The relationship between art and money has always pivoted around the same, time-worn paradox: art may be able to survive without money, but it needs it too–it is bolstered and buoyed by cash. It is out of this pattern that a new wave of Irish writers has recently emerged. The crashing of the Celtic Tiger left a bleak landscape rich with artistic possibility, offering writers a catalogue of change and complexity to unpick. And then the country begun to get back on its feet. Equipped with a fortified economy and a renewed sense of optimism, a host of independent publishing houses sprang up, and begun to disseminate the work of these authors. Kevin Barry, Lisa McInerney, Sara Baume, Colin Barratt; their work, seething with a palpable energy, has attracted international attention, and given rise to the notion that we are currently in the midst of a renaissance in Irish fiction.
Leading this movement is Eimear McBride who, born to Northern Irish parents, grew up in the rural counties of Mayo and Sligo. Her debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, was praised but rejected by a string of publishing houses, who deemed its elastic approach to grammar too experimental. Eventually, after nine years, it was picked up by the Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press. It was only their second-ever book, but it was meteorically successful, winning multiple awards and adapted for the stage.
This autumn, McBride releases her follow-up work, The Lesser Bohemians, which is as abstruse in style as its predecessor. Set in London during the mid-Nineties, it follows the story of Eily, an Irish drama student who begins an affair with a disturbed, charismatic actor twice her age. Echoing the damage and displacement central to Girl, it soon transitions into a startling, lyrical tale ruptured by abuse and barbed passion. McBride’s writing focuses on the internal life, probing vulnerability, loneliness and the fractious alliance between power and abuse. “I think it’s something everyone experiences,” she explains. “Feeling separate, and on the outside of experiences that other people share.”
Reflecting on the current vogue for Irish fiction, McBride acknowledges that, while today’s writing is very, very good, it has in fact always been that good. “We punch above our weight in terms of quality, for the size of the place,” she argues, citing the legacy left by the great twentieth century modernists, by Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. It was these writers who nurtured Irish fiction’s reputation for daringly stretching the possibilities of language. “We take it as a point of principle to stick it to the man, even if that man is just grammar,” she explains. Perhaps their inclination towards the experimental was inspired by the presence of two languages, the wealth of Ireland’s religious cadence, and the rhythms of traditional oral storytelling? “That’s the question, the age-old question,” says McBride. “The national character is prone to a kind of playfulness, and that is very useful for writers.”
It is Joyce whose influence lingers most clearly over McBride’s work. She has never felt particularly comfortable with social realism, failing to comprehend how a purely linear use of language can capture the truth and nuance of human experience. But while Joyce showed McBride that she could take risks, the constant comparisons are limiting too. Some would-be readers have been put off by fear of another bad Joycean pastiche. And, beyond the linguistic similarities, their themes differ fundamentally. “What I am after is deeply interior and human,” McBride argues, “and not about setting myself or my work at the centre of the whole universe.”
The Joyce comparison presents McBride with another problem, one that extends beyond the immediacy of her writing technique. “People who don’t like to see arrogant women tend to label me as one, because [they think] ‘Who do I think I am, to say these are my influences?’” And within that is a kernel of a more universal problem. “There are a lot of critics who don’t like women to get above themselves,” she says. “They like to give you permission, and they like to give you a slap whenever you are getting too uppity.”
But McBride approaches outdated social conventions in the same way that she approaches narrative convention: she destabilizes them, then re-writes them. “I think there are a lot of people that would like to think that Girl was a fluke or a flash in the pan,” she says dismissively. With a book to promote, a third novel on the go, and a deep-rooted and fully flourishing literary tradition to continue, McBride doesn’t have enough time to pay much attention to such criticisms. There are, after all, bigger tasks at hand.—Isobel Thompson
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Credit: JMA Photography