A Character Test for Authors

Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner…

On Writers and Writing 

Margaret Atwood
Virago; £9.99
Review: Val Nolan

“Who do you think you are?” Margaret Atwood asks early in this volume. It is a question which frames On Writers and Writing as a challenge to both creators and consumers of literature. Within its pages, Atwood dares authors and audiences to rethink their self-constructed identities and their “position in relation to the rest of humanity”. As such, this collection of essays serves as a witty and cerebral exploration of creative possibilities rather than a text of a dourly didactic nature.

That a writer like Atwood advocates for protean qualities on the part of both creative practitioners and their readerships should not be a surprise. After all, this genre-bending Canuck has won everything from the Arthur C. Clarke Award to the Booker Prize. Best known on this side of the Atlantic for dystopian but prescient work including The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003), she has further made a robust contribution to the critical recognition of Canadian letters as a separate and energetic literary tradition.

The seeds of On Writers and Writing lie in Atwood’s Empson Lectures from fifteen years ago, her contribution to a Cambridge event which, in the proud tradition of academia trying to claim back those whom it once rejected, celebrates William Empson – he of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) – who the university expelled when he was found in possession of contraceptives. Yet the style Atwood adopts here is not as abstract as the volume’s origins might suggest. It is intelligent, yes, but for the most part conversational, often jokey, and closer to an informal sit-down than it is to a scholarly address.

“I am a writer and a reader, and that’s about it,” she says, selling herself quite short but succulently setting out her self-deprecating stall. Here her focus darts frantically around as might one’s eyes in a well-stocked library. Her discussion circles “a set of common themes having to do with the writer,” with their medium and their art. Indeed, in many respects this book is – like her multi-layered historical novel The Blind Assassin (2000) – an effort to understand the character of those who create characters.

Again and again she interrogates the myths we as a society have constructed around the idea of being a writer, our very own “many-headed Hydra” indebted to melodramatic notions of creativity “inherited from the Romantics”. She is, for instance, wary of the way culture fetishizes the artist starving in their garret “like a self-mortifying Christian ascetic of old”. She is acutely aware too of the extent to which creativity is rooted in a more pagan “desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld”; to write is thus to subject one’s self to a little death of sorts, a petite mort which inevitably brings up the eroticized aspects of the creative act.

“It’s a short step from that to the femme fatale” stereotype, be it Salomé or Sylvia Plath, and so the manner in which creative women have long been sexualised by the male establishment out of fear or lust or both. This constraint on the role and position of women in literary circles is a key concern for Atwood. “The word ‘genius’ and the word ‘woman’ don’t really fit together in our language,” she says, “because the kind of eccentricity expected of male ‘geniuses’ would simply result in the label ‘crazy’ should it be practiced by women”.

Of course such issues are not merely theoretical for an author who has lived with their effects for decades. In what is half-way between the book’s moment of deepest frustration and its darkest instance of comedy, she reveals that she withdrew from poetry as a young women after being asked one too many times “not whether I was going to commit suicide, but when”.

Yet as a “highbrow” writer who happens to pen bestsellers (“Not on purpose,” as she allegedly assured a patronising Parisian intellectual), Atwood is also ideally placed to consider the on-again, off-again discord between the genres of literary and commercial fiction. She does so here by examining the sacred or religious function of literature – “Art with a capital A” – and asking if “the mark of a true priest is his lack of interest in money”? This dichotomy of “Apollo vs. Mammon”, as Atwood memorably phrases it, provides an intriguing means of exploring the issue of recompense, one which is too often dismissed as vulgar, occasionally even as prostitution, by the literary community.

“There are,” she says only “four ways of arranging literary worth and money: good books that make money; bad books that make money; good books that don’t make money; bad books that don’t make money.” Is a writer a hack for cranking out “stuff he thought would appeal to his audience”? Obviously not, though while Atwood provides (admittedly exceptional) examples of those who “lived by the pen”, Shakespeare and Dickens among them, she stops short of fully legitimatising art for money’s sake. In that way, On Writers and Writing raises more questions than it answers. But then that is the author’s stated intention: to generate debate and let the reader draw their own conclusion.

First published in 2002 as Negotiating with the Dead, these efforts by Atwood to engender discussion around the mutable nature of professional creative practice reveal a great deal about herself as a thinker, an author and, for that matter, as a voracious reader. Existing Atwoodians will delight in the humour, intelligence, and breadth of reference to be found here, while novice scribblers of all genders and genres are also sure to benefit. Though this book is not a guide to how one might begin writing, its provocative and insightful sketches of the kinds of writers which one could become are arguably of much greater value.

  • This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on 10 January 2015, Weekend, pp.34-35.

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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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The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle

Title Card for The Man in the High Castle

I was apprehensive when I first heard that Amazon Studios were adapting The Man in the High Castle (1962) into a television show. What if this version of my favourite Philip K. Dick novel was terrible? Or worse, what if it was good and, on account of Amazon’s unique way of commissioning shows, it never made it to series? Because for a few years now, Amazon has been engaged in the practice of annually streaming a handful of new pilots for free but only commissioning a full season from those with the best viewer feedback. It’s been a hit and miss affair (the hit being Transparent; the miss being mostly everything else). However this particular show benefits from the involvement of executive producer Ridley Scott, a veteran of PKD adaptation, and of writer Frank Spotnitz, late of The X-Files. The result is a confident and well paced pilot which – aside from a few dodgy CGI sequences – delivers a terrifically realized version of this much lauded novel to the screen.

Minor spoilers from here on out…

As many will know, PKD’s The Man in the High Castle depicts a world where the Allies lost the Second World War. America is subsequently partitioned between the victorious Nazis and Japanese. The remains of the USA (the East Coast and the South) now form part of the ‘Greater German Reich’ while the West Coast has been reorganised as the ‘Japanese Pacific States’. Between them lies the Rocky Mountains neutral zone into which many people – notably those of Jewish or African-American heritage – flee in order to escape the oppressions of the West and the exterminations of the East. At heart the novel is, as Andy Duncan has said in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, 2003), a ‘thoughtful and thorough examination of several “ordinary” Americans,’ an aspect of the story which this pilot preserves to its benefit.

The year is 1962 and truck driver Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank of Bones) joins the American resistance in Nazi occupied New York. Through his eyes, the show presents the viewer with a lot more of the Greater German Reich than the reader of the novel ever encounters. Time Square is dominated by Nazi imagery and there is the consistently unnerving slight of ‘Johnny Jackboots’ on street corners and television screens, young men with American accents wearing Nazi uniforms and talking proudly about their time in the Hitler Youth. Yet wisely there is no text crawl to set this scene, no expository lump which might play well to spec-fic fans but risk alienating mainstream viewers. Instead, detail is sketched in gradually as the pilot progresses. We learn only offhand that Washington was flattened by a Nazi H-bomb at the war’s conclusion. We see on a map that St. Louis is now New Berlin. Most chilling of all is Blake’s conversation with a swastika-clad state trooper by the roadside as ash drifts through the air. ‘What is that?’ Blake asks. ‘Oh that’s the hospital,’ the trooper tells him. ‘They burn cripples, the terminally ill… drags on the state’. The casual way by which this information is imparted does more to cement this alternate history than almost anything else in the pilot. To the trooper this isn’t horror or murder or extermination. It is simply ‘Tuesday’.

While the Nazis are obviously evil, there is – as in the novel – more nuance granted to the Japanese characters. A cut from a brutal Brownshirt put-down of a resistance cell to a dojo training session across the continent introduces Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos of Mob City), an Akido student living quietly in San Fransisco. It is in this scene – built around a martial art which does not attack but which defends – that the divide between Fascism and Taoism which underpins the novel, something Patricia Warrick explored in Science Fiction Studies back in 1980, is most clear. Equally it is a solid introduction to the immediately engaging Juliana, a character who possesses enough thoughtfulness and idealism to balance out the naïve patriotism affected by Joe Blake when the pair inevitably collide in the neutral zone’s Canon City.

Alexa Davalos as Juliana Crain  and Luke Kleintank as Joe Blake

Alexa Davalos as Juliana Crain and Luke Kleintank as Joe Blake

Back when the novel was first published, the alternate world it described was essentially contemporaneous with that of its readers, most of whom would themselves have lived through the Second World War and recalled exactly what was at stake. To the modern viewer, however, the Nazi and Japanese occupation of 1962 is essentially an alternate history twice removed from our own. This could have been sticking point for the adaptation (thankfully nobody decided to “modernise” the storyline) but in fact becomes an advantage with period detail – subtly adjusted – performing much of the heavy lifting with regard to world-building.

Of course there are changes from the novel (perhaps making this alternate history thrice removed!), one of the primary ones being the reduced role of the I Ching. This venerable divination manual does get a look in during the pilot but does not yet (and may never) occupy the central place in this adaptation that it does in the novel. PKD himself claimed to have used the I Ching when plotting The Man in the High Castle but it is difficult to imagine the writers and producers behind this adaptation following suit! Indeed, where the author’s interest in oriental philosophy was spread evenly among the protagonists of the novel, here it is mostly communicated through the character of Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese trade official poised to be swept up in the dangerous international politicking engendered by Hitler’s declining health.

Other alterations are for the most part sensible and have been made with an eye to how The Man in the High Castle will function as an ongoing series. The number of characters has been compressed for the moment with, for instance, Robert Childan – the businessman who caters to the Japanese appetite for artefacts of pre-war American popular culture – excised from the storyline. While Childan was a valuable presence in the novel as the character who had most thoroughly absorbed the speech and behavioural patterns, even the modes of thought, of the occupying forces, some of that is taken on by Juliana in the show. So too is the question of the porous membrane between what is real and what is not. In the novel this was largely told through the story of Childan’s faked antiques (nodded to in the pilot by the factory which employs Juliana’s boyfriend Frank Frank; Rupert Evans in another role radically reduced from the novel) but here it is cleverly incorporated into the story’s main MacGuffin: The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

Those who have read the novel will recognise The Grasshopper Lies Heavy as the book-within-the-book written by the titular man in the high castle. For the screen version of the story, however, this anti-fascist text becomes a series of newsreel clips, essentially a show-within-the-show by which the pilot takes up the novel’s questioning of the relationship between the artificial and the authentic. ‘They look real because they are real,’ Julianne says, spellbound by the figures in footage of a successful D-Day landing and of the Japanese surrender among other things. This film is described as a ‘way out’, something which might be worrisome (especially given the references of Juliana having been hit by a bus prior to the story) if that didn’t so nicely reflect the words of the novel’s Juliana on meeting Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. ‘You showed me there’s a way,’ she says, their discussion circling around Abendsen’s use – like that of Philip K. Dick himself – of the I Ching in his composition process. Thus just as in the novel, this version of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is the means by which ‘the reality of this alternate world,’ as Andy Duncan put it, ‘is ultimately called into question – but, then, so is the reality of ours’. Retaining it in an appropriate fashion for a visual medium is one of the real strengths of The Man in the High Castle pilot.

Yes, as a fan of the novel I was predisposed to enjoy this. However that same love of the source material would not easily have embraced a substandard retelling. Thankfully Scott and Spotnitz have delivered a satisfying and extremely well-made adaptation of one of the finest works of a major twentieth century writer. From its sad but beautiful title sequence through to the numerous questions raised by its final minutes, The Man in the High Castle draws the viewer into a world and a story of rich potential. With the attention it is rightly receiving – as well as the variety of “The only new Amazon pilot worth watching” style articles it has already generated – one would hope that The Man in the High Castle will soon receive the full season order it deserves.

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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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The Horrorstör… The Horrorstör…

HorrorstorHorrorstör
Grady Hendrix
Quirk Books; $14.99
Review: Val Nolan

‘We never stop. We never sleep. And now we’re in your home.’ That’s the promise of Orsk, the ‘IKEA knockoff’ which is the setting of Grady Hendrix’s new horror comedy novel. Or possibly it’s better described as horror satire. I should just ask Grady because, full disclosure, he’s a friend of mine (he’s also the only good thing about the TV version of Under the Dome). I was horrified by the scale of his talent back when we were Clarion classmates, and, this Halloween when I finally sat down to read Horrorstör, I was horrified anew by the sheer glee he takes in tormenting his characters.

Horrorstör is written with the kind of brutal efficiency I’ve come to expect from Grady. Or, you know, from serial killers. It’s a lean book and, much like the products offered by its ‘all-American furniture superstore in Scandinavian drag’, it does what it has to do with deliberate minimalism. The novel pivots on a supernatural occurrence exactly halfway through and, up until then, the reader is grounded among characters and humorous jabs at American corporate culture. After the gear change, however, Horrorstör become a straight-up horrormövie (and Grady, as one of the directors of the New York Asian Film Festival, knows a little bit about movies).

His protagonist here is Amy, a rebellious (and heavily in-debt) college drop-out who is, along with the ‘committed and responsible’ Ruth Anne, recruited by overbearing manager Basil (‘I’ve been trained in retail crisis management!’) for a ‘secret overnight shift’ to find out how merchandise is being damaged each evening. For you see strange things are happening in this Ohio Orsk. Peculiar smells. Sightings of odd figures. It could be ghosts… or it could be the EM field of the store’s massive lighting grid making everyone think they’re seeing ghosts. Or it could simply be a homeless person hiding out in the store at night.

Already a dysfunctional group, Amy and company are joined by Trinity and Matt, amateur paranormal investigators and ‘the most annoying people in Orsk’. They have snuck along because this store is built on the old site of the ‘Cuyahoga Panopticon’, a prison which was part workhouse and part psycho religious torture palace. ‘Underneath the cells were three sub-basements where the penitents’ – as the warden called the prisoners – ‘worked in giant labyrinths full of mindless tasks designed to rewire their brains […] Just like Orsk’. The novel uses the prison as a kind of capitalist version of the old Indian graveyard horror movie cliché. ‘My partners grew fat off the labour of my penitents’, the spirt of the warden says as the crimes of the past spill over into the world of the characters. Because, spoiler alert, that happens in grimy, bloody, slasher flick fashion.

More than this, however, Horrorstör’s great strength is the manner in which it captures, indeed relies upon, the maze-like and manipulative store design one finds in places like IKEA (I remember trying to escape from one once myself; I didn’t encounter the floods of rats which Grady’s characters do, but it was still pretty traumatising). There’s a lot of talk here about ‘scripted disorientation’ cooked up by ‘retail psychologists’, and the way in which architecture is used to create ‘a sense of confusion and geographic despair’ lends itself well to the horror conventions of characters wandering in the dark, getting separated, and the uncanny sense of the familiar growing strange around them.

This is further reflected in the book’s design (by Andie Reid) and illustrations (by Michael Rogalski). Order forms, store maps, and small print relating to pricing and returns are scattered throughout this slightly oversized novel. Yet as the story progresses, these give way to the increasingly disturbing product descriptions and illustrations of torture devices which pepper the book in an oblique commentary on both the genre and on contemporary commodity fetishisation. This aspect of Horrorstör is more reminiscent of Douglas Coupland’s irreverence in Generation X than, say, Marx’s seriousness in Critique of Political Economy, but that’s totally in keeping with the lightweight nature of Orsk’s crappy furniture (no disrespect to Mr. Coupland intended!).

A fast and fun read for its first half, Horrorstör becomes a Saw-esque ‘gallery of rotten and humiliated flesh’ as it barrels towards its conclusion. Its characters grow more substantial even as Orsk’s products are revealed to be more and more flimsy. Meanwhile, linking the drudgery of work at a big box store to a literally torturous ‘mill for the manufacture of lunatics’ casts the modern retail experience as a kind of horror in and of itself. This might not be the most ground-breaking idea but the novel sells it completely with the ghoulish prison warden declaring things like ‘Work is the whip that mortifies your failed flesh and shapes your sins into something more pleasing’. A great read for a long, dark Halloween night, someone should really think about developing Horrorstör into a TV show. Oh, wait…

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Hundred Years’ War Retold as Heretical Fantasy

Son of the Morning

Mark Alder
Gollancz; £18.99

Review: Val Nolan

Faith is a curious thing. It inspires devotion and obedience. It grants licence to the good and bad alike. If anything, our history has been shaped by it, pulled this way and that by those with faith in God and those with faith in themselves. Rarely was this more apparent than during Edward III of England’s campaigns against Philip VI of France throughout the 1330s and 1340s, the initial phase of the Hundred Years’ War and the subject of this utterly enjoyable historical fantasy.

Mark Alder’s conceit here is to play straight with the faith of the day. Yes, says Son of the Morning, God appoints kings and, yes, angels will fly to the aid of knights in battle. Thus a surprising meditation on the personal and political implications of faith is concealed within a story of grim royals and sword-swinging men-at-arms. This is, after all, an era in which minor lords owe homage to kings who in turn must bend the knee to an even mightier monarch by deferring to the authority of God.

Yet the novel’s Supreme Being is not the one you will recognise from mass. Instead, Son of the Morning uses the dynastic dispute of the Hundred Years’ War as its model for a more mystical conflict: God is a rebellious angel who drinks the blood of his martyrs and “put some men above others”. He usurped Heaven from the real creator, Lucifer, the titular “Son of the Morning” and a being who “made himself”. Those who believe this follow a “religion of revolution” which professes that Satan “is God’s servant – a gaoler charged with keeping Lucifer locked away”.

Confused? Don’t be. Alder carefully lays out his theology at the outset and adds to it only slowly as the novel progresses. The reader quickly learns the difference between a demon – a “downthrown angel” – and a devil – a warden of the prison which is Hell. Angels, for their part, serve as a kind of medieval nuclear deterrent. The imagery Alder employs evokes as much: swaddled in “foils of light”, each angel wields awesome destructive powers on behalf of its anointed ruler. The effect is to cast religion as an arms race rather than an alms race.

Thus a French army backed by angels and flying the magical banner of the Oriflamme is undefeatable, a clear and present danger to the English claim on Philip’s throne. Edward has faith of his own, of course, but it is in himself and nearer to vanity. “England is me and I am England,” declares this man “famous for his rage”. He is a skilful warrior yet he seems to have been deserted by God; is it possible that his father still lives? If so, that makes Edward an unwitting usurper and perhaps explains why the angels will not come to him. Worse, it makes him “a neutered king, the victim of any rightful monarch who could call angels to the field”.

Not that King Philip is without difficulties of his own. Alder presents his French angels as “very exact in their criticism, while remaining entirely impenetrable when you asked them for anything useful”. Unreliable allies, in other words. They demand chapels of gold in which to dwell and the mass sacrifice of French troops before they will act. They speak in riddles and, in the end, they want “what God always wants of the faithful”: blood. Though certainly there is enough of that to go around in Son of the Morning’s seven hundred pages.

Inspired by history, the novel’s rich cast includes not just Edward and Philip, but the wry and battle-hardened William Montagu, Edward’s councillor and special investigator; Osbert, a pardoner and a charlatan; the boy Dow, who may be the antichrist, his tongue forked by a priest as punishment; along with Isabella of France, Edward’s mother and an enchantress of great beauty and power imprisoned in a tower at her son’s behest. Behind them all move the inscrutable Knights Hospitaller, an order who “absorbed the Templars on their dissolution” and in the process claimed great profit from the latter’s lands.

Alder who, as MD Lachlan, cut his historical fiction teeth on the Viking era in his Wolfsangel series, offers the reader immersive evocations of fourteenth century Paris and London. His cities brim with detail from the “gilded columns” of the palaces to the “dilapidated maze of houses” and “numberless poor” of the streets. As a former journalists he also possesses a keen eye for court intrigue sure to appeal to many readers. His noble houses vie for dominance, building and breaking alliances of both a political and supernatural nature while their fleets and armies engage in pitched naval engagements and the “grinding, miserable affair” of the war in France.

Buried beneath the narrative are hints at a gradual transition from lords and vassals to more professional bodies of troops and tactics. It is lightly done, but Alder’s impeccable research shines through in his commentary on the social contract of feudalistic Europe. Again and again the author asks “do servants always want what their masters want?” The answer, as you might imagine, is almost always no, but watching Alder play out the consequences is not just fascinating but genuinely engrossing.

A great doorstop of a book, Son of the Morning is one part George RR Martin and one part Dan Brown, although Alder’s prose is far better than both. So too is his sharp sense of humour. Montague and Osbert are cases in point, continually undercutting their respective macho and pathetic personas with pithy sarcasm. Indeed, while all Alder’s characters flirt with fantasy stereotypes to some extent, they largely eschew these in favour of three-dimensionality. Only Dow, the boy with a destiny, comes close to real cliché, but even he, with his considerable agency and his demonic beliefs, achieves credible growth by the end.

It all combines to make Son of the Morning a rollicking read awash with shocks, laughs, big ideas, and some very fine writing. True the story is guided by history, but it is Alder’s imaginative flourishes which light the way throughout. The result is an ambitious novel which more than justifies the faith which the reader places in its author at the outset.

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Space Age Robinson Crusoe has mettle tested on Mars

Here’s a short piece of mine which ran in yesterday’s Irish Examiner

The Martian The Martian
Andy Weir
Del Rey; £9.99
Review: Val Nolan

Abandoned on Mars by a crew who believes him killed in a freak accident, astronaut Mark Watney finds himself with limited supplies and no way of communicating with Earth. The Martian astrosphere is “damn near vacuum” and the planet itself is a “barren, unreachable, godforsaken wasteland” in which he is completely alone. With NASA’s next Mars landing years away, can Watney survive against the elements with no replacement parts for crucial equipment like his Oxygenator and Water Reclaimer?

Andy Weir’s addictive debut novel is a sustained answer to that question. A recommended read for those who enjoy a healthy dose of technical detail and old fashioned human ingenuity, most of The Martian takes the form of solitary log entries, Watney’s first-person narration which, though it displays flashes of frustration, quickly humanises the character via self-deprecating humour and a can-do attitude.

A botanist and engineer (astronauts are typically trained in multiple disciplines), Watney uses logic and care to jury-rig solutions to mechanical failures, oncoming dust storms, and even the prospect of starvation. He electrolyzes his urine to produce the hydrogen he needs for fuel and he composts his solid waste to cultivate bacteria for the desiccated Martian dirt he has mixed with water and fortuitous samples of Earth soil (“My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain,” he says).

Weir does a terrific job of making things worse and worse for his protagonist. This Martian Crusoe’s successes – such as growing a potato crop from taters intended for the crew’s Thanksgiving meal – are balanced by a series of well thought out setbacks: explosive decompressions, fried electronics, and even rovers overturned by the unpredictable Martian terrain.

Interspersed with this are NASA’s efforts to contact and rescue Watney. While these asides, typically depicting meetings and media briefings, take time to develop the same energy and, unexpectedly, the same verisimilitude as the astronaut’s Martian monologues, this is but a minor quibble. Indeed, the Earthside sections gain momentum in the novel’s back half as rescue plans take shape and the politicking, of both a bureaucratic and an international variety, gives way to action.

Moreover, a clever cameo by the Pathfinder probe and its Sojourner rover offers a nice nod to the real-life history of Mars exploration in a novel which asks some tough questions about the merits of manned missions vis-à-vis robotic exploration. Weir, an unashamed space geek, usually comes down on the side of humans and our propensity to think laterally and take risks. Certainly Watney is a goofy but effective poster child for both tendencies; a hero of necessity in an essential novel for Science Fiction fans.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 15 March 2014 (Weekend, p.36).

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