world that values homogeneity of utterance. And Ray in Sara Baume’s novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015), is another oddball narrator who adopts an ill-treated, ill-tempered dog, and these misfits become increasingly isolated from the rest of society. Both novels deal with a post-recession Ireland, but Donal Ryan’s book, The Thing About December (2013), explores the beginnings of the boom. Johnsey is a loner who isn’t all there, and he’s the only person who stands up to the land-grabbing greed of property developers in a small town. For this courageous stance, he is viewed by his community as obstructing progress, in the same way that people who spoke out against the property bubble of the boom years were accused of being pessimists.
These books contain a pervading sense of loneliness and alienation from society, which is heightened by the growing gap between rich and poor, the haves and have nots. There is also a sense of foreboding; as readers, we fear for these misfits who are vulnerable in their solitariness, without the back-up of a group. The phrase “Ah, sure we lost the run of ourselves” is used to excuse political and economic decisions that were based on pure greed, even though it wasn’t the run of themselves Ireland’s unfortunates lost, it was their jobs, pensions, and savings. With the boom years in Ireland came a new sameness of thought, of speech, of dress, of ambition (hot tubs and new kitchens), which threatened the uniqueness of our culture. Little regard was shown for those who don’t fit in – writers and commentators who speak out against this new world– and who don’t go along with mainstream thought. “Quirky” conversation topics made by the misfit protagonists of these books are met with silence or outright contempt, reflecting society’s prioritisation of “normal”.
That’s what interested me in writing Vivian. She doesn’t try to be like other people, she’s just herself, so her mind is free to observe the foolishness of certain behaviours. “Why are you keeping the kitchen a secret? Are you hiding it from someone?” she asks her sister, who then opens the sleek doors to show the hidden appliances and, failing to see the pointlessness of the action, unleashes a litany of meaningless words about the kitchen: “Neutral … Timeless … Transitional … Accents,” leading Vivian to ask what accent the kitchen has.
This article was first published in the Town Crier, a Canadian online literary magazine
Eggshells is published by Liberties Press, priced €12.99. Hodges Figgis is offering a 10 per cent discount to Book Club readers.