Writing the boom

Early on in Ann Marie Hourihane's splendid She Moves Through the Boom, her eye is caught by a sign at the Eason's bookshop in…

Early on in Ann Marie Hourihane's splendid She Moves Through the Boom, her eye is caught by a sign at the Eason's bookshop in the west Dublin shopping centre that has engendered, in the Flood Tribunal, a gripping political thriller of its very own: "Oscar Wilde at Liffey Valley". The incongruity is perhaps not as great as it seems, for Wilde was the first great laureate of surfaces, triviality and the fusion of style and substance. He might have found much the same material for his cool subversions in 21st century Ireland as he did in late Victorian London. But boomtime Ireland has yet to find its Oscar Wilde or its Charles Dickens or even its Evelyn Waugh. The strange place we now inhabit does not seem to yield up its stories easily.

Because the familiar perceptions that they work with most of the time are so inadequate, even journalists have trouble mapping the new Ireland. Hourihane's book works brilliantly, because she starts out as if nothing at all is known about this place, as if it has no history, no accumulated body of working assumptions. Hers is a travel book in the style of western explorers in distant and exotic lands, where the landscape is confusing and the language has no dictionary. The only thing to do is to ask these strangers simple questions and to describe all the surfaces - shopping centres, night clubs, bathrooms, holy wells, car parks, churches - with the dispassionate accuracy of a botanist collecting field notes. If journalists have to write about their own country as if they were visitors from a remote civilisation, what chance do fiction writers have? Serious storytelling demands a sense of the inner rhythms of a place. The literary novelist has to have a feel for the hidden complexities, an ability to divine the buried springs. But most writers, like most of the rest of us, are too new to this odd island that has emerged from the Atlantic to know what lies beneath its creaking infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the temptation to write about a more familiar Ireland of the past is strong.

This is not, for writers themselves, a serious problem. Good novelists and dramatists ultimately create their own worlds. The whole point of fiction is that it is free to ignore or distort or re-invent, as well as to be faithful to contemporary reality. But it is something of a problem for readers. If we are not to be, in Hugh MacDiarmid's words, mere "surfriders on the day's sensations", we need stories and images that place us in the world around us. So far, the Boomland we inhabit doesn't have them.

What has happened, essentially, is that the emergence of a frantic, globalised, dislocated Ireland has deprived fiction writers of some of their traditional tools. One is a distinctive sense of place. To write honestly of where most of us live now is to describe everywhere and nowhere: system-built estates, clogged-up motorways, a vastly expanded suburbia, multinational factories, shopping centres such as Liffey Valley where the food court is called South Beach and is decked out with stray bits of Florida like an Irish pub in Germany is decorated with newly-minted old authentic Irish street signs. With an English high street here and a bit of America there, the passage to a distinctive Ireland is strewn with obstacles.


Unless you take refuge in local colour. A sanitised, rustic landscape is still marketable and most competent writers can do it with their eyes closed. (Eyes closed, indeed, is the only way to do it.) But the cost in twee cliche is too high for any serious writer and, besides, the Americans do this kind of "Irish" writing much better than we do it ourselves nowadays. One solution is to give up descriptive prose altogether and concentrate on pure speech. But Roddy Doyle got there first, with a style so original that imitations would be painfully obvious. The only alternative is to find a new way of writing about the place with a rhythm which matches the angular, discontinuous, spliced-together nature of contemporary Irish reality. The difficulty here is that, since Joyce, we have a remarkably thin tradition of experiment in prose. To a large extent, it was the playwrights rather than the novelists who struggled most bravely with the task of creating new forms to reflect the increasing fragmentation of Irish society.

The other troublesome change is the collapse of the very notion of a national narrative. Throughout the 20th century, it was possible for Irish writers to tell stories which seemed in one way or another to relate to a bigger story of revival, revolution, repression and collapse. Early on, the big story was the creation in opposition to Britain of a new Irish political and cultural framework. Then it was the disillusioning failure of the promised utopia. Then the long-running struggle between tradition and modernity. At each stage, it was possible to tell a small, intimate story that gained a much larger resonance from its relationship to a much bigger national narrative.

These days, it is by no means clear what the big story of Ireland actually is, or indeed that the whole notion of "Ireland" as a single framework has any validity. The boom itself has pushed the process of social fragmentation much further than ever before, with the rich and the poor living not just in different countries but on different planets. The decline in religious practice makes the notion of a shared store of images and allusions increasingly tenuous. Both the peace process and the effects of immigration make it impossible to imagine a single, simple Irish identity which could underlie an individual story.

Another problem for novelists is that the currency of revelation has been devalued in the new "let it all hang out" atmosphere of the boom. For decades, fiction was the only place in which dark hints of hidden realities (child abuse, political gangsterism, clerical hypocrisy) could be dropped. Novelists acquired a paradoxical power from their role as truth-tellers. As well as being a superbly accomplished artist, a novelist such as John McGahern is also an indispensable source for anyone wanting to know basic things about the Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s. But in an Ireland of tribunals, tabloid "true confessions" and radio phone-in shows, intimate revelation is no longer the domain of fiction. Memoir, journalism and tribunal reports have moved in on the territory of fiction. None of this means, of course, that Irish fiction is doomed. The remarkable figures who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s - John McGahern, John Banville, Edna O'Brien, William Trevor - are alive and kicking. The generation that found its voice in the 1980s and 1990s - Colm Toib in, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Anne Enright, Dermot Bolger, Roddy Doyle, Pat McCabe and many others - is coming into its prime. What the difficulty of creating stories of the boomtime does suggest, though, is that the long wait for a certain kind of Irish novel is going to continue. Hovering over Irish fiction in the 20th century was the notion that, at some time in the future, it would be possible to write a great Irish social novel. When Sean O Faolain wrote in his autobiography that "there is no such genre as the Irish Novel", he was expressing the feeling that Irish society was still too raw, too unformed, too impoverished to sustain a classical tradition of fiction.

The tacit implication was that, at some future time, a rich, mature, fully-developed Ireland would be chronicled in fiction by a native generation of George Eliots or Emile Zolas. Now that Ireland is rich and developed, if not exactly mature, it is pretty clear that this kind of fiction is as far away as ever. For the foreseeable future, Irish fiction will retain its angular, perverse, counter-cultural relationship to Irish reality.

Ann Marie Hourihane's She Moves Through the Boom is published today by Sitric Books

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer