Giving the lie to the literati

 

FICTION: All Names Have Been ChangedBy Claire Kilroy Faber and Faber, 270pp. £12.99

IT IS CLEAR from the very title of Claire Kilroy’s third novel, All Names Have Been Changed,that a certain knowingness, and even playfulness, is at work. Is it a roman à clef?Well, yes and no. Kilroy’s previous books – All Summerand Tenderwire– had their starting points in art and music respectively, but in this one she’s on home ground. All Names Have Been Changedinhabits the world of academia and literature; it’s a milieu the author is obviously familiar with, and she exploits her insider knowledge to the full.

A campus novel, right down to its very structure, the book is divided into three parts to reflect the academic year in which the action takes place – Michelmas Term, Hilary Term and Trinity Term – with chapter headings taking their names from Irish novels, plays, song titles and lyrics (Brendan Behan alongside Shane MacGowan, appropriately enough). Set in and around Trinity College in the mid-1980s, it is narrated by Declan, the sole male in a group of five mature students embarking on a creative-writing course taught by PJ Glynn, a celebrated and infamously difficult novelist. Such a literary giant is Glynn that all five students are in his thrall before they’ve set eyes on him, and their intense devotion already has quasi-religious overtones. As Declan puts it, “That five strangers at different stages of their lives had gravitated towards Glynn like pilgrims toward a star proved that there was such a thing as fate, and that we were firmly in the grip of it”.

Aside from their shared obsession, the five have little in common, save for being misfits of one sort or another. Declan is an engineer, returned from working in Leeds to a bleak and heroin-ravaged Dublin, a loner dogged by artistic insecurity. Then there are his four classmates – Aisling, Antonia, Guinevere and Faye – who, as observed by Declan, take on the qualities of Macbeth-ian witches in their closeness and complicity. Kilroy confidently fleshes out each one, from Declan’s first impressions of them in the draughty classroom of Trinity’s House Eight, to the fractured selves they reveal through their actions and their writing. Aisling, the most talented of the group, is surrounded by “an aura of calamity”, while beautiful, troubled Guinevere becomes the object of Declan’s affections.

The greatest creation of all, however, is Glynn himself, a skilfully assembled identikit of stereotypes of the Irish writer – the indulged boozer, the tormented artist, the cosseted academic. But stereotypes aside, he is believable, and remains oddly, roguishly likeable and vulnerable, even as his behaviour grows ever more grotesque and outrageous. Perhaps this is because his genius as a writer is never called into question – Kilroy doesn’t just create a character for Glynn, she builds a whole oeuvre, including novels, reviews of his work, and “Dr MJ Hanratty’s exhaustively researched biography”. She is a superb dissector of the cult of personality that attaches itself to so many writers, and inflates Glynn’s ego in the adoring eyes of the students, only to puncture the bubble of pomposity with the sharp needle of her observations. In one such instance, as Glynn examines a lump of phlegm he has coughed up, Declan muses: “He was forever picking at himself, sniffing himself, tasting himself . . . in a perpetual swoon of fascination with his own detritus. ‘Glynn’s great subject was the self,’ wrote the New York Review of Books. Little did they know.”

THIS SLOW DISCOVERY of the fallible man behind the enshrined persona is also integral to the unfolding story. Kilroy is as skilful in her plotting as she is subtle – she layers the small resentments and hurtful slights that build up between the students as the year progresses, to create an oppressive (and impressive) air of claustrophobia. Whether holed up in their classroom or falling out of Bartley Dunne’s pub, the group’s souring closeness is mirrored by their initial reverence towards Glynn giving way to a sense of betrayal, even scorn. In throwing them together in the hothouse atmosphere of a creative-writing workshop, Kilroy puts in place the dramatic apparatus for some intense group dynamics. Rivalry, infatuation, artistic endeavour, hero worship, disillusionment and infighting all simmer to boiling point, threatening to destroy not just the fragile alliances, but the characters themselves – imagine Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, without the Greek, and soaked in Guinness.

And all the while, as the group’s private, esoteric dramas are played out within the walls of Trinity (drawn in loving detail, right down to the carpet tiles of the Arts Block), outside, the reality of 1980s Dublin is portrayed in all its brutality. In the tragic figure of Giz, Declan’s drug-dealing neighbour, and the casual violence of the streets, Kilroy reflects a city mired in poverty, a harsh, perhaps timely, reminder of a darker era. But she avoids the temptation to litter the novel with prophetic statements on Dublin’s future, save for Antonia’s assertion that “if there ever was money in this country, no writer could afford to live here”.

Eschewing such easy devices is typical of Kilroy – here is a writer who seems to be constantly pushing herself, and her work, further. That she relishes language is evident in every line of the book: the sheer density of descriptions and imagery, the literary allusions (recognisable snippets of Irish poetry are woven through the writing), the blending of the writer’s voice with Dublin street argot – all make for an incredibly rich read. Occasionally, it must be said, she overdoes it, using elaborate words and phrasings where a cleaner, simpler treatment might have done the job (the repeated use of the word “occluded” got to me, for example). Still, if her writing ever veers towards the rarified, she steers it back on course with a wry observation; and even when she is being self-consciously literary, she deploys the reference with a nod and a wink. Talking about the air of danger surrounding Aisling, for instance, she says “Difficult to gauge how far you could push it with her. She was an Emily Dickinson fan”.

It’s in these sharp asides, as well as the beautiful, almost poetic, images that punctuate the book (a flowering lily stem at the end of part one stands out) that one sees a genuine writer’s sensibility taking shape. All Names Have Been Changedmarks out Claire Kilroy as a novelist growing in confidence and hitting her artistic stride – gifted, original and more than capable of stepping up to the plate of literary tradition she so brilliantly portrays.

Catherine Heaney is features editor of The Gloss magazine