Back to the future
From Out of the City John Kelly Dalkey Archive Press, tpbk, €14.50, 224 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
There have been many fine books set in our capital, but this is Dublin as you've never seen it . . . because it doesn't exist yet.
The latest novel from broadcaster John Kelly – part-mystery, part-espionage, part-satire, very literary – is set a quarter-century hence, in 2039. It's a radically different world to now, though not unrecognisably so. This is speculative fiction, not science fiction; a distinction made by Margaret Atwood, which annoys devotees of sci-fi, but here the distinction is valid.
Kelly's Dublin, and Ireland, is a place that might yet come to pass; an extrapolation, basically, of current trends – political, environmental, cultural – and what could result should they continue.
In From Out of the City, Ireland is part of what's called, rather militaristically, the European Alliance, and something of a vassal state of America. US gunships prowl Dublin Bay. The Americans have an army base in the Phoenix Park. The UIA – a nastier descendant of the CIA – has seeming free-rein in this jurisdiction.
The environment, Irish and planetary, is gone to hell. We have "radioactive pebbles on Killiney beach", warmer temperatures, even more rain; meanwhile, some countries don't exist anymore, drowned by rising sea levels.
It's a fascinating setting, teased out evocatively by the author. Interestingly, From Out of the City also constantly harks to the past – place-name etymologies, brief histories of Dublin notables – which, in a counterintuitive way, makes this futuristic Dublin more real.
The story is told by an octogenarian called Monk (named for jazz legend Thelonious; the book is rich with musical allusions and references, unsurprising given Kelly's day job). From his lair in the fictitious Hibernia Road, Dún Laoghaire – some of Dublin's geography has been altered – he keeps ever-watchful tabs on the other main character, his neighbour Anton Schroeder.
Monk is a computer and surveillance genius, not above physically stealing from other flats either. He's a memorably creepy character, self-absorbed, pompous, apparently without empathy, though with some decency. His stalking of Schroeder betrays an unsettling mixture of voyeurism and genuine concern, even love.
Schroeder, meanwhile, was the first Irish baby of the new millennium (he beat another baby in a "neck and neck" race, Monk jokes drolly). He's now middle-aged, a failed though published novelist, recently fired from his academic job in Trinity College. He drinks too much, his girlfriend Francesca is about to leave him, and he's no idea about the watchful man upstairs.
Their lives become entangled in an ever-more complex, dangerous web after Richard King, visiting US President, is shot dead in Dublin (his daughter is a student here). A femme fatale starts trailing Schroeder. Two acquaintances, one of them his neighbour, disappear under murky circumstances. An ex-priest schoolmate wafts back into his life like a rumour of bad news.
Schroeder is increasingly bewildered and anxious, as a chain of events appears to be spiralling out of control, and dragging him with them. He drifts through dead-end streets which are rotting from the inside out, reeking of danger and dereliction. And it's only going to get darker from there on.
This is Kelly's third novel, the first in a decade, and it's really very good. His previous two – The Little Hammer and Sophisticated Boom Boom – were well-received; I wasn't mad about them. This, however, is on a whole other plane, as though his talent has taken a giant leap.
Or, to be fairer, as though the talent has fully realised itself. Kelly's best-known as a music guru on radio and arts broadcaster on TV, but he's no literary dilettante. His prose is first-class: lyrical and oblique, very satisfying in a way only literature can be (albeit over-written in spots).
It's quite post-modern too, the narrator commenting on his narrative throughout, even pooh-poohing the climax as uninteresting – unfairly, in my opinion! There are good in-jokes about writing and barbs at Kelly himself, especially in his depictions of Schroeder's self-indulgent novel (lambasting a word, then using it later in the book). That takes nerve, but Kelly's writing is good enough to lampoon poor Schroeder's.
Best of all is how the mood of dread and paranoia is skillfully maintained. An atmosphere of heavy doom and incipient violence descends, on Schroeder and novel, like a coffin-lid.
From Out of the City reminded me, variously, of Flann O'Brien, Beckett, Kafka, DeLillo's Libra, the cult sci-fi movie Alphaville, Gene Hackman's The Conversation, and especially those classic 1970s spy stories: John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Anthony Burgess' Tremor of Intent. All that murk and greyness, random shocks of violence, doleful men and their bathetic obsessions. The way that nothing is fully explained, nobody can truly be trusted and the world is, ultimately, a nightmarish, unknowable place.
It's great to see an Irish author tackling unfamiliar themes, instead of the usual 'likeable simpleton in small town' clichés. And one so in love with language, relishing it like wine; a refreshing change from the 'pared-down style which is no style' in vogue.
The novel ends with two genuinely unexpected twists, one putting new colours on what's come before. Then a poetic, almost stream-of-consciousness paean to Dublin, reminiscent of Joyce's famous "riverrun, past Eve and Adams, from swerve of shore" et cetera, from Finnegans Wake. A suitably ambitious, artful conclusion to a fine novel.
FROM OUT OF THE CITY IS PUBLISHED ON MONDAY. REVIEWER DARRAGH MCMANUS IS AUTHOR OF THE POLKA DOT GIRL AND EVEN FLOW