Metaphysics gets a Mayo accent


Mike McCormack's novel about a Romanian orphan in Mayo took seven years to write. He shares some quare notions with Belinda McKeon

Mike McCormack thought he had a good explanation for the strange split narrative in which his new novel, Notes From A Coma, is written. He thought that the combination of styles brought the book into the science-fiction genre he felt himself drawn toward; that its form - the straight story of a Romanian orphan growing up unhappy in Ireland, shot through with the intricate and jargon- laden language of a subtext about power and consciousness - made it into a type of cyborg, that merge of heart and hardware with which he had become so preoccupied of late. He thought it was a justified challenge to readers, a way to bring them up short, to set them looking at fiction in a freshly stimulated manner. He thought so, that is, until a straight-talking friend told him otherwise.

"What you mean, he says," laughs McCormack, "is that you had a hard time writing the book and now you want to visit it on your reader. You're taking it out on your reader."

He shakes his head, his eyes squeezed tight with amusement.

"I'd like to think it was a bit more high-falutin' than that."

This is the particular manner and mystery of McCormack, this combination of plain-speaking and profound.

He comes out, as one of his characters might say, with some quare notions, but presents them with such quiet passion and conviction that they come across not as pretentious but as different, gutsy, unabashed.

"Always a bookish class of a lad" since his childhood on a Louisburgh farm, he talks metaphysics in a Co Mayo accent, shrugs his way through insight, meanders through answers, or attempts at answers, to questions of perception, of living, and of identity.

And as he does so, he picks his way through a BLT in a Galway sandwich shop. It's a long time - almost 20 years - since he's been an undergraduate avid for the texts of his English and philosophy classes at the university in this city, but he's lost none of his hunger for the ideas he first discovered there. Nor has he lost the reluctance to commit them, in finished form, to paper; the snail's pace of production which maddened his tutors is still in evidence. Not least in the fact that between Notes From A Coma and his first novel, Crowe's Requiem, stands a gap of seven years.

"My brother says: 'Seven years! What the hell were you at?' " McCormack says, acknowledging that it's been a long wait since the story of Crowe, that doomed young man from the west. And, since the protagonist of Notes From A Coma would seem, on the surface, to represent yet another example of that gloomy breed, the question must be asked: what the hell was McCormack at?

"Ah, I think I'd be a slow writer in any case," he responds, unperturbed. "You always think that if you're going to spend seven years on a book, it should be Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses or something, but mine is just a 200-page book that took a long time."

It took more than time, however. JJ, the character at the book's centre, is much more than another Crowe; orphaned, yes, haunted by his own mind, yes, willing to place himself in a state of simulated death to escape from that mind, yes - but not Crowe.

His story, in fact, is even stranger than Crowe's, and it required the sort of research and ideation that is better unrushed, lest it be worn too heavily by the narrative. JJ, it's fair to say, has been growing in McCormack's imagination since before he started to write fiction proper. The image of a little Romanian boy, taken from an orphanage and adopted by Anthony O'Malley, a bachelor from Co Mayo, has been taking shape for McCormack for a long time, perhaps for most of his life.

"This is going to sound really childish, but I've been intrigued by Romania ever since the 1976 Olympics, when Nadia Comaneci, the little gymnast, scored a perfect 10," he says. "And I thought any country that gave that to the world had to be wonderful, so I read up a lot on it."

What he found in his reading, he recalls, was a "hellhole", a battered country from which the loathsome truth was just beginning to emerge.

"When the 1989 revolutions broke out, I remember cheering them on," he says. "They were the last ones to make a bid for freedom, and it was the bloodiest and the most spectacular of the revolutions. It was almost French in its drama, like the French Revolution.

"And then the orphanages were opened, and it came to light that there was this system of orphanages all around the country. And loads of people descended on Romania to get kids. The US State Department calculates that around 12,000 kids went out of Romania in that 12-month aftermath. And there is no record of where they went."

To hope that they all went to good lives is natural, but it is also unrealistic. Such a scenario, in which children could be bought, says McCormack, for a carton of cigarettes, for a television, without any regulation or documentation, must have acted as a magnet to paedophiles and other agents of exploitation. To would-be parents, too, with good intentions but without the commitment to support those intentions, Irish people among them. McCormack remembers hearing on the radio a number of years ago about the Romanian orphans brought back to Ireland but abandoned to institutions here once it was discovered that they suffered from serious mental or physical illness.

"I tried to find out about it, but nobody ever wanted to talk about it," he says. "But at least four or five of them went back into orphanages here, because of HIV, autism, behavioural problems . . ."

Notes From A Coma is an exploration of these contrasting shades of the human mind, of the human soul, illuminated by the plight of the Romanian children - and more recently, by the case of Tristan Dowse, the boy adopted by an Irish family only to be abandoned after two years to an Indonesian orphanage.

"Old before his time," says McCormack of this child.

McCormack's JJ, although given a good home by Anthony O'Malley, is a child of a similarly grave face, his mind over-burdened by its own capacity for knowledge; he knows the world, and it gives little comfort to him.

And Anthony's kindness, though indisputable, must face the questions put to it by the adult JJ and by the reader who might wonder about his motives; how kind could it ever be to buy a child? Or at an even more basic level, how responsible to pursue a sudden longing for a son brought on by the loss of a herd of cattle?

The love for JJ of Anthony, and of a neighbouring couple who accept the result of his secret trip to Romania unquestioningly, is deeply affecting and is memorably depicted in the straight section of McCormack's narrative, but it is not, suggests the novel, all that comprises a world.

What else a world can consist of is examined in two layers by his writing. First, it is there in the notion of the bizarre government project for which JJ volunteers, against the wishes of his loved ones - a three-month period spent lying on a prison ship with four criminals as part of an experiment in the penal system, which sees each of them absented from the world for a time by being placed in a temporary coma, their every twitch and tremble transmitted to millions of television viewers by digital technology.

Second, this darkness, these harder edges of experience, are sketched by the long-winded, deliberately difficult footnotes of observation and analysis which have been woven through the story.

Both suggest a breaking of ordinary experience, both disrupt the easy route through what happens - they are the manifestation, in both style and content, of McCormack's darker materials. It was important to him that the novel broached these boundaries in a formal as well as a thematic way.

"My first book of short stories [Getting it in the Head, 1996] has an ongoing preoccupation with the form of fiction, with the shape and structure of it, and I believe that if you reshape the novel, reconfigure it, it will do things that it would not normally do in the received forms," he says. "And this is what I wanted to do, to write a book in a couple of different languages."

By this he means the different languages which tell the subplot in those footnotes: the demotic, the forensic, the philosophical, the political analysis of the bizarre experiment in which JJ chooses to participate. They're not footnotes, by the way, for McCormack, not in the style either of academic or legal texts or of the high parody of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman.

"They're more like contingent riffs," he says, in that way of his that suggests that even the most idiosyncratic concept is perfectly ordinary.

"They don't appeal to scholarship, to privileged texts, or anything like that. What they do is just seem to shoot off or glance off on specific points in the text, and they construct this broken horizon around the main event."

This idea of the horizon around a person or happening may have its roots in complex philosophical and neurological theories. McCormack came to it, he says, through reading up on the space around black holes, but in Notes From A Coma, it finds expression in a refreshingly warm and humane vision of identity; of home, of family, of the things that define a person, even a troubled person like JJ.

"We have this thesis in the Western intellectual community, this tradition of the sovereign autonomous individual, that they're self-sufficient of identity," McCormack explains. "But I have this thesis that in some ways our identities are entrusted to other people. And that they safeguard them, and that they nurture them, and that they make sure we don't get injured."

Coma, or even death, is no barrier to the persistence of identity, he believes. "It persists in the effect you've had, the love you've had, the work you leave behind you" - and this book, gentler than his previous ones, respects the richness and complexity of those enduring horizons that enable us to share our life with those who are touched by it.

Against the preciousness of the individual, the pull of ideological and scientific language is a harsh one, and it makes for hard work for the reader, this odd duality of narratives, but in doing so it points towards that preciousness more forcefully than any simple depiction might have done.

It is, too, a book that is considerably easier on the rural Ireland of McCormack's own upbringing than was his earlier writing, and he is glad of that.

"There was a desire to redress some of the things I said about small-town Ireland and about villages and rural life," he admits. "You're a younger writer then and you're anxious, you're mad for apocalypse and extremities and that. So that always eventuates in knives and guns and extremities and corpses on the ground and that kind of thing."

It eventuates too, he adds, in characters barely able to speak, uniformly grim and reticent, "and people don't really talk with clods of turf in their mouths like that".

JJ, though tormented by his own demons, comes to a place where he is loved and worried about and watched with care, not just with voyeurism, as he undergoes his strange period of sleep - and, to McCormack, this represents a new beginning in his fiction.

"So many of my stories ended up with people dying," he says. "I could see the mortality rate getting worse and worse. And I thought, if we kept going like this, I'd be dealing one day with a book full of dead people - and I didn't want that. So in this book I killed him off, such as it is, right at the beginning and I spent the rest of the book resurrectin' him, talkin' him back to life."

And when JJ leaves his prison, McCormack makes sure that there is something more than empty language to welcome him home.

Notes from a Coma is reviewed tomorrow in WeekendReview