The Irish Novel 1960-2010, by George O’Brien, Cork University Press, xxix + 224pp, €39, ISBN: 978-1859184950
“The work of the imagination is one notable way in which to express freedom,” George O’Brien declares in his introduction to The Irish Novel 1960-2010. Such expressions of freedom can inspire change, “or at least the type of creative, forward-looking change which is the theme and moral, the hope and focus, of the Irish novel’s story”. O’Brien’s book exemplifies this belief, eloquently reflecting upon the ways in which Irish prose fiction has created space for fresh perspectives and alternative narratives to develop over the last fifty years. Inclusive, eclectic and insistently diverse, the story that is presented in this expansive and deeply textured study is exuberantly pluralist. The above reference to the seemingly homogenous-sounding “Irish novel’s story” actually comprises a wealth of stories which enhance and complicate what is meant by conventional definitions of “Irish” and “the novel”. The study also strikes a celebratory note, with O’Brien bucking the trend of much academic discourse by conveying to the reader (or to this reader, at least) that the texts discussed are imaginatively rich and, without exception, worth reading or re-reading.
If change is the keyword which informs the author’s approach to the recent growth of Irish fiction, openness is the operating principle behind the structural arrangement of this study. The choice of structure is inventive, notwithstanding O’Brien’s claims that it is not an “especially original idea”, and allows for the juxtaposition of writers who have very little in common. It also enables unexpected points of connectivity to be imagined between different types of texts. The study consists of fifty-one essays on as many novels published over the last five decades; in each case, the essays are discrete, running to approximately twelve to fifteen hundred words in length. Beginning with Edna O’Brien’s celebrated debut The Country Girls (1960), these essays are chronologically arranged, and conclude with Paul Murray’s engrossing tragicomedy Skippy Dies (2010), neatly retitled “the suburban boys”. One novel is chosen for each of the years covered in the title (contemporaneous novels are also listed at the end of each essay); no author is represented more than once; and no attempt is made to pander to an individual’s reputation by choosing only their “best” or most famous text.
Indeed, in some instances the reverse is preferred, with two of Ireland’s most acclaimed prose writers represented by texts which will surprise many readers: John Banville is included through a discussion of one of the novels from his science tetralogy, Kepler (1981), while John McGahern is represented by way of a text which is described as “probably [his] least popular”, The Pornographer (1979). Both writers, for what it is worth, also appear in O’Brien’s sensitive introductory essay, where some of their better-known works are called upon to help to frame the study’s overall thesis. The choice of novels in each instance is refreshing, and in McGahern’s case in particular focuses attention on a novel which is not only often overlooked, but which remains of critical significance in the development of his oeuvre. In addition, it provides space for other valuable books to be considered. Timothy O’Grady’s historical fantasia Motherland (1989) is chosen over Banville’s The Book of Evidence, for example, and Dermot Bolger’s challenging The Journey Home (1990) is given the nod at the expense of McGahern’s Amongst Women. Such decisions are bravely taken and illustrate the non-canonical drive which is part of the rationale for The Irish Novel. “No attempt has been made to produce a hierarchy of ‘greatest’ works,” O’Brien explains early in the study, with the motivation instead being to give “as broad an idea as possible” of the shape of Irish fiction in the period under scrutiny.
Not only does this decision enable critical engagement with a wide variety of texts – most by well-known authors, but some by writers who have already been forgotten or who are unjustly out of print – it also highlights difficulties which surface in any overview of something as general as “the modern Irish novel”. Quite simply, there are so many types of novels, which privilege different kinds of voices, concerns, styles and experiences, that any single approach or perspective risks reducing, simplifying, perhaps even ignoring texts which do not fit a predetermined critical paradigm. O’Brien is alert to this difficulty, pointing to the dangers of assuming “that characters and plotlines have discharged their imaginative function by living up to such terms”. What is more, he continues, so much contemporary fiction remains “vividly unfinished”, eschewing any interpretative model which might be deemed “too prompt and assured”. If “change” is the keyword – “the theme and moral, the hope and focus” – which unites the disparate elements of this study, one might justifiably ask whether it is also the defining principle behind the book’s critical methodology. That is to say, are certain novels pressed into service to fit this particular interpretative paradigm? If this is the case, O’Brien astutely reminds his readers that “change, obviously, is not merely a matter of endings, but also of beginnings”, and where those beginnings might lead is something that cannot always be anticipated or comprehended. Time and again, The Irish Novel bears witness to this sense of textual promise and radical uncertainty. Since the structure of the study is so fluid, discussions of individual novels are not tailored to meet an agreed end, and critical engagements with consecutive texts instead stress that which is divergent, disruptive or different.
Some readers might quibble over the novels which are chosen to represent the work of individual authors. Others might point to writers who are excluded from the parameters of the study – Maeve Binchy, Neil Jordan, Molly Keane and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne are among the most notable absentees for this reader. Such objections are entirely subjective, of course, and are also inevitable given that only so many texts can ever be considered in any critical study. It is more surprising to see the underrepresentation of certain types of writing though, especially since the first page of the study attests to the recent flowering of “genre literature such as crime fiction, ‘chick lit’ and fantasy”. As O’Brien correctly notes, such genres, “once overlooked as forms for the Irish novelists’ imagination, have proliferated” in recent years. Readers might also lament the exclusive focus that is given to “grown-up” novels over fiction for children as well as the decision to concentrate solely on novels written in English, particularly since neither restriction is flagged in the book’s introductory pages. Samuel Beckett’s How It Is (1964) is the only novel included that was originally written in another language. Such decisions obviously impact on the study’s larger claims for ‘openness’ and ‘inclusivity’. Given all that is achieved in The Irish Novel however, it would be churlish to offer a narrowly defined critique for these reasons.
Each of the fifty-one readings which comprise this study is informed, nuanced, judicious and playful. Some are admittedly more allusive than others, but all “keep faith with the reader” (as O’Brien elegantly claims of each of his subjects), and all are alive to the subtleties and possibilities of the texts in question. Even when authors are taken to task for certain shortcomings – John Broderick’s “grating pronouncements” in The Fugitives (1962), James Plunkett’s “two-dimensional” characters in Strumpet City (1969), Jennifer Johnston’s at times “heavy-handed portrait” in The Captains and the Kings (1972) – this is always set against things which merit serious consideration in each of their texts. Readers expecting coverage of some canonical novels will not be disappointed by the exploration of texts by Edna O’Brien, Aidan Higgins, Flann O’Brien, JG Farrell, Julia O’Faoláin, William Trevor, Patrick McCabe, Roddy Doyle, Emma Donoghue, Seamus Deane, Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright, among others. Nor will they be let down by the sections on “further reading”, which complement each essay, or the scrupulously researched, thirty-page critical bibliography which completes the study. The attention that is given to novels as diverse as Michael Farrell’s Thy Tears Might Cease (1963), Vincent Banville’s An End to Flight (1973), Ian Cochrane’s Gone in the Head (1974), Patrick McGinley’s Bogmail (1978), Dorothy Nelson’s In Night’s City (1982), Mary Leland’s The Killeen (1985), JM O’Neill’s Open Cut (1986), Hugo Hamilton’s The Last Shot (1991) and Mary Morrissy’s The Pretender (2000), truly energises the terms of this study. And for this reader the analysis of Deirdre Madden’s beautifully resonant Authenticity (2002) is exemplary and alone justifies the price of the book.
Reflecting on Anthony C West’s Second World War novel As Towns with Fire (1968), O’Brien comments that “in keeping with the most ambitious Irish novels, it is an epic of consciousness, seeing in the maelstrom of historical circumstances a need for sharpened and more urgent assessments of identity”. In many respects, something similar might be said of The Irish Novel 1960-2010, which reflects upon, articulates, and thereby participates in new ways of thinking and being. It is a book to work with and cherish.