Lethal cocktail of memoir and criticism...
Non-fiction: Tunnel Vision
Tunnel Vision is a shape-shifting debut book of essays by the young Irish writer Kevin Breathnach. Within it are critical essays on European intellectual aesthetics, interwoven with self-effacing, and frank personal narratives which make for a curious, unsettling, and moving account of a 21st Century Portrait of a Writer as a Young Man.
It's hard not to notice that the essay is having a resurgent literary moment of sorts. Perhaps it's something to do with the public's appetite for truth telling in a post-truth world, an antidote to fake news.
Either way, Breathnach's essays are fluid, both formally and thematically. They flow from the factoid to the anecdote, from impression to disclosure, and from observation to confession. 'I became dimly aware that until that moment I had not understood my intentions at all.'
The work is daring. It does not conform to the codes and conventions of what is traditionally thought of as the essay, but makes of the material what it can and will. The essay as process, in other words. Or as Gerard Manley Hopkins once put it, not the thought, but the mind thinking.
There are three sections to the book: I: True, II: Image, and III Ash. Each section contains an aesthetic or critical essay, and a personal narrative. Between the critical and the personal, no definite links are posited. The large blocks of prose are reminiscent of the late WG Sebald, as is the meditative mood of many of the pieces.
Breathnach travels in person throughout a varied landscape from Dublin, Munich, Madrid, to Paris, Gwangju, and Bergen. The geographic curiosity is matched by an historical one.
Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, Roland Barthes and many other writers, thinkers, and artists of the past are alluded to, and even with the short piece on Susan Sontag, there's something refreshing about the focus of intellectual curiosity reframed away from an Anglophone locus.
The spirit of the book is refreshing too, a spirit which is very much of a sensitive and intelligent sensibility trying to capture the world about him, trying to make sense of it, but not in any summative way.
These essays are fragmentary, and episodic. They have something of the zero-ending of Chekov's stories. The zeitgeist of Netflix, Youtube, Wikipedia and on-line porn is noted, together with a culture of synthetic drugs and headshops.
The humour is self-deprecating, and subtle. In [The Lot], Breathnach writes 'Joan was as alert to the pomposity of Blanchot as I was incapable of translating him.' As the author tries to impress Joan, and fails, she tells him his effort was 'excruciating'.
A devotee to photography, and film, or a student of it at least, Breathnach is adept at writing such charming lines as 'Madrid was the first city I had lived in where everyone returned my gaze.'
His creative non-fictions are both serious, and sometimes circumspect, at least in terms of his reflections on the nature of story-telling, its performative dimension, and the nature of 'omission'.
'I was never conscious of what I would not say until I heard myself not say it,' he writes revealingly. In other words, Breathnach's intellectual concerns question the very nature of his medium - the essay, and writing itself.
The final essay given to the reader, again in brackets, is [Cracking Up]. This is where the Sebaldian blocks of prose begin to disintegrate into slimmer irregular columns - a formal reflection to the mental break-down taking place.
It's effecting, and poignant, and reminds us of the various vulnerabilities masculinity can be prone to in 2019.
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