Monday 17 June 2019

'Where anything could happen, and reality was up for grabs' - Scottish author David Keenan reflects on his Belfast roots

Scottish author David Keenan reflects on his Belfast roots and considers the essential Irishness of literary modernism

Family photo from author David Keenan circa 1970. His dad is second from the right, his mum next to him.
Family photo from author David Keenan circa 1970. His dad is second from the right, his mum next to him.

Ireland's enviable tradition of literary modernism owes much to the Irish love of patter and street language, to the art of tall tales, singsongs and, of course, the Irish joke. My first encounter with the tradition was reading the birthday and Christmas cards my father's family would send over to Scotland to us from Belfast.

Most of my dad's family were semi-literate at best, the boys having been put out to work as soon as they were able, and the cards were written like they were guessing how language worked; yet there was an exuberance to them, a ribald modernism to the way they would have every single word underlined, or, a, comma, after, every, word, like, this. In the last birthday card my dad sent me before he died, he wrote: "Always, remember, you, are, an, very, special, person." It was more beautiful than any poetry.

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Despite their illiteracy, my dad's family held faith with language. It was like a working-class kabbalah, their commitment to the patter, their belief that if they could only turn the letters aright, if they could only deliver the perfect punchline, inscribe the best tale, come up with the funniest anecdote, and deliver it, immaculately, then the moment, at least, had been salvaged. I guess, in that sense, it's a religious commitment to the word, which strikes me as being particularly, though not exclusively, Irish.

That's why I wouldn't class any of the best modern fiction coming out of Ireland right now - books by writers like Anna Burns, Wendy Erskine, Eimear McBride - as experimental, per se. Rather, I think these are writers who have incorporated Joyce's permission to experiment with form, and with how words and syntax come into being, in our head. But what these writers have done best with it, is to take it back to the streets, which is to re-energise the literature, somehow, to make vernacular the modernist gambits of Joyce, Beckett, O'Brien, and to re-integrate them into the tradition of Irish storytelling, which is always performative, which means that it partakes of many modes of telling, just as modernist tellings do, and so to blur the lines between both. Of course, McBride is brilliant at this, and her novels inhabit this seemingly hypnotically-baffling world that really is the most seductively beautiful way of telling, written in a language that has its own centre of gravity, a language that is both elemental and rapturous, meaning that it's capable of earthing the most fantastic elaborations.

And of course, Northern Ireland, Belfast, has always seemed a place where different rules applied, no more so than during the Troubles, where Burns' Milkman is set, and where her tumbling-all-over-themselves sentences come over like a more loquacious Beckett or (odder) a quizzical kind of Holden Caulfield. And I think of Lisa McInerney, too, and her novels of - to lift a phrase - ferocious humanism.

Personally, I was drawn to Belfast as a semi-autonomous zone, as a place where it seemed anything could happen and where reality itself seemed like it was up for grabs. But I'm much more of a fan of micro-histories. I like stories grounded in the day-to-day world of the vast majority of humans that lived, because I think they are eternally relevant. So I didn't want to write a book about the Troubles, per-se, rather - like Lucy Caldwell's Where They Were Missed, or Wendy Erskine's Sweet Home - I wanted the Troubles to function as the background to my exploration of eternal human problems, problems that seem sharpened by Belfast and its experiences; self-perpetuating cycles of violence; men with men; fathers and sons; the problem of suffering; the promise of religion; in a place where questions like these were being confronted on a daily basis.

Violence, too, can become a performance, which is what Eoin McNamee's brilliant novel Resurrection Man deals with, to a certain extent; how in Ireland, violence, just like storytelling, becomes performative, something enacted for your image in your community, something spectacularised by your news. This was a big influence on my own novel, violence as performance, but masculinity as performance, also, just as my storytelling style, too, is performative.

I wanted to seduce the reader. I wanted them to fall in love, and care about the fates of a group of suave, unrepentantly misogynistic, racist, wise-cracking, ultra-violent, sharp-dressing, Perry Como acolytes, because I have always struggled to understand how cold-hearted killers could be held up as heroes in their community. But still, there is a romance to violence, and we do that reality a disservice by refusing to acknowledge its terrible appeal.

And I think of Mike McCormack's unfolding, book-long sentence in Solar Bones that captures the energy and non-stop monologue-style of the best Irish tellings, and of the language of Ulysses, and of Dubliners, too. Is the ending of 'The Dead', the snow falling down on all the living and the dead, the central told image of modern Irish literature? I think so, and in my new novel, For the Good Times, I pay homage myself.

Most of all, I was interested in talking about how the stories we create, and also the stories we are given, work to make our reality a prison, or a place to run wild in, a place that is our home, and that we are an intrinsic, inextricable part of, or some kind of separate 'it', up against this hostile 'other'. It's a religious question, ultimately, and an Irish question, too, and the book loops back on itself, like an eternal recurrence, because in Ireland history is not written, it is obsessively remembered. And with that, forgetting becomes a superpower.

Michael Hughes' Country is an inspired take on this idea of how we frame stories dramatically altering the way we read the same events. Transposing Homer's 'Iliad' to the time of the Troubles, it situates them in a kind of myth-time, eternally recurring, and we encounter them as archetypal, as forces that have driven, and given battle with, humanity forever.

Wendy Erskine's debut short story collection, Sweet Home, was my favourite read of 2018. It captured, perfectly, that feeling Belfast has always had for me, that feeling of a slightly parallel universe, of a surrealism of the streets, of a place where the otherworldly is right there in the worldly. For the Good Times, too, I hope, inhabits all of these phantom Irelands, while being none of them, precisely.

'For the Good Times' by David Keenan is out now, published by Faber & Faber

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