Lyrical novella tackles morality debate
The Fall Of Ireland by Dermot Bolger, New Island Press €12.99
If such a thing as family members of literary fiction exist, the novella, one could argue, has always been the perfect middle child.
Lacking the grandiosity of its more grown-up, older sibling, the novel, it tends to have more in common with the youngest member of the literary clan, the short story.
Just some of its characteristics include economy and precision of language, as well as an ability to propel the narrative forward with a persistent kind of single mindedness. There is no room here for swerving into inroads of unexpected or unnecessary subplots.
Like the short story, the novella is usually concerned with an isolated character, and can be read in one single sitting. It's an opportunity to enter into a world, or single consciousness, for an intense, but brief, reading experience.
In Dermot Bolger's latest novella, The Fall Of Ireland, we are introduced to Martin: a 55-year-old mid-ranking civil servant from Dublin, who finds himself alone in a hotel room in Beijing on St Patrick's Day in 2010.
As a highly paid staff member of the Fianna Fail and Greens coalition government, Martin's job – ostensibly – is to honour diplomatic protocol, and meet several key players of the Chinese delegation.
Bolger's central protagonist, however, has more pressing concerns on his mind than shaking hands with fellow diplomats.
Written in the third person, the majority of The Fall of Ireland is an interior monologue, where the reader becomes familiar with the central character's inner fears, desires, and anxieties.
We learn, for example, that Martin's marriage, back in Ireland to his wife Rachel, is collapsing, and he hasn't experienced any kind of sexual intimacy in over two years.
Due to his lack of libidinal activity, Martin – normally a shy and sensible individual – arranges for a sleazy encounter with a Chinese masseuse who comes to visit his room.
While this illicit experience does bring him a brief moment of sexual pleasure, it further exacerbates his ontological crisis, leading him to an epiphonic moment, where he realises "that this entire trip, like almost everything he had done in his career over the decades, was a monumental waste of time".
When Bolger conforms to the traditional characteristics of the novella form, his prose evokes a lyrical quality, and a harmonious musical sensibility – very similar to what you would find in any one of his nine collections of poetry published hitherto.
Describing the lack of communication between Martin and his unnamed Chinese masseuse, the narrator tells us "their silence had assumed a conspiratorial element of unspoken expectation".
But Bolger fails to prolong this consistency, and as a result the writing suffers. Furthermore, the attempt to analogise Martin's demise as a character, with the downward spiral of the Irish economy, would be better suited to the novel, a form which gives the writer more room to manoeuvre for this constant toing and froing.
Following the recent trend of other Irish novelists – such as Anne Enright and Claire Kilroy – Bolger's subject matter here fits into what one might call post-Celtic-Tiger-literary-fiction.
The problem with this genre of prose is that even established writers like Bolger – in attempting to express as the title suggests the great fall of a nation – tend to predictably reach for cliches about "people burdened with mortgages they could never repay on properties for which they had paid over the odds"; or an "Ireland [that] had been busted by banks and developers".
Bolger's short narrative thus begins a debate in morality: conducted in both the private (Martin's illicit sexual encounter) and public sphere (an inept Irish government).
Unfortunately, neither the reader, nor this very delicate literary form, has sufficient time to partake in these experimental games.