Study of the Irish Novel Falls Between Two Stools

A recent review of mine from the Irish Examiner

'The Irish Novel: 1960-2010'The Irish Novel: 1960-2010

George O’Brien

Cork University Press; €39

Review: Val Nolan

Neither wholly damnable nor entirely successful, George O’Brien’s new study of the Irish novel is a problematic volume. Too scattershot for a scholarly audience, too academic for a general readership, this is instead a book fated for the shelves of university libraries where its frequent flashes of insight about the last half century are certain to be quote-mined by the undergraduates of the next. That is not to say that O’Brien, an emeritus professor at Washington’s Georgetown University, does not know his material. If anything the problem is exactly the opposite: his knowledge of post-war and contemporary Irish fiction is far too broad to comfortably fit within the structural constraints he adopts here, a series of three-to-four page essays on fifty-one novels from 1960 to 2010.

Lacking the page-count to sufficiently engage with the material, these short gobbets stand at odds with the book’s stated aim of assessing the Irish novel as a “discursive space”. Indeed, the reader is seldom drawn into conversation with the author when, typically, O’Brien begins each essay with a summary of the novel in question before moving full throttle into critical assessment. In theory there is nothing wrong with this but of course such a concentrated burst of analytic engagement bears as much resemblance to a pleasurable reading experience as the thick paste of meat stock does to a warm, rejuvenating mug of Bovril.

As such it is difficult to see anyone but an institution buying this book, not simply because academic texts are overpriced – one of the more obvious cancers afflicting this corner of the publishing industry – but also because of its specificity. A student of, say, Edna O’Brien or Aidan Higgins will find four pages of insightful, occasionally provocative analysis of one key work by their chosen author, but they will then run these through the photocopier and be on their way. The Irish Novel is not something anyone will sit down and read as a book. Neither is it a true reference volume, its author rightly uninterested in producing “a hierarchy of ‘greatest’ works”. No, what this most closely resembles is an especially erudite blog which has strayed into the print and paper universe.

Within it, O’Brien walks a fine line between so-called “academese” and the level of discourse which most readers will find interesting or useful. While this is far from the worst example of jargon-based literary criticism, the lack of a thematic through-line definitely hampers the cohesion of the individual essays into something more. To one extent this is actually demonstrative, supporting as it does O’Brien’s thesis that there is no one “specific notion of tradition that the novel, or any other literary form, should maintain”. On the other hand, the diversity of approaches taken to authors as varied as Francis Stuart, Julia O’Faolain, and Glenn Patterson, leaves one thinking that this volume should perhaps have been called The Irish Novels, plural, a work framed by the “difficulties presented by the contemporary Irish novel to canon formation”.

Nevertheless there are some trends which O’Brien identifies. They range from the obvious – the body’s use as “important imaginative territory” – to the more surprising, such as the importance of love in recent Irish fiction. However what really marks the Irish novel out as different from the 1960s on is the manner in which home, in all its connotations, is “no longer a viable site of continuity and inheritance”. As ever though, the brevity of the essays makes it difficult to fully involve the reader and so the standout aspects of The Irish Novel become those clipped, quotable riffs on breakages with tradition which stay in one’s mind: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies (2010) is the “un-Harry Potter”, Michael Farrell’s Thy Tears Might Cease (1963) is essentially “a story of Parnellite sexual rebellion”, J.G. Farrell’s Troubles (1970) is a tale of “the terminal, the violent, the deliquescent, and the delinquent”.

Elsewhere there are curious omissions; O’Brien expresses disappointment in the formal developments of the Irish novel for showing “little interest in replicating, much less adding to, the innovations that earned the modernism of Joyce and Beckett its international eminence” yet he overlooks fiction which does exactly this. The most glaring oversight is Mike McCormack’s Notes from a Coma (2005), arguably the only interesting Irish novel of the Twenty First Century thus far. A work rooted at the intersection of the self, media, technology, and politics, it is neglected in favour of Sebastian Barry’s offensively dull and chronically overrated Booker-bait A Long, Long Way.

Of course, to fill these columns with examples of excluded novelists (Neil Jordan, anyone?), would be to review a book which O’Brien did not write. Of those he does discuss, his choices are frequently commendable, displaying real feeling for the most interesting – and so most frequently overlooked – work of big name writers. For instance, forgoing mighty candidates like The Book of Evidence (1989) or The Untouchable (1997), O’Brien concentrates on the 1980s Banville, presenting Kepler (1981) as an exemplar of the Wexford-man’s great biographical novels and their “pronounced reservations regarding the potential for the meaning of the historical scenarios that are their pretext”. Equally, in representing “the most significant Irish novelist of his generation”, O’Brien makes the brave choice of selecting The Pornographer (1979), that curious story of Dublin’s “terminally tiresome post-war intellectual life” which is “probably McGahern’s least popular novel”.

O’Brien may envision his audience for all this, like that of James Plunkett’s Strumpet City (1969), to be the “sensitive, fair-minded common reader”, an artefact of “enlightened citizenship”, yet like the majority of academic literary criticism The Irish Novel is really just for those who have already read the books in question. More precisely it is for the third level student, with the general reader who, at the contemporary end of the scale let us say, has only read Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín, being unlikely to get their money’s worth. True they may encounter the work of authors with whom they are unfamiliar, Mary Morrissy, Timothy O’Grady, or – as one goes further back – Sam Hanna Bell or Anthony C. West, but the lurching quality of O’Brien’s study is far from introductory in nature.

Moreover, the often meritorious book-a-year approach fares poorly here against the thematic arrangement and contextual essays of, to give two examples, the John Wilson Foster edited Cambridge Companion to the Irish Novel (2006) or the Brian Shaffer edited Companion to the British and Irish Novel: 1945-2000 (2005). By contrast, The Irish Novel only partially succeeds in setting out to “participate in and reflect upon the idea of change as it relates to the contemporary Irish novel”. Despite many valuable observations, the evident love of the material which fuels O’Brien’s essays is lost in the book’s unremitting rush of critical sizings-up. Consequently, The Irish Novel provides the reader, specialist or not, with no time to reflect upon or absorb O’Brien’s observations within the wider situation of Irish literature and culture. It is not so much a failure as a missed opportunity.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 29 September 2012 (p.16-17).


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