Deleted Notes from a Coma

 

Earlier this month I was notes-from-a-comadelighted to contribute an article to the Irish Times about Mike McCormack’s 2005 novel Notes from a Coma (the story of JJ O’Malley, a troubled young man who volunteers for an experiment in the use of deep coma within the EU penal system).

As with any piece of writing, I am left with a handful of notes and observations that didn’t make the final cut (mostly because they didn’t fit with the direction the piece went in or they exceeded the word count; in one or two cases because they’re nothing more than asides). But I thought it might be fun to share the excised bits and some of the thinking behind them here as a kind of addendum to the article itself …

  • I made an effort to structure the piece as a reflection of the novel, with JJ O’Malley at the literal centre of things. Though that didn’t quite work out! Thus my discussion of how JJ lies at the centre of the book’s singularity is a little more than halfway through the article.
  • The sense of JJ O’Malley as a Jesus figure is compounded by his adopted father and virgin mother… of sorts (the latter being the Romanian nun who runs the orphanage where he lives as an infant).
  • The five narrating characters essentially offer five gospels of JJ O’Malley.
  • On the “contingent riffs” (what people have mistaken for footnotes) which form the broken boundary of McCormack’s effort to inscribe JJ’s story as widely as possible: It is surely no accident that “riffs” (the author’s term) contains a phonetic echo of “rifts”, and so suggests tears in narrative integrity.
  • One striking comment about three-quarters of the way through the novel describes how “fiction and history are put through narrative loops beyond all unravelling”. It serves as a nod to the Irish experimental fiction tradition – which Notes from a Coma is consciously situated in relation to – and, just maybe, specifically to a work like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  • The participants in the novel’s coma remind me of another group of sleepers wired up to machinery aboard a ship (and in their case receiving literal messages from the future): the subjects of Galania’s Exordium experiment in the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds.
  • McCormack’s Louisburgh is an important and increasingly storied part of his fictionalised Mayo topography (look no further than the recent Solar Bones). Given time it could yet become an Irish analogue to something like Stephen King’s Castle Rock.
  • One of the key themes of the novel is the struggle to resolve the spiritual with the scientific: the question of self-definition against “the technological phenomena of image and information dispersal”. Hence the novel’s obsession with ghosts as much as with digitality.
  • Note the book’s original cover (pictured above): A child – “the type of face new Ireland doesn’t wonder at anymore” – considering their own reflection. Or, just maybe, his own ghost…

Notes from a Coma will be republished by Canongate next year as part of their Canongate Classics series.

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Whatever happened to Seán O’Faoláin?

Seán O’Faoláin: Literature, Inheritance, and the 1930s
Paul Delaney
Irish Academic Press; €25
Review: Val Nolan

In his lifetime, Seán O’Faoláin published eight volumes of short stories, four novels, three travel books, six biographies, a play, a memoir, as well as critical studies of long and short form fiction. At various times his work was both banned and a set text on school curricula. Scholars speak of him in revered tones. He was editor of, as Roy Foster puts it, “that essential journal” The Bell while, for Diarmaid Ferriter, he is one of Ireland’s “most influential writers”. He is also, nowadays, almost entirely out of print.

How did this situation come to be? Well, by his own admission O’Faolain wrote too much while, by the judgment of critics, he wrote too unevenly. Paul Delaney, a Trinity lecturer in Irish literature, addresses both concerns in this monograph as he attempts to demystify the “uncertain subject” of an author “whose work is often not read or deliberately misread despite his apparent canonicity”.

Delaney takes a particular interest in O’Faoláin’s writing during the 1930s, “a decade of international volatility and fear” which saw the rise “of one of O’Faoláin’s greatest but most ambivalent influences, Eamon de Valera”. It is a fruitful focus for the volume which allows great scope in showing O’Faoláin as a “deliberately interventionist” penman concerned with “exposing expedient myths” as well as “recording uncomfortable truths”. And certainly there were enough of both of those going around in 1930s Ireland.

While Delaney believes O’Faoláin’s “true métier as a creative artist was the short story” he does acknowledge that this was not the author’s only narrative vehicle. Thus this volume is split between interrogations of O’Faoláin’s work as a biographer and discussion of his earliest fiction. The texts examined range from the Corkman’s two biographies of de Valera (1933 and 1939) as well as books on Constance Markievicz (1934), and the still well regarded King of the Beggars about Daniel O’Connell (1938), all the way to his controversial novel Bird Alone (1936) and A Purse of Coppers (1936), a volume of stories intensely focused on the “repressive and power-driven” Catholic Church.

This bipartite division proves an interesting approach. Scholars might ordinarily have chosen to examine either the biographies or the fiction but Delaney, in acknowledging both but prioritising neither, draws the reader’s attention to the intriguing stylistic similarities between O’Faoláin’s dual modes. What becomes clear on the one hand is the degree to which the stories are an effort to construct “a narrative of the history of modern Ireland” while, on the other, the ostensibly objective biographies function as non-literary fictions, stories all told rather than shown.

Consider for instance the use of a genealogy in the 1933 historical novel A Nest of Simple Folk compared to the absence of “the many elementary features of good scholarship (such as footnotes, page references for quotations, and bibliographies)” in almost all O’Faoláin’s biographies. Both modes meanwhile foreground the importance of “inherited memories” and both declare their status as published texts with “references to questions of structure, genre, and writing,” or with “explanatory subtitles”.

Accordingly, the great achievement of Delaney’s volume is to place his subject’s work within an appropriate historical and historiographical context. O’Faoláin, he says, had a tendency to view Irish history as an exercise of “pronounced theatricality”. The independence years for him were a “struggle for personal as well as national and generational autonomy”. A veteran of the War of Independence, he took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War but his activities were limited to propaganda and some light bomb-making, experiences he would draw upon for his first collection of stories Midsummer Night Madness (1932).

Delaney’s investigation of the unease and sense of transience found these linked stories is a highlight of the volume, the point at which his drive to contextualise meshes best with his textual analysis. Characters in the collection, he points out, “are often depicted as on the run, as they flee from enemy soldiers and a law which is alien and unjust, but also from a part of themselves which has been sacrificed or put to one side”. The reader can immediately see connections with the “stress on transitional periods” throughout O’Faoláin’s many biographies.

Never hagiographic, the volume repeatedly draws our attention to the way O’Faoláin slyly used his re-writing of the past – just another story to the author – as a means of commenting on his present in terms of both events and ideologies. O’Faoláin’s fictions therefore emerge here less as slices of life and more as reflections of his thinking in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This is especially true in his reproaches to naturalism and his wariness of modernism, as well as the manner by which he demanded realism include a powerful sense of social commitment

Of course Delaney himself is primarily writing for a scholarly readership and so the general reader may at times find his style a little dry. That being said, he largely avoids off-putting, jargon-heavy academese, and many will find his discussion of the biographies – particularly O’Faoláin’s shifting opinion of de Valera – to be of interest. By contrast, however, the chapters of literary criticism unpacking the novels and short stories, insightful though they are, will likely appeal to a narrower audience.

Very much in keeping with mainstream critical discourse, Delaney does well to, if not slice, then at least untangle the Gordian Knot of his subject’s reputation. O’Faoláin, we are reminded, was all things to all readers: “a liberal pluralist, an opinionated chauvinist, a proto-revisionist, and a nascent postcolonial critic”. Today, however, he is mostly an object lesson in how a highly regarded author can simply vanish from public consciousness. Delaney’s book may not fully explain the latter, and occasionally it leaves the reader to connect the dots themselves, but it is exactly the kind of spark required to reignite scholarly interest in this neglected writer’s work.

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‘Swallowing stout and feeling vaguely blasphemous…’

Flann O'Brien: Contesting LegaciesFlann O’Brien: Contesting Legacies
Eds. Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan, and Werner Huber
Cork University Press; £39.99
Review: Val Nolan

‘Flanneurs’ and ‘Mylesians’ rejoice! A hefty volume of essays originating in 100 Myles: The International Flann O’Brien Centenary Conference (Vienna, 2011) has recently been published and is an intelligent, rigorous collection whose contributors rise to the occasion of tackling one of the most scattershot bodies of work in Irish literature. As the editors put it in their introduction, Brian O’Nolan AKA Myles na gCopaleen AKA Flann O’Brien was an author who ‘combines the tags of “incomparable comic genius” and “avant-garde innovator” with that of “wasted talent”.’ A ‘polymorphic legacy’ if ever there was one, however it is from just these disputed spaces that Borg, Fagan, and Huber’s volume draws both its title and its critical focus.

The aim of the project is to rescue O’Nolan’s anarchic and absurdist commentaries on the strangeness of mid-twentieth century life from ‘the margins of Irish literary studies’. While the author’s best known work receives appropriate attention here, the real strength of Contesting Legacies comes from the attention payed to things that aren’t The Third Policeman (1967). This engagement with the breadth of O’Nolan’s stories, plays, journalism, and miscellaneous writings gives Contesting Legacies the kind of scope and authority which a study of an author as multi-faceted as O’Nolan demands. Moreover, and with only one or two exceptions, the individual essays of the book happily confound the stereotype of dry, unengaging scholarly prose and so the volume largely avoids the unevenness which is liable to tarnish any edited collection.

Keith Hopper begins the book by looking at the ‘submerged intertextual elements’ of O’Nolan’s story ‘John Duffy’s Brother’ (1940) as well as the author’s anxiety of Joycean influence (specifically how ‘John Duffy’s Brother’ mirrors Joyce’s ‘A Painful Case’). Anyone familiar with Hopper’s Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-Modernist (revised edition 2009) will recognise the no-nonsense delivery of shrewd, insightful readings which he again supplies in this essay. Though the bicycle is the vehicle most frequently associated with O’Nolan’s work as O’Brien, Hopper here draws our attention to the frequent appearance of trains as “symbols of frustrated modernity and thwarted desire” (in the case of ‘John Duffy’s Brother’, the protagonist is overtaken by the belief that he actually is a train). It is, in many ways, the ideal opening for Contesting Legacies in that it distils from the too-easily dismissed nonsensical aspects of O’Nolan’s writing a tendency towards tales of ‘power and danger’, of the imagination, of language and literature, of de Valera’s Ireland, and of sexual uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts stronger than facts or reason. After reading it, one is certainly primed for the multitudes which O’Nolan’s work contains and which the rest of this volume explores.

Co-editor Paul Fagan also looks at the before, during, and after of the ‘psychotic episode’ which is ‘John Duffy’s Brother’. Taking his cue from houses leaning ‘outward as if to study themselves in the water’ in The Dalkey Archive (1964), Fagan examines O’Nolan’s use of metafictional strategies associated with Ovid’s Narcissus myth in the story, as well as the author’s ‘project of testing the Narcissus scene and the literary event as interchangeable sites for thinking through “an evanescent identity which is lost even as it is grasped”.’ It is effectively done, particularly with regard to the instances of failed recognition and misreading on the part of O’Nolan’s characters. What’s more, by tracing the evolution of these strategies in the macabre comedy of the story ‘Two in One’ (wherein the protagonist murders his boss and then wears the victim’s skin in order to hide the crime) Fagan convincingly identifies a different kind of ‘encounter with the self’ in O’Nolan’s work, one which develops into the more radical and unsettling portrayal of narcissism recognisable in the later writing.

Jack Fennell discusses Brian O’Nolan’s ‘familiarity with, and creative exploration of, the motifs and clichés of science fiction’, a topic of considerable interest to this reader. His focus is on two comic stories as Gaeilge from 1932, ‘Díoghaltais Ar Ghallaibh ’sa Bhliain 2032!’ (‘Revenge on the English in the year 2032!’) and ‘Teacht agus Imtheacht Sheáin Bhuidhe’ (‘The Arrival and Departure of John Bull’), as well as on The Dalkey Archive. The biggest surprise here comes from the stories, which were published in the Fianna Fáil organ The Irish Press and so in about as unexpected a venue for parodies of pulp science fiction tales as ever there was. Both depict a future nation where Irish is the spoken language of the citizenry (and in the case of ‘Teacht agus Imtheacht Sheáin Bhuidhe’, the language of the western world) and both hinge on the search for anyone who still speaks English. Fennell draws on theorists and theories well established within the science fiction field, such as Marc Angenot’s ‘Absent Paradigm’ and Darko Suvin’s ‘cognitive estrangement’, and his application of these to some of the most Irish literature imaginable makes me excited to start his recently published Irish Science Fiction (2014), a book which is currently on my desk.

The conflict that Fennell mentions between religion and science is but one aspect of the tension between tradition and modernity which recurs throughout O’Nolan’s work. Indeed, it is at the heart of another very strong offering here, Alana Gillespie’s examination of how O’Nolan depicted ‘the role of science in shaping a modernising, independent Ireland’. Gillespie looks specifically at the Cruiskeen Lawn columns from the Irish Times which address the intersection of ‘religion, science, education, tradition, and anxieties about Ireland’s international reputation’. Beginning with a consideration of O’Nolan’s infamous mockery of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS issued a writ for libel against the Irish Times), Gillespie’s essay expands into a wide, intriguing discussion of how science was regarded by the government and by the people of Ireland at the time (‘What has St. Patrick got against theoretical physics?’ she asks). It’s a fair and balanced essay too, bringing in key players from both the scientific and theological sides of the divide.

Your only man...

Your only man…

A different approach to plausibility and possibility is provided by Ondřej Pilný, who looks at the similarity of O’Nolan’s writing to the ‘anti-discourse’ of ‘pataphysics’ (the ‘science of imaginary solutions’) as put forward by Alfred Jarry. In essence it is another way of looking at Flann O’Brien as a link between fantasy and science fiction in an Irish context, however Pilný argues that what makes The Third Policeman pataphysical in nature is the wedding of ‘frightening inventions’ and enigmatic machinery’ to ‘unique linguistic creativity’. He builds his essay around an intriguing version of O’Nolan’s imagination whereby real-life scientists like Erwin Schrödinger (with whom O’Nolan was familiar during the physicist’s time at DIAS) inspire fictional counterparts such as de Selby and Policeman MacCruiskeen, and, in turn, the fantastic developments in science by all parties become indistinguishable from one another. Pilný’s essay forms a loose trilogy with the Fennell and Gillespie contributions (with all in turn building on previous work by Hopper, Neil Murphy, and so on) which, more than providing a strong backbone to Contesting Legacies, suggests the continuing fruitfulness of O’Nolan and science as a field of study within the larger Flannian discourse.

That said, two of the most engrossing and interesting essays here are focused on O’Nolan’s relationship with very identifiable aspects of Irish literature and, regrettably, life. The first, by John McCourt, considers O’Nolan (in his na gCopaleen guise) as a ‘Joyce scholar’ (something he says would have made O’Nolan ‘brindle’) and serves nicely to knit the author more closely into those aspects of Irish writing regarded as more conventional and which are more widely studied, especially aboard. The second, by Tom Walker, is a standout in Contesting Legacies. It details The Third Policeman’s fascinating debt to the true story of a Garda officer killed in Clare in 1929 and so to ‘a further Irish historical context: terror’. Walker’s essay is this lapsed historian’s favourite of the volume and is no doubt going to be quite popular with those teaching the novel in that, like McCourt’s contribution, it underlines how O’Nolan was perhaps not such an outlier in Irish writing after all.

Of course there is far too much in this book to cover in a short review (wait, this is a short review?!). Maebh Long analyses ‘the ontological implications of “Jams O’Donnell” and the position of the name and the Irish language’ in An Béal Bocht (1941). Thomas Jackson Rice questions why ‘marriage, sexual life, and women’ are frequently presented as sources of ‘high anxiety’ in O’Nolan’s work. Marion Quirici looks at the way O’Nolan ‘calls attention so freely and so frequently’ to the framing aspects of his narratives as well as to the ‘role of the narrator as both listener and teller of stories’. Jennika Baines smartly examines the ways ‘O’Nolan uses murder to convey notions of justice’. Thierry Robin – informed very much by the work of Linda Hutcheon – takes an interesting look at the ‘proto-postmodern philosophy of history throughout O’Nolan’s typically ironic representation’ of actual Irish history in ‘The Martyr’s Crown’ and the playlet Thirst. Ute Anna Mittermaier contributes a hugely entertaining look at O’Nolan’s pseudonymous letters to the Irish Times (particularly concerning The Spanish Civil War) and the question of whether or not he was the enigmatic figure ‘Oscar Love’. Meanwhile, Neil Murphy covers a lot of ground in intelligent fashion by examining the degree to which An Béal Bocht parodies canonical Irish language texts in a manner which combines a satirical impulse and genuine admiration.

It is true that there is a lot going on in this volume, but that is inevitable (one might even say responsible on the part of the editors) given the still astonishing multiplicity of modes and genres – let alone authorial identities and publication contexts – which characterize O’Nolan’s writings (The O’Nolan O’Euvre, anyone? No? Okay.). By re-evaluating O’Nolan’s ‘lesser-known works and personae’, investigating his debts and influences on an international level, and probing his canon with such a varied range of critical perspectives, Contesting Legacies is very much the volume which the author’s work deserves. It is furthermore a model of an edited collection of essays, not just in the quality of its contents or its enjoyability as a reading experience (how often does one get to hail a volume of academic essays for that?) but for its wide appeal. Flann O’Brien: Contesting Legacies is to be praised for its avoidance of the distancing and alienating academese which turns so many of, if I may borrow a Mylesism, ‘the Plain People of Ireland’ off contemporary literary scholarship. It is, in the end, a book which will be of interest (even delight!) to those Flanneurs beyond the academy as much as to those within.

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Tóibín turns his critical eye on the forces and families that shape writers

A recent review of mine from the Irish Examiner

New Ways to Kill your MotherNew Ways to Kill Your Mother 

Colm Tóibín

Penguin Viking; £20 

There is an argument to be made that Colm Tóibín has always been a sharper critic than a novelist. As his work in fiction has evolved he has tended more and more towards prioritising aesthetics and interiority above all else. By contrast, to read his critical output — which exceeds that of his fiction — is to witness a sophisticated mind tackling the same concerns for style and social pressures but with a more journalistic urgency and regard for the general reader.

This volume, a study of those families where “discussion of art” is “part of emotional life”, collects 15 lectures, reviews, and essays into a surprisingly cohesive package. In it, Tóibín challenges our tendency to stereotype writers as tortured loners. Instead he rightly claims every artist to be a product of the social and cultural forces prevalent in their age, of which the family, even escaped or rejected, is often the most powerful.

Moving from the motherless heroines of 19th century novels, where maternal figures were often killed-off and replaced by stepmothers or other enabling surrogates, to the depiction of fathers in modern Irish drama, to the relationships of young black men to their families in the contemporary United States, New Ways to Kill Your Mother is that rarest breed of literary criticism: the readable kind. An opening touchstone on Henry James and Jane Austen (for whom the influence of family was “a technical problem rather than a psychological problem”) is followed by a bipartite division into essays on authors from Ireland and “Elsewhere”.

Though Tóibín perhaps betrays himself by referring to the War of Independence, as “the Black and Tan War” — and more so by giving Sebastian Barry’s clumsy Hinterland (2002) a free pass — his Hiberno-centric essays are measured and informative, lacking the hysterics with which critics often seek to claim the greats for one ideological camp or another. Here the boldest conflict of the Yeats brothers is their “battle with each other over politics and style”. George Yeats transforms into a mother for a husband 30 years her senior while William’s father eventually becomes a kind of son: “Did you get my poem?” Yeats senior implores; “Why don’t you tell me about my play?”.

Less cutting is the breezy history of JM Synge’s family, “staunch defenders of the Union”, through which Tóibín paints a vivid portrait of the writer himself. “Skilled at withdrawing”, Synge worked hard to overcome his unsociable tendencies. He was a student of science and archaeology for “their own sake” and, spurned in an early marriage proposal, he passed most of his short life with “no prospects just as he had no religion”. His blood relatives tolerated his literary indulgences without ever attending any of his plays so he sought a new and equally fraught family among the leaders of Irish theatre.

Thus the “strange hostility” between Synge, Yeats, and Lady Gregory when Ireland’s original troika ran the Abbey Theatre is framed by Tóibín in terms of familial secrets and lies. Yeats and Gregory, he says, were constantly fearful that Synge was on the verge of finding them out as they reinvented themselves. Yet while they fulfilled a psychological need for kin, they could never provide the creative fodder which Synge required for drama. Tóibín therefore slyly traces the creation of the Widow Quinn — and so “a central part of the action of The Playboy” — to Synge’s own mother, jealous of the attention he received from young ladies.

Mrs Synge, who spent a decade dying alongside her son, is also a gateway to the circuitous conversations Tóibín’s essays have with each other within the volume. She prefigures Samuel Beckett’s mother, a neurotic and often depressed women for whom her offspring “became the focus of her worry”. Despairing at his inability to find a publisher for his first novel, or, for that matter, a job, Beckett rejected his mother’s solace for that of art, particularly the paintings of Jack B Yeats. Turn by turn Tóibín’s book turns back upon itself like this, returning the reader to figures they’ve already encountered with fresh insights and knowledge.

The international side of things, while less tightly interwoven, displays a similar thematic connection through pieces on Borges and his nation, Mann and his children, John Cheever and his penis, along with Tennessee Williams and his unstable sister whom Tóibín pegs as the inspiration for the fractured women of plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). While a gloss on Hart Crane’s poetry disappoints on grounds of brevity, the two essays on American novelist and social critic James Baldwin which close the volume are Tóibín’s personal tribute to a talent rarely read on this side of the Atlantic.

It is easy to see why Baldwin appeals to Tóibín. He was a “spokesman for a minority” (two, in fact, if you add his sexuality to his race), a prose stylist with “a fascination for elegance”, as well as a writer who, like Tóibín, claimed Henry James as an inspiration for dealing “with the matter of failed masculinity”.  Here his Notes from a Native Son (1955) is offset against the most unexpected of texts, Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from my Father (1995), in an effort to show how both fatherless Americans grew to shoulder national paternal responsibilities. The result is a well meant but awkward comparison.

Still, this is a minor issue in an otherwise well argued volume filled with fascinating literary history and replete with metaphorical slayings. New Ways to Kill Your Mother depicts the writer as a “silent, stubborn dissenter at the table” in “all family events and outings” but it also makes us part of a rich and fruitful gathering. There is much here for the intelligent reader to enjoy.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 26 January 2013 (p.16).

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