Mount Merrion, by Justin Quinn, Penguin Ireland, 320 pp, €13.99, ISBN 978-0241964071
Justin Quinn’s debut novel opens in the shiny new Galway Regional Hospital of the 1950s, portrayed as a place of quasi-modernist light and angles. The hospital, its architecture based on the most advanced European models, represents the Irish Republic in an optimistic mood. In 1959 the Republic itself is a project that, as Quinn writes of the hospital, still has “the air of an experiment, the ambition of which was too outrageous to succeed”.
Like twentieth century Ireland, too, the hospital is staffed with anachronisms. Nuns glide about speaking with “the delicacy of a fine lady’s linen”. The same nuns sneer at the women who mop the hospital floors, the first notes of an insistence which Mount Merrion will strike over and over again – that the key to this society is the deep and rigid class structure underlying its every institution and interaction. “Oh the Cunninghams,” exclaims one gliding, linen-voiced hospital sister: “her tone indicating that her caste was lower than theirs.”
As the book opens, it is not clear whether either the hospital or the Irish Republic will thrive, or whether each will be left to “rust like an impressive wreck on the wild rocks of the western coast”. Quinn’s novel tells the story of the next forty years, placing a man called Declan Boyle at its centre. Boyle, born into privilege, is a patient at the hospital for one brief lull before his life unfolds. He plans to spend that life in service to the idea of Ireland. He will conjure a whole town’s worth of jobs from nothing, yet he will leave the stage wreathed in shame at the book’s close.
Quinn has always written somewhat against the grain, through the two decades of poetry and literary criticism that have preceded this first novel. His Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry (2008) speculated that the English language, and not the Irish nation, is the more appropriate context for reading modern Irish poems. This was an assertion bound to irritate those working hard to dissolve the boundaries between Ireland’s literatures in two languages, as well as those striving to promote “Irish Studies” as a persuasive intellectual framework. Meanwhile, in an era when the Irish poet has emerged as an eminently marketable figure and when much of lyric poetry in the English-speaking world is consumed with the hunt for “original voices”, Quinn’s own poetry has eschewed nationality and “voice” altogether in the service of an increasingly understated formalism. Now, when most of Ireland is seething at the individuals who prospered while the country pitched over into a financial sump, he has composed a novel that asks us not only to sympathise with one of those prosperous individuals but to take him for a tragic hero.
Declan Boyle is literary kin to Eamon Redmond, the fictional judge in Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing (1992), a work to which Quinn has paid poetic homage. He is afforded a measure of unwieldy power as well as a real affection for his country and its people – and is bound to misunderstand, and to fail, country and people alike. Throughout the book we are struck with how Boyle’s intelligence colludes with the lack of peripheral vision that will be his downfall. And, at times, Quinn’s prose attains the stilly beauty of Tóibín’s prose, as when he allows his characters moments outside the social dance, moments of sheer sublimity with which readers of Quinn’s poetry will be familiar. Here is Boyle’s daughter Issie, at the tail-end of a party she has attended with her son:
The garden was dark, but the sky was corrugated pink, turquoise and grey. Contrails threaded the expanse here and there, people leaving the island or arriving, and people merely passing over, who would see a small ragged tab of land before, or after, the Atlantic. A tiny space of little importance in the world – and this garden where she stood reduced in that gaze to a grain, or less than a grain. In a few seconds she’d have to knit herself into the weave again: the leave-takings, promises of play-dates, the birthday parties to come in the weeks and months ahead. But for now she stood buoyant and alive on the grass, her head in the sky and her hair sifted by the light breezes circling the earth.
In Quinn’s novel as in his poetry, there is always the sneaking suspicion that such moments in the characters’ lives are what really matter, and the rest is just stuff. When Boyle finds himself at Galway hospital again at story’s end, it is as if the rest of his busy life has been “the blinking of an eye”.
Mount Merrion dances over its forty-year stretch in a series of episodes, focusing now on Boyle himself, now on his wife Sinéad or his daughter Issie, now on an ambitious employee at his company. The structure is reminiscent of the sequences of short poems that often make up Quinn’s poetry collections. Although he seems inclined to pitch his novel as “social-realist” in the vein of John Lanchester, one feature of this episodic structure is that it shows the maker’s hand plainly, searching out and selecting particular moments in a life for their symbolic or metonymic value. Part of the pleasure of reading Mount Merrion is being privy to this search. The introduction of the secret club of Alcoholics Anonymous into the plot is inspired, suggestive both of Ireland’s invisible kin networks and of other possibilities for arranging a society, since in the AA room, class background and position tend to be levelled. A slightly more contrived moment in the mid-70s places Sinéad and Declan Boyle in the bar of the hotel where they married more than a decade earlier. Two sounds collide where they sit: instrumental muzak, a knock-off of Neil Diamond, floats in from the reception area and clashes with disco, as if to signify the slow patchiness with which Ireland undergoes change.
Elsewhere, the pace of change is faster. Forays abroad take in the fall of the Berlin Wall, communes and riots in European states, takeovers and shutdowns in American corporations. All of this makes Mount Merrion sound rather hectic; but in fact one whole section of the book is devoted to a life that is all too quiet. The story of Sinéad Grogan, an intelligent, well-educated woman who finds herself suffering “the problem that has no name” after she marries Declan Boyle, is familiar to us from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) through Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977) right down to AMC’s Mad Men in our own decade. Quinn’s take on the Irish version is perceptive. Sinéad complains of the wave of loneliness that hits her when she’s finally got baby down for a nap and makes herself a silent cup of tea. She finds herself rebuffed:
Once she tried to explain [her loneliness] to her cousin in Spiddal who’d also recently become a mother, but she’d stopped halfway as the incomprehension spread across the girl’s face. Her cousin mentioned the aunts, sisters and neighbours who’d been able to help out and look after her child for an hour here or two hours there, and she actually went so far as to complain she never had a moment for herself to sit down in an armchair, drink a cup of tea and simply just think quietly. It was as though the builders, in constructing the new estate, had created a new type of loneliness that her cousin knew nothing of, and which was Sinéad’s to taste for the first time.
This feeling, of one’s loneliness possessing a novel flavour that is incomprehensible to those who stayed behind, will be replicated for the generation that comes of age after Mount Merrion ends. When the prosperity of its final chapters evaporates, the young Irish will disperse across the globe in search of jobs but stay constantly connected to this “tiny space of little importance in the world” through technologies of social media and video chat. Among the oddities experienced by Ireland’s latest wave of emigrants, at least by those of us negotiating the “awful early fog of new motherhood” far from the support and noise of extended family, is the weird wave of loneliness brought on when Facebook falls silent because all of Ireland has gone to bed, but there are hours left to kill in the new time zone.
Mount Merrion draws to a close at the height of the Celtic Tiger era. Mark Turpin is the tiger cub attempting to break his way into the Boyles’ sphere. His great fault, the novel implies, is that he expects success to happen for him easily and fast, in contrast with Declan Boyle’s brave risk-taking and long hard slog. Brash, sexist and dumb, the young cub bears traces of Blackrock’s satirical finest, Ross O’Carroll Kelly. Turpin is there to fill us in on all the gossipy details of the newly prosperous Dublin – the brand-names, bars and “burnished and botoxed women” – with a blithe ignorance of his own absurdity. He makes for entertaining reading; but I could not shake the sense that, inside the satire, there was a full-fledged human trying to get out. At one point, Turpin receives a blow job from his female business partner, a casual encounter on which Quinn endows an odd beauty:
It was surprisingly exciting to do this in the new apartment, with the lights on, only a few feet from the window…He tried to work out the street names from the pattern of the lights. His mind moved down Dartmouth Walk, Mespil Road, Leeson Street Upper, Burlington Road, Wellington Place. He came in her mouth on the long, tree-lined stretch of Clyde Road, with its tastefully lit front rooms in redbrick townhouses, expensive cars parked on the gravel drives.
Of course, we can take from this the superficiality of the sex; Turpin’s nasty preoccupation with lucre; the parochial, limited nature of his dreams; his disrespect for Clyde Road in contrast with Declan Boyle’s deep desire to serve his country. But Quinn is a poet, and he knows that he can’t weave a little lyric like this – the gleaming imagery of the streetlights and house lights, the mouth-feel of the street-names – without raising some kind of a cheer in the reader. I have a soft spot for Mark Turpin. But I also wonder why Quinn could not extend a fuller measure of depth, complexity and history to Turpin’s generation of would-be movers and shakers, such is his generosity to Boyle’s maligned generation.
If Mount Merrion suffers from another peripheral blindness – we see no real poverty – that is part of its integrity. It is by experiencing individuals’ visions of the Republic that we begin to understand just how things fell out as they did. Quinn, whose poems often reflect on their own forms, can’t resist some commentary on the novel form before his novel is out, even a reference or two to The Great Gatsby (1925). Late on in the book, in Berlin, Issie Boyle encounters a budding German novelist whose translator explains, “Anyway, Horst says that he’s not a nationalist. He couldn’t give a damn about Germany. It’s just that for his first novel he wants to write about what he knows.” This is a bit of a joke at Quinn’s own expense. Resident in Prague for years, the writer has refused to be categorised as an “Irish poet”, preferring to embrace the idea of “post-nationalism”. Critics have mostly ignored him on this count. Mount Merrion won’t help his case. It is an intimate, intricate and loving examination of a flawed society: hardly convincing as the work of a novelist who doesn’t give a damn about Ireland.