There's always a danger, when reviewing a novel, of giving too much of the plot away. There is no risk of that happening with Eimear McBride's new book, since there is no plot to speak of.
A woman books into a hotel in France. She goes to her room. She looks out of the window. She thinks about the man in the next room.
A few pages later, she moves to another hotel in Prague. A series of hotel rooms follow, from Oslo to Auckland to Austin, where the reader is invited to share this woman's inner monologue as she obsessively interrogates her own thought processes. She's nameless, of course, because that's one of the conventions of this experimental genre, and, since she's avoiding real life, the reader is naturally given none of it either.
What she mainly thinks about is what's gone before in her life. "The past is immobile and can never be resuscitated, she's at liberty to think about it as much as she likes."
So that's what she does. Relentlessly.
What matters in a book such as this, with no plot, no dialogue, and no characters beyond a narrator who's giving nothing away and so scarcely counts as a character at all, is the writing, and there will no doubt be plenty of people for whom McBride's prose here will be enough. The Irish author's first book, the multi-award winning A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, saw her compared to James Joyce, and for once the comparison wasn't entirely unjustified.
There was something thrilling about its audacious, fearless use of language, with arresting phrases on every page. Her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, had some uncomfortable themes as its young protagonist embarked on a relationship with a creepy older actor whilst navigating her way round a new city, but it conjured up an equally original - and, more important, very particular - sense of London, and of the rawness and vulnerability of youth.
This one seems instead to be trying to raise the ghost of Samuel Beckett by paring away the particular and leaving only the abstract; but if McBride has raised him from the dead, then he's not very happy at the awakening, and is struggling to be as uncooperative as possible.
This is prose that aspires to the allusive and suggestive condition of poetry, and that's always a dangerous game for a novelist to play. Get it right, or look ridiculous. McBride actually did manage to transcend the limitations of the novel in her first two books, but in Strange Hotel seems to have veered off into a cul-de-sac of superficial, pretentious emptiness. There are flashes of black humour, and the novel has some intriguing things to say about the flatness of life for women in their 40s, and the impossibility of escaping one's memories. But there are just too many dead sentences that can't bear the weight of meaning they're being asked to bear. They surround and smother one another. It quickly sinks the spirits.
At one time, the narrator refers to "her scorn rising at the redundant aegis of her instincts". Elsewhere, there's this: "Her intermittent agoraphobia flutters at the slightest mention of distance, even inside her head." Or how about this: "Rationally, she knows, even as she only reflexively reflects, this fear is incredibly cogent"?
Normally, if there was the distraction of a plot, the reader would forgive these longueurs, but, if all there is language, then the language has to do all the work, and has to do it on every page. When it doesn't, the illusion is shattered.
If there's any mystery here, it's why this woman drifts from hotel room to hotel room, and meaningless encounter to meaningless encounter, without putting down roots or making attachments. "She was liberal at night. Donated all to the cause. That was the deal. It was only in daylight that she never offered at all." Not dealing with this malaise has led her to a point in life where it seems unfixable.
She describes the condition memorably: "Suppose you make a mistake and sometimes this branches into branches until you're so far away that you have no idea how to get back."
Dante identified the same malaise more than eight centuries ago: "In the middle of our life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood."
In Austin, there comes an answer of sorts as to why she lives like this, but it doesn't feel like the pay off is worth the journey, or that the journey has been necessary to get to the pay off. All it did was make the journey longer. It's like wading through quicksand with nothing on the other side to make the struggle worthwhile.
"Maybe I should just stop f***ing around with language?" this woman muses near the end. "It's not improving matters at all." But that self-deprecation only works if the reader then responds: No, please, go on, I want more.
At her best, Eimear McBride is a hugely gifted stylist, but, whilst her first two novels were demanding, they were so packed with fire and fizz and raw energy that they made the effort required to understand what was going on ultimately rewarding. This one feels listless, pointless. It's mercifully short, but feels very long.