Monday 23 September 2019

Books: Getting deep inside the head and heart of a Beatle

Beatlebone: Kevin Barry, Canongate €17.99

John Lennon who sought solitude in the west of Ireland.
John Lennon who sought solitude in the west of Ireland.
Author Kevin Barry

JP O' Malley

If you're attempting to give historical fiction a go for the very first time, using one of the most complex characters from 20th century popular culture might not be the easiest of starting points.

Unless, of course, you are Kevin Barry, whose lyrical prose appear to sing and almost leap off the page simultaneously. And so picking John Lennon as the lead protagonist for your latest novel might not seem like such a daft idea after all.

Eight years ago, after he released his first book of short stories, There Are Little Kingdoms, it appeared as though Barry had altered the landscape of contemporary Irish literature.

And yet, while the two books that followed were hugely impressive, I felt they never quite matched up to Barry's debut collection.

City of Bohane, for all its playfulness of language and stylish, slick sentences, felt more like a graphic-comic novel, or a Tarantino screenplay, than a mesmerizing work of literary fiction.

While Dark Lies the Island, Barry's second collection of stories, for all its wonderful poetic cadences, and laugh out loud moments, seemed to somehow lack the originality of voice that his first collection possessed in abundance.

Beatlebone, Barry's fourth publishing venture, is a concise book that one could read almost in a single sitting.

Plot wise, things are kept simple.

It's 1978, John Lennon is 37 years of age, and attempting to find some tranquility and solitude on Dornish Island: located off the coast of Mayo, which he purchased in the Spring of 1967.

Getting there, however, is another matter entirely. On his way to the island, John, led by a mysterious man called Cornelius, stops off at various destinations including: Newport, Mulranny and Achill Island. The enchanting landscape of the West of Ireland is both a spiritual and physical milieu as the story progresses.

The locals John meets along the way are led to believe that Cornelius and him are first cousins. And that Kenneth, as John becomes known to them, works in a car factory in Coventry.

Barry's approach to writing fiction is to take the piss when he can. And humour is one of his greatest attributes as a storyteller. But joking aside, the sophisticated, capricious, almost bipolar fluctuation of tone the narrator employs here, feels like it holds a mirror up to John Lennon's own thought process: which Barry has done a brilliant job of mastering, given the sheer enormity of the task involved.

The narrator's ability to effortlessly switch between John's real time conversations with other characters, and his own disturbing past-which bring him considerable anxiety- is what makes this book such a memorable read.

Lennon's 'mother complex' is a constant theme too. And the way Barry plays off the outward quick witted, tough talking, sarcastic, macho John, against the more sensitive, almost child-like figure we know from his music, comes across beautifully in certain passages here.

The narrator describes how John believes he can talk to Julia "across the night and trees[ and] that when he is near the sea he thinks of her most of all."

If anything has held Barry's writing career back to date, I believe it's shying away from a serious emotional involvement with his characters. But as he prods deeper and deeper into John Lennon's consciousness, what we get is a great volcano of emotion.

Stylistically, Barry isn't afraid to mess around with form either. And there are numerous approaches to storytelling thrown into the mix: a factual nonfiction essay is plonked, unannounced, in the middle of the narrative, where the author explains his own research for the book, even giving us insights into his personal life, including the death of his own mother.

Footprints of Flann O' Brien are never far away either: where the postmodern fictional trope of an author telling stories within another story is used to brilliant effect. There is also an internal modernist monologue towards the end of the book, which appears to be a bastard child of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape and Molly's final soliloquy in Ulysses.

And an exchange of dialogue between Lennon and three other characters appears in the form of a theatre script for the duration of an entire chapter.

Despite these scattered mix of influences, and vast flurry of styles, Barry manages to hold the entire thread of the narrative tightly together through the magnificent internal voice of John Lennon: which seems to be constantly reaching back towards a sensual longing for childhood.

Highly ambitious, hilarious, and a masterstroke in using the great soup of the English language- with all its profanities, desires and anxieties in tow- Beatlebone is Barry's most mature and sophisticated work of fiction to date.

JP O' Malley

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