Why Irish writers don't grow out of adolescence
The most basic plot of all – the move from innocence to experience – is the old reliable that Irish writers return to, continually reshaping it, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
IF YOU wanted to make the case that Irish fiction suffers from arrested development, you would have little trouble finding the evidence among contemporary writers.
Consider what are arguably the four best works of Irish fiction this year: Emma Donoghue’s Room,Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, Claire Keegan’s Fosterand Colm Tóibín’s story collection The Empty Family. What each has in common is that its most memorable figure is either a child or an adolescent.
Room is narrated by five-year-old Jack in a brilliant version of baby language: “We do tickles and Bouncy Bouncy and jaggedly shadows on Bed Wall.” Skippy Diesunfolds in and around a south Dublin school and its protagonist is 14. Foster (which won the Davy Byrnes short story award and has now been expanded into a novella) is narrated by a pre-teen girl.
And while The Empty Family’s stories have a range of characters of varying ages, the masterpiece is a long narrative called The Street, whose protagonist is clearly a young man, probably in his late teens.
These characters share the basic condition of the young: they have little power and limited information. They can’t function as fully autonomous agents. In Foster, for example, the narrator is driven by her father to a place she has never been and left, without explanation, with a couple she does not know.
And they exist in varying degrees of ignorance.
It is striking, indeed, that there is a similarity in terms of narrative structure between Tóibín’s Malik, an illegal Pakistani migrant in Barcelona, and Donoghue’s Jack, the child of a woman who has been locked away in a tiny room by her captor. Jack begins in the confinement of Room, the only world he knows. Malik begins with a slightly wider confinement: in the single street that becomes his world. Both stories are structured around the gradual expansion of these narrow horizons: the loss of an absolute innocence as a wider world of possibilities opens itself up.
In the case of Skippy Diesit is especially tempting to see this focus on childhood and adolescence as the result of an inability to deal with the adult, social world. The novel feels rather like two books: a dazzlingly vivid and deeply poignant evocation of the world of Skippy and his young contemporaries; and a much flatter and more cliche-ridden story about the adults who impinge on their lives. The contrast between the energy and inventiveness of the first and the pale predictability of the second is startling. It suggests a deep discomfort with the world of grown-ups.
One could go farther and see youth as the comfort zone of Irish fiction. It is certainly arguable that the novel of growing up, from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Manto John McGahern’s The Darkand Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, is the quintessential Irish form. The archetypal Irish short stories, Frank O’Connor’s My Oedipus Complexand My First Confession, are told from the point of view of children. Two of the great narrative voices of 1990s Irish fiction, Roddy Doyle’s eponymous Paddy Clarke and Patrick McCabe’s Francie Brady in The Butcher Boy, are young boys.
To look at this negatively, it certainly reflects an absence: that of a strong socially realistic tradition in Irish fiction.
But this absence is not accidental. It derives from something Frank O’Connor identified: the absence of a fixed society. Irish society has remained, through all its radical changes, so porous and fluid that it has been impossible to frame a big, stable public narrative around it. It is striking that the only epic novelist we have at the moment, Joseph O’Connor, has spun his epics not from Irish society but from the act and consequences of leaving it. The emigration story – mobile, shifting, laden with reinventions – is our equivalent of the English novel of society.
In this sense, to look at it more positively, the use of child and adolescent protagonists can be seen as a conscious strategy. It is one way of telling stories without having to rely on large public narratives. The most basic plot of all – the move from innocence to experience – is the old reliable to which Irish writers return. But precisely because it is so old, it forces them to continually reshape it.
One of the ways of reshaping it is to cut direct links to Ireland altogether: hence a Pakistani immigrant in Barcelona or a child in a room that could be almost anywhere. But mostly the writers rely on the transformative power of language to ring the changes.
And in this the guiding influence is one that is neither conservative nor especially obvious: Samuel Beckett. So often in contemporary Irish fiction the young protagonists are like Beckett characters, stuck in worlds they can never really comprehend, let alone control.
Using children and adolescents also allows for a variant on Beckett’s minimalism. The central characters have to construct their own stories from scratch. As readers we share with them a sense of absolute mystery: there is no off-stage life, no handy set of accessible explanations.
Keegan’s narrator begins, literally, with no more than the clothes she is wearing. Tóibín’s Malik barely exists for those he lives among and has to piece together, bit by bit, a picture of who and where he is. For Donoghue’s Jack, minimalism isn’t a literary style, it is the overwhelming condition of his existence.
This notion of having to start, over and over again, with almost nothing may be what continues to draw Irish writers to child and adolescent protagonists. But it is also what accounts for the continuing vibrancy of Irish fiction. Nothing is known and everything has to be relearned. Nothing is given and everything has to be invented. Nothing is fixed and everything is in a state of becoming.