Wednesday 21 February 2018

Naughty in the Noughties

Deirdre Purcell

Deirdre Purcell on a new novel on the last decade in Dublin.

The writer Brian Lynch has been widely lauded both in this country and in the US for The Winner of Sorrow, his novel based on the life of the 18th-Century poet William Cowper, published in Ireland in 2005 by New Island Press and in the US by the Dalkey Archive Press.

Nominated for election to Aosdána by Samuel Beckett because of his "exceptional talent", Lynch's output includes poetry, biography, plays (Crooked in the Car Seat was nominated for Best Play in the 1979 Dublin Theatre Festival) and screenplays for both TV and cinema (Caught in a Free State for RTÉ and Channel 4; the feature film, Love and Rage, directed by Cathal Black, starred Greta Scacchi and Daniel Craig.)

Because of his keen interest in the visual arts, he also curates art catalogues and is currently engaged in writing, with Professor Ugo Valdre, a critical biography of the Italian artist and architect Vincenzo Valdre. So it is not a surprise that it is the fictional artist, Emmet Roche, who is the most vividly drawn and memorable character in his new novel, The Woman Not The Name, just published by Duras Press.

Lynch's own power to convey image is considerable: one character in the novel is not bored stiff, but "bored limp" and when Emmett Roche's head is poking out of the skylight of his (very pokey) flat in one of the least salubrious of the apartments along Dublin's Liffey quayside, "on his feet were his unlaced boots, their dead-dog tongues lolling and panting. He was wearing a smock so thick with paint it looked like a work in progress".

In that context, Roche's physical appearance – along with the accoutrements of his chaotically crammed studio and mattress-on-the-floor living quarters is brilliantly conveyed. The reader can smell the turpentine.

That being said, it is probably this talent for imagery that at the beginning caused some considerable adjustment-time, for this reader at any rate, as a large number of the novel's characters, both major and minor, spill and tumble, Fellini-like and in quick succession, into the first couple of chapters, making it difficult to slot them into the roles they will take throughout the novel.

Sex in all its manifestations, practices and quirks is what drives most of these people, sex unavailable, withheld, or denied is what frustrates them, with one of the principal female characters, Maeve MacNamee, whose day job is as a solicitor in the Attorney General's office in Dublin, being particularly prone to using sex as a weapon.

This young woman is ". . . a little unfinished, especially around the mouth . . . a touch of the gypsy in her high cheekbones, lozenge-shaped violet eyes and tangled mane of glossy hair which was dyed a colour she called tinker-black". She is adventurous, even careless of dress, wearing stripes, checks, plaids, floral patterns and polka dots all at once. "Frankly," writes Lynch, "she looked like the foyer of an Irish hotel."

The author designates Will Ferris, a young, dreamy singer-songwriter, as his main character and has described his novel as "a dark yet comic love story which fuses a moral tale with the myth of Orpheus". In the context of such myths, it could also be the tale of Icarus, outlining Will's meteoric rise to fame followed by the inevitable crash.

As the story begins, Will, tall, "deep-chested" is singing his own compositions in Dublin's Baggot Inn in a "small and reedy" voice but nevertheless elicits deep desire in Maeve who has burst into the pub demanding hot whiskey. They do get together but we can see that her drive to possess him is reciprocated only physically. For instance, as they are copulating, she hovering above him, he opens his eyes and finds an image which he thinks could be useful for one of his songs: her expression reminds him of "a horse chewing thistles".

Maeve's friend, Cory, is cut from a different cloth, gentler, more reflective. A beauty "of the unnoticed kind", she is a doctor, and "like water, takes on the colour of her surroundings". As it turns out, it is she who becomes the object of Will's attention – and, to complicate matters – that of the artist Emmet Roche. Maeve, predictably, is not amused.

In the latter phases of The Woman Not The Name the initial hectic pace settles into sequences where we are given the back stories of these characters and possible explanations of why they behave the way they do. And the novel concludes with a long transcription of a court case where a new character, a witness, under examination by the prosecution, is outlining what he saw of extraordinary events on the night of Will's downfall.

With its kaleidoscopic scene-changes, off-centre characters – not to speak of its author's obvious disdain for public servants – The Woman Not The Name is an extraordinary read, and because of Brian Lynch's talent for imagery, shows considerable potential for screen adaptation.

Irish Independent

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