Saturday 25 November 2017

McBride revives Irish modernism

Literary fiction: The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride, Faber, €19.99

Author Eimear McBride
Author Eimear McBride

JP O' Malley

Eimear McBride wrote A Girl is a Half- Formed Thing when she was just 27. It took the author nearly a decade to find a publisher for the experimental tome, which begins with the narrator speaking from the womb as she's about to be delivered into the world. But 10 years plagued by self-doubt was worth the wait. The book won six awards upon its release, and was unanimously hailed as a masterpiece by the literary establishment.

Like her debut book, there are no quotation marks or conventional forms of punctuation here. And the narrative has the author's idiosyncratic rhythmic whirl - where one is never sure if sentences are formed before thoughts, or thoughts are formed first.

McBride is a daring writer who is not afraid to mess with language, displaying its malleability, randomness and irregular rhythms in equal measure. Words and phrases often go back to front and scenes are pieced together almost like an impressionist painting through fragments, hazy images and a blur of uncertainty.

The plot concerns an 18-year-old Irish actress, Eily, who arrives in London to attend drama school. One drunken night, she encounters Stephen, a 38-year-old actor, originally from Sheffield, who is living in a dingy bedsit in Camden Town. Their fling starts as a few drink-fuelled casual dates, followed by hours of passionate - if somewhat disturbing and violent - sexual encounters.

At first blush, a book like this has all the ingredients of a classic clichéd tale: the sweet innocent Irish Catholic girl in London losing her morals and virginity to the evils of the corrupting metropolis. Thankfully, though, McBride is too sophisticated a writer to start thrashing out such stereotypical drivel.

Most of the narrative takes place entirely through unpunctuated dialogue or Eily's inner thoughts. These are usually of a sexual nature, often under the influence of alcohol or marijuana, and half-formed between the darkness of the unconscious mind and reality.

In the middle section, Stephen - who up until that point is a reserved character with a hard exterior - reveals details of his past: a violent upbringing, an abusive mother, a compulsive and promiscuous sexual nature, drug addiction, and a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital.

We also find out he had a previous relationship that broke down and consequently cannot see his daughter.

This section is important for the overall plot, but it upsets the hypnotic rhythm of the novel somewhat, since Stephen's dialogue is far more conventional than Eily's internal, fuzzy thought structure.

McBride also introduces a subtle but rather brilliant twist into the narrative. This becomes the underlying focal point that eventually opens up a disturbing tale, layered with confusion, lust, desire and sexual taboos.

McBride wears her influences well without plagiarising. Beckett's monologues come to mind, as does Molly's final soliloquy in Joyce's Ulysses: especially in the lurid descriptions of sexual desire from a female perspective.

McBride has a rare gift as a writer: she combines high modernism, page-turning plot and melodrama into a narrative that will appeal to mainstream audiences and fans of literary avant garde.

The Lesser Bohemians has been 13 years in the making. But great artistic ideas come to those who wait patiently until they are fully developed.

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