The supreme stylist plucks at the strings of his own oeuvre

Here is a review I wrote for the Irish Examiner a few months ago…

Blue.pngThe Blue Guitar
John Banville
Viking; €19.99
Review: Val Nolan

John Banville returns to the art world in the quietly absorbing referential puzzle box which is his first novel in three years. The story may be slight but then one reads Banville for the prose and not the plot: Oliver Otway Orme – “O O O. An absurdity” – is a professional painter and an amateur thief. He “steals” the wife of a friend, is discovered, retreats to various shabby boltholes to pen an address to an “inexistent confessor”, and eventually submits to the messy fallout of his affair.

In Banville’s hands, this simple tale becomes a darkly comic vehicle for digressive colour: Orme tell us the history of “a few hundred acres of passable land”, of “a fatal accident I witnessed as a young man” (in Paris, naturally), and on and on, while merely glossing over the specifics of his infidelity. “There must,” he says, “surely be something or somewhere I don’t want to get to, hence all these seemingly innocent meanderings down dusty by-roads”. Of course, each incident is weighed heavily with meaning but then the structure of The Blue Guitar is strong enough to bear it all.

Strong enough too to carry the magpieish aspect of Banville’s own intellect. This is after all a novel which takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem while opening by simultaneously invoking a minor Greek deity of theft and echoing one of literature’s most famous opening lines – “Call me Autolycus,” Orme wryly says by way of introduction – and thus the book announces its referential nature from the get-go. Later Orme adds that “a large part of the pleasure of stealing derives from the possibility of being caught” and, for the reader as well, there is considerable enjoyment to be found in catching the novel’s endless allusions.

References to art and literature predominate, yet, more often than not, the most overt are to texts of a fantastical nature. These include Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and even (via “Omnium”, that “fundamental substance of the universe”) Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Further call-backs conjure Banville’s own back-catalogue and fans of the author will recognize, for instance, the name Vandeleur from The Untouchable (1997) and the character of Adam Godly from The Infinities (2009).

Banville’s light touch in this regard offers a reflective and nostalgic backwards glance which aligns with the depiction of Orme himself. In that regard, character, text and, yes, even author blur together in satisfying fashion (with even the protagonist’s own sister thinking that he is a writer and not a painter). From a certain angle it is as though Banville is conducting a self-interrogation of sorts. One wonders, is he actually talking about a character named Orme… or me, meaning the writer himself?

For cloaked in Orme’s asides about art are insights equally applicable to the craft and practice of writing. “Everyone thinks it must be easy” if “you have some skill and master a few basic rules,” Banville-as-Orme says. He seems to be discussing not just writing in general but speaking to the authors of beautifully wrought but unimaginative and destined-to-be-forgotten literary writing in particular. Because “technique you can acquire, technique you can learn, with time and effort, but what about the rest of it, the bit that really counts”? Indeed, on occasion he seems to go for the jugular of misery fiction specifically: “I’m tired of brooding,” he says, “it availeth naught”.

By contrast, the pre-eminent stylist of his generation leavens the “new-old world” of The Blue Guitar with ideas more at home in speculative writing (and one should not be surprised given that he is also the author of some of the most notable European science novels, among them Doctor Copernicus, 1976, and Kepler, 1982). A kind of vague apocalypticism thus pervades the backdrop of this book. Eerie airships ply the skies between “spectacular showers of meteorites”. Meanwhile conversations are peppered with offhand remarks about “nasty new germs coming from outer space” and solar storms which show “no sign of abating”.

Moreover, clues sprinkled throughout indicate that Banville has set The Blue Guitar in the same physics-wise world as The Infinities. It is the seminal work of that novel’s patriarch, Godly’s “famous Brahma Postulate”, which has led to “the new science” and its acknowledgement of “intersecting universes”. All very intriguing, though Banville never allows it to overshadow the ordinary. He deploys it sparingly as the basis of hallucinatory moments of insight whereby Orme seems to glimpse the possibilities of other lives in mirrors and reflections.

Beyond that, however, the “technological wizardry” said to have changed the world has not had much impact on the dishevelment of the novel’s resolutely old-fashioned cast. Everyone here has a glass eye or a “Merovingian mother”. Everyone exudes a “lonely hauteur” within the “charmed if sombre realm of the half-mad”. It feels, if anything, like the rural 1980s, and it is in the dissonance between that threadbare ambiance and talk of “Godly particles” that the peculiar flavour of The Blue Guitar – the unmistakable Banvillianism of the novel – is at its most apparent.

That Orme inhabits the headspace of so many Banville protagonists before him – the outsider, the thief, the autobiographer – only reinforces this effect. As a narrator he is not strictly reliable and admits to changing people’s names for his own amusement, yet he is all too aware that “when I’m gone there will be no one here to register the world in just the way I do”. Again Orme might well be speaking for his creator, a distinctive talent capable of finding meaning in the most banal of images: a cup of undrunk tea; the fogged-up windows of a car; an artist’s dispassionate gaze.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

  • This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on 19 September 2015, Weekend, pp.34-35.

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Wry dispatches from a west coast state of mind

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Pond
Claire-Louise Bennett
The Stinging Fly Press; €12.99
Review: Val Nolan

An unnamed woman lives on the edge of a coastal village in the west of Ireland. She reads books about the “gruelling practical exigencies occasioned by confinement”, cultivates “low maintenance crops”, and only rarely experiences “any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk”.

Thus uproarious, digressive, and predicated on a subjective accentuation of meaningless detail, Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut volume succeeds where other contemporary depictions of rural life collapse beneath the weight of their own self-conscious seriousness. It is a work which exists as both a short story collection and as a novel, surely even as a memoir of sorts, a narrative linked by the voice of a narrator for whom the unravelling of “minor foibles is a relevant pursuit”.

Embracing formal experimentation in this fashion grants the volume an usual energy and, though any work pushing fiction in this manner is in danger of confounding reader expectations, Bennett finds balance here in a pleasing back-and-forth between shorter pieces capturing moments of personal significance and longer offerings – stories or chapters as the reader prefers – which yoke the often abstract artistic ambitions of stream-of-consciousness writing to the more mundane trepidations of everyday life.

Her narrator sees the world through “thoroughly square” windows and has an “innate weakness for shabby clothes”. Men and cattle drift through her life, yes, but Bennett’s focus never leaves this woman who is curious in all sense of the word. She displays a “level of intuition” of which it “is impossible for anyone to make anything without mirroring the nascent twists of cosmic upheaval” and, in that way it must be said, is often “highfalutin”. Indeed, the narrator is the type of character who uses “highfalutin” with nonchalance and a total lack of irony.

Her resulting wordiness borders on overt parody of the artistic-temperament, yet Bennett imbues Pond’s narrator with just enough self-reflection to undercut any charge of true pretentiousness. And when she fails to do so – one suspects deliberately – the side-splitting results veer from meditations on the “stigma” of writing in green ink to quasi-Beckettian asides on rural living such as “I am used to vehicles coming up this way. That is something I am used to. And sometimes – though less often – they go down the way, and I’m used to that too”.

This is to say that Pond is a very funny book. It is also one which benefits from being read – and for that matter reread – aloud, perhaps to family or friends, perhaps alone. Only in that way is the slow building avalanche of Bennett’s weird hilarity truly apparent. From a delightful early description of bananas and oatcakes to a letter to a South African company requesting replacement nobs for an “obsolete mini-cooker”, the volume’s defining characteristic is a tendency to ramble which is both ridiculous and ridiculously profound.

Like the bird which falls down its narrator’s chimney, Pond is “a small sharp thing”. The book is “something to do with love. About the essential brutality of love. About those adventurous souls who deliberately seek out love as a prime agent of total self-immolation”. But, at the same time, Bennett consistently roots these desires in her narrator’s shyness and her cockeyed way of looking at the world. It lends the heroine of this highly recommended volume all the tremendous authenticity of a “mind in motion as it railed, proclaimed, recalled, confessed, imagined, and eventually wrung itself out”.

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We’re all Folk’d now…

Completely Folk’d
Laurence Donaghy
Blackstaff Press; £7.99
Review: Val Nolan

Endings are difficult. For the reader it means saying goodbye to familiar characters and worlds while for the writer, especially a series writer, it brings the challenges of crafting a capstone which is true to what has come before. Popular culture is littered with finales which have lost what made their originals distinctive but, thankfully, this final part of Laurence Donaghy’s Irish fantasy series is not one of them.

The conclusion to the story begun in Folk’d (2013) and continued by Folk’d Up (2014), Completely Folk’d is an energetic culmination sure to entertain a YA audience and to please those readers who have accompanied the characters thus far. Run through with the author’s distinctive irreverence, and nerdishly garnished with references to films and TV shows, the book successfully integrates a new widescreen perspective into the established story while nonetheless being entirely consistent with its existing supernatural family drama.

Nodding towards Stephen King, the Langolierish opening of Completely Folk’d follows directly from the conclusion of Folk’d Up where the entire island of Ireland was excised from the face of the Earth:

“The Irish Sea had been halted, as if by the hand of God in an irregular line. The waters swirled and rebounded off an invisible wall, preventing tens of millions of gallons of seawater from rushing in and filling a great nothingness – a vast void where the island of Ireland had been.
Ireland was gone. Lock, stock, and barrel it was gone.”

This is the first stage of “The Merging” whereby Ireland and the “Otherworld” will be brought together by the faerie witch-queen Carman. And this on top of the alternate timelines and supernatural incursions which have already defined the series.

The fluid nature of such a reality is reflected in Donaghy’s unconstrained prose. After all, the crises facing the novel’s characters calls not for fine speeches (though there are a share of those on offer) but for a raw, immediate narrative style, for expletive-filled dialogue, and for literal smash-cuts between scenes. Linguistically so, this is not dainty, elven High Fantasy; it is instead the smash-bang-wallop vernacular of a Saturday night in Belfast.

Danny Morrigan, “one of the Morrigans”, is still reeling from the revelations and the “insane vision quest” of the first two books. Now it is time for him to embrace his responsibilities as “part of an ancient bloodline charged with protecting Ireland from being overrun by a race of beings who had come to be known as – ha! – faeries”. Reunited with Ellie after their separation by the last book’s parallel reality, Danny’s mission is not simply to save Ireland, it is to regain the family that was stolen from him. Though of course, in mythological resonant fashion, he and Ellie are about to discover that their son Luke is no longer the eight-month old innocent who was taken from them.

Like the prior volumes, this is a carefully structured book and its pacey plotline nicely balances the present day events with relevant flashbacks to strengthen both character motivation and the Folk’d mythology. Moreover, linking the stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann to the often seemingly magical internet age grants Donaghy’s faerie threat a contemporary insidiousness. They may be supernatural but, by “harvesting the fear of the humans” via smartphones, the scariest aspect of the faeries is again their embodiment of corporate skulduggery, even a touch of state surveillance.

It is interesting too to see an author who has lived in the Northern Irish capital all his life portray a city overrun by literal demons. Otherworld Belfast “looked like a city during wartime, besieged and aflame”. The first indication of its translocation “had been the screams […] upsetting to hear but not exactly uncommon in Belfast in the wee hours”. Tellingly though, guns do not work in the Otherworld. Combat there is closer, more primal, and this gives Donaghy a lot to work with in the fight scenes which make up the majority of the novel.

This is not to say that Completely Folk’d is weighted towards action at the expense of its protagonists’ development. After all, the convergence of battles ancient and modern to decide “the fate of Ireland” would matter very little if Donaghy’s expansive cast did not flex and grow to the degree that they do. Thus the completion of Danny’s Hero’s Journey is complimented by solid roles for his friend Steve and his father Tony Morrigan. Yet it is perhaps Ellie who is best served here vis-à-vis the previous books (her confrontation with a faerie’s human puppet is a particular delight).

A surprisingly generous conclusion follows these figures into their transformed lives, and, for that matter, their response to the world’s fearful reaction when Ireland is snatched away and then magically returned to Earth. It’s not exactly ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ but, in allowing the surviving characters to take charge of and defend their changed world, this extended goodbye fulfils a similar narrative role and, more than that, it allows Donaghy to end his outlandish tale on very human terms.

A Belfast Buffy by way of Star Wars (the fact that Danny’s son is named Luke leaves one tempted to read a key sequence here as an inversion of a legendary scene from that film franchise), Completely Folk’d is to be commended for going all in to wrap up the series and its storylines in rousing fashion. The fact that one finds oneself reaching repeatedly for screen analogies in discussing the book further leads to the belief that the Folk’d trilogy would readily translate to, say, a TV miniseries or the like. Perhaps when Game of Thrones eventually frees up Belfast’s production resources, someone might fancy tackling the project…? Until such a time, however, fans of the first two books will not be disappointed to read how it all ends.

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All Folk’d Up in Belfast

Folk'd UpFolk’d Up
Laurence Donaghy
Blackstaff Press; £7.99
Review: Val Nolan

Folk’d, the first part of Laurence Donaghy’s Belfast-set fantasy trilogy, offered readers a contemporary, Joseph Campbell style Hero’s Journey sprinkled with amusing pop-cultural references and an irreverent tone. Strong domestic scenes served to ground the more fantastic aspects of a novel focused on Danny Morrigan, a young man with “a genial manner which made everyone surmise (correctly) that he was harmless and (incorrectly) that he was not all that sharp”. The book combined a casual writing style with relatable concerns and an IT fluency which made it an ideal read for a teenage audience in particular.

Danny, who suffers from synaesthesia, worked in a call centre run by a successful Irish telecommunications company about to launch a “super-duper-ethernet project” marketed as “a gateway to a better world”. Living with his girlfriend Ellie and their son Luke, Folk’d followed Danny’s coming to terms with the existence of “Faeries” or “The Low Folk”. In its biggest gamble, and what was also its most intriguing  twist, the second half of that book turned the story on its head by offering not just a parallel timeline altered by the magical erasing of Danny and Ellie’s relationship but, intriguingly, the concept of a course-correcting universe with characters gradually growing aware that things were not as they were meant to be.

This second volume, Folk’d Up, resumes the story with an immediately apparent stylistic tightening. It is a more confident novel, a book less beholden to Campbell’s narrative template (though that is still present) and one eager to wed Donaghy’s loosey-goosey prose with a more intricate structure than that offered by the first book. Folk’d Up also builds on the initial novel’s hints of corporate skulduggery, arguable as unsettling as the accompanying giant spiders, and so solidifies the link between its very modern story of mysterious, eerie signals heard on mobile phones and its backdrop of old-school Irish superstitions about faeries and the dangers of disturbing raths.

Folk’d Up begins with a short recap before diving into the underworld alongside Danny, who is taken into the care of the war goddess Ériu, matron of the island and a deity who seeks to prepare him for his role in the coming battle against The Low Folk. Ériu provides Danny with whistle-stop survey of Irish supernatural history from the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann (a race who don’t see magic as magical, instead “that was how the world worked”) through to the bloody uprising of the United Irishmen and onward to the Ireland of today. It is weighty backstory, though with Danny often an observer rather than a participant, it does give a touch of the Tour-of-the-Museum to the first half of Folk’d Up. That said, Donoghy’s battle scenes are otherwise engagingly and energetically described. Moreover, Danny gains in agency once he realizes that “this is no fairy tale” and involves himself more heavily in the proceedings. It will be interesting to see this new assurance play out in the promised third volume, Completely Folk’d.

One is curious too to see how the mythology of Ireland further connects to Danny’s family history. His father, especially, is granted a greater depth by Folk’d Up, emerging here as a proud but tragic figure. Indeed, he proves to be the sequel’s breakout character and his flashback action sequences, filled with terrifying “wolf-faeries” and the like, serve to contextualise the saga’s magical conflicts against more familiar struggles: “Up and down and across this miserable wee island, chasing shadows and shades and worst things besides. He’d fought changelings in castle ruins, battled faerie soldiers in back alleys while the British fought the IRA mere streets away.”

Unlike soldiers, however, the faeries of Folk’d Up operate more like something out of a gangster movie. Their leader wields a sword which can remake reality and, as CEO of the company Danny worked for, is about to unveil his “super advanced, top secret, only within Ireland’ network, a kind of twenty-first century update and exploitation of the ley-line concept: “Hundreds of thousands of thoughts – human thoughts – travelling across lines”, a commodification of the subconscious ready to be drawn upon by dark forces.

Though it is a darker outing than Folk’d – very much The Empire Strikes Back to the initial volume’s Star Wars (exactly the kind of reference Danny would appreciate) – Folk’d Up does preserve the first book’s sense of humour (along with Donaghy’s love of obscenity, again seemingly designed to appeal to the YA market). There is an increased and successful use of the saga’s supporting cast here too, not just Danny’s father but also his best friend Steve, who takes up the mantle of hero in the mortal world in Danny’s absence while simultaneously coping with the breakdown of everything he and Ellie (the parallel timeline having retconned them into a relationship) have believed to be true.

Handsomely produced by Blackstaff Press, Folk’d and Folk’d Up both display Donaghy’s genuine fondness for SF/F material and his lively approach to long-form storytelling. Wry observations about Northern Irish life (“Expert linguists have agreed that the Belfast ‘so’ is unique among all retorts contained in all dialects of the world’s languages. There exists no counter-move.”) compete for space with twists, turns, and Donaghy’s willingness to take the story in unexpected directions. Specifically, Folk’d Up’s excellent cliffhanger leaves the reader genuinely curious as to how Danny Morrigan’s story will conclude in the final volume.

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‘Diving into the Wreck’ published in Interzone

The relevant pages of Interzone #252

Two relevant pages from Interzone #252

I’m happy to say that my story ‘Diving into the Wreck’ has just been published in the current (May 2014)  issue of Interzone (#252) accompanied by a beautiful painting by Wayne Haag.

This is a near-future story about an exo-archaeologist searching for the remains of the Eagle module on the Moon, the actual capsule in which Armstrong and Aldrin travelled to and from the lunar surface (no, we don’t know where its ascent stage is). In the process he is forced to confront his feelings about the death and legacy of his wife, an historian of the Space Age who believed that some things should remain mysteries.

There’s a lot of me in ‘Diving into the Wreck’. The settings range from the hills of west Limerick above where I grew up, to the University of California at San Diego where I was part of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, to an apartment overlooking the shores of Galway Bay where I lived while writing the story. And the moon, of course; the same moon that watches over all those places and has for so long fueled my interest in astronauts and their adventures.

The story’s title is borrowed from the well-known Adrienne Rich poem about the past, about the power and importance of our personal narratives, and about ‘the wreck of obsolete myths,’ in Margaret Atwood’s words (The New York Times Book Review, 1973). It seemed a good fit for a story about recollection and the value of modern myths in the era of space exploration, especially given the characters’ belief in the necessity of understanding ‘the old stories before embarking on a journey to change them’ (as Judith McDaniel has written of Rich’s poem; Reconstituting the World, 1978).

Interzone #252 also contains stories by Neil Williamson, Katharine E.K. Duckett, Oliver Buckram, Claire Humphrey, and Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, along with Andy Hedgecock’s interview with Williamson and the usual book, cinema, and DVD reviews. The issue can be purchased via TTA Press (and they, in turn, can be followed via Twitter here).

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Plugging into the Future

A recent review of mine from the Irish ExaminerMike McCormack’s new story collection Forensic Songs.

"Forensic Songs"Forensic Songs

Mike McCormack

Lilliput; £12

Review: Val Nolan

While writers such as Mary Costello and Kevin Barry have lately been rejuvenating traditional themes and motifs in short form fiction, Mayo-man Mike McCormack has been busy expanding the frontiers of Irish writing into the future. Building on his 1996 collection Getting it in the Head, as well his excellent 2005 novel Notes From a Coma, the twelve offerings here respond to a world enveloped by “a gathering chaos, something so deep and widespread it can only be resolved by divine intervention”.

In the case of many of these stories, said intercession takes the form of a literal “Deus ex Machina, the god from the machine; techne and logos finally brought together”. Or least brought together in theory for, in practice, the mismatches explored by McCormack savagely demolish the myth of progress through soulless development alone.

In the opening story, a wicked sending-up of the Irish tendency towards miserable autobiographies, two Gardaí fret over “the only man in this jurisdiction not to have written a childhood memoir”. It is one of several “gaps” in official records found in this collection, an unfeasible state of affairs in a Twenty-First century where everything is indexed, referenced, and tallied with existing accounts beneath skies crisscrossed by “planes, satellites, unmanned drones…”

Another standout, “There is a Game Over There”, baits a prisoner with a “turn-based, wholly intuitive” computer game focused on “the abstract realm of politics”, a work financed by “P. O’Neill”, the pseudonymous identity of the IRA spin-masters. The game is revolutionary because, like real life, it has “the possibility of infinite endings” and so lends itself to a story which questions the fluidity of identity – if not reality itself – in a digital age where the screen has more substance than the truth.

It is exactly this attitude which gives Forensic Songs its distinctive flavour. In it, a child attempts to harness the “complete profile” which TV says will someday make him a serial killer; a spurned politician fancies himself a deity for building “roads and bridges and bypasses”, restoring time “to the living”; two Men in Black, agents of “the New World”, appear on an Irish doorstep; meanwhile, set in Prague, the brief, almost Murakami-esque “From the City of Dolls” draws on the legacy of Karel Čapek (who coined the word “robot”) to query the ubiquity of technology in our lives and bodies.

“A beautiful woman stepped in from the cold, in out of the blue, sat down beside me and told me a story,” the story’s narrator says, learning that his new acquaintance has an electrical device in her chest, a “jumpstart” to counteract a cardiac condition. Along with the new science of “Prophet X”, the creation of a CEO with a Messiah Complex, the woman’s implant is one of many “redemption technologies” and “Christ machines” which McCormack’s characters struggle to align with pre-existing worldviews.

Indeed, the Ireland of Forensic Songs is like a computer system itself, the hardware of the old century yoked to the software, the mindset if you will, of the new. Run through with bleak humour, this collection hones McCormack’s previous depictions of small town, surreal Ireland into something unique and wholly needed. Stories which shatter the dangerously parochial conception of what contemporary Irish writing is, Forensic Songs is highly recommended.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 1st December 2012, p.16.

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