Saturday 23 September 2017

Roddy the realist takes a turn into the unexpected

Fiction: Smile, Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape, hardback, 214 pages, €17.48

Revelations: Doyle’s new novel focuses on a fifty-something man coping with the end of his marriage. Photo: Mark Condren
Revelations: Doyle’s new novel focuses on a fifty-something man coping with the end of his marriage. Photo: Mark Condren
Smile by Roddy Doyle

John Boland

Doyle's new book claims it will make you question everything, but for our reviewer, life is too short to search for clues.

The inside cover of Roddy Doyle's new novel assures you that when you finish the last of its 214 pages, "you will have been challenged to re-evaluate everything you think you remember so clearly". And the accompanying press release makes the bold claim that "a great novel makes you question everything".

If that's ever correct, it probably also holds true for novels that aren't so great. Indeed, long before I got to the bet-you-didn't-see-it-coming close of Smile, I was asking lots of questions, not all of them complimentary.

First, though, the basic storyline. Confiding narrator Victor Forde is 54 and has just moved into an anonymous northside apartment after the collapse of his marriage to Rachel, whose catering career has made her such "a national treasure" that he only has to mention her name for the reader to concur. She's that famous.

Victor has been no slouch at celebrity, either, having achieved youthful fame in the 1980s as a controversial radio pundit willing and eager to adopt whatever political and social stances would gain him the maximum amount of notoriety.

However, he has less fond memories of the schooling he received from brutal Christian Brothers and he's disconcerted when approached in his new local pub by a man who claims to have been in the same class as him 40 years earlier.

But no matter, because Victor has acquired a group of other middle-aged men as congenial pub companions and, anyway, is more engrossed in telling the reader at length about his relationship with Rachel, "the most beautiful woman I had ever seen".

"I was in love," he says on more than one occasion, also confessing himself "overwhelmed" and "besotted" as he details both their passionate sex life ("We fucked till we were starving") and Rachel's constant encouragement of his writing ambitions. In fact, Rachel's not just too marvellous for words but too good to be true, and the reader is left wondering how someone with Doyle's linguistic gifts can write so unconvincingly about this woman and her supposed charismatic appeal. Ah, but wait...

In the meantime, Victor tells of how, under the guise of a wrestling lesson, he was sexually molested one afternoon in school by the head Christian Brother, but this revelation doesn't come until halfway through the book and is anyway told so cursorily that the reader doesn't give it any real significance. But wait again...

The problem, though, is that the reader hasn't been expecting anything very startling, and certainly not dumbfounding, to happen.

These, after all, are the reminiscences of a middle-aged northsider looking back on his tough schooldays and on a marriage to someone he had loved intensely, while struggling to make a new life for himself after the collapse of that marriage.

And so, as the novel nears its close, the reader is eager to learn how the marriage came to an end - and, indeed, also to be told the whereabouts and circumstances of Victor and Rachel's son, who has only been mentioned in passing and who by now must be in his twenties or thirties.

But faith in Victor's narrative is suddenly shattered in the last few pages, which require the reader either to disbelieve everything that's been told before or at least to wonder which bits are real and which aren't.

Sudden twists, of course, aren't new to fiction. The once fashionable stories of O Henry were full of them, and Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected revelled in dizzying plot turns. But you don't expect them in a Roddy Doyle novel that for 95pc of its length has seemed to be in the realist vein of his Barrytown trilogy and his 1993 Man Booker-winner Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

So what's to be made of a book that withholds crucial information about Victor and his life until its final pages? Yes, you're suddenly made to "question everything" and perhaps if you went back and started Smile all over again, you'd find clues to its final bleak outcome, but life is short and there are so many books to be read.

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