Shadowplay, by Joseph O’Connor, Harvill Secker, 320 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1787300859
Early in Shadowplay, Joseph O’Connor describes the unsatisfactory and narrow working milieu in which an Irish clerk named Abraham Stoker finds himself. The setting is a dusty office at Dublin Castle, where Stoker labours without much interest over bone-dry papers and ledgers: he is a drone if ever there was one; and as his superior, Mr Meates (a “profoundly biblical Ulsterman”) notes, the apicology analogy is quite apt. “In a hive, Mr Stoker,” Meates remarks heavily, “everyone plays his part. If he didn’t, the queen would expire.” Stoker has just woken from an illicit sleep at his desk, where he had enjoyed dreams featuring wooden stakes and bared white incisors: but now such pleasures must be set aside, and he must instead deal with Meates’s accusatory implications that he is a “frequenter of the cinema”, and thus a moral reprobate.
Bram Stoker’s life, fantasies, mundane waking reality and range of possible futures are thus all set out, neatly and wryly – and so a spectacular story begins to unfold, involving the theatre world, the atmospheric gaslit streets of Victorian London and the relationship between a trio of complex, layered personalities: Stoker himself; the actor and theatre manager Henry Irving who hires him to bring to life and manage the Lyceum, his decrepit London theatre; and the celebrated English actor Ellen Terry. In one of the many sly in-jokes that thread the narrative, Stoker is regarded by his contemporaries as the eccentric also-ran among exalted companions, the worker bee, the failure of this trio – but we know that Dracula is already making its existence felt in Stoker’s imagination, that the book will achieve spectacular lasting fame, that Stoker’s name will in the long run resonate dramatically.
These layers of present and future exemplify the texture of Shadowplay itself, for this novel – rather like Dracula – works on intertextuality, on a play of competitive, fierce narratives. Its governing conceit turns on a “clutch” of diaries, notes, and letters turned over to Terry by Stoker who, late in life, lies fading in a Kent hospital: Terry is compiling an autobiography; Stoker has been fashioning something similar as a way of making sense of his own life and associations – and the result of this bundling is a spectacular Babel of voices and stories, an experimental fiction avant la lettre.
This is a novel which probes grating worlds and gradations of mood. The marching progress of technology and of contemporary society is captured with aplomb: Terry records her voice on a newfangled phonograph; Stoker arrives in London to see the stretched banners of the women’s suffrage movement. At the same time, this is nothing if not a Gothic tale. Tense and hysterical atmospherics suffuse the book, and for all that this is a tale of the theatre, the Lyceum lights are never bright enough, the theatre is the home of a ghost – its cellars are referred to as Mina’s Lair, named for the servant murdered there by her master – and the gas lamps burn too dimly in the London streets where a Ripper is at large and committing his horrifying crimes.
The theatre, of course, is a commanding presence in Joseph O’Connor’s fiction: Shadowplay is a worthy companion to Ghost Light (2010), with its narratives of love and passion and the allure of the stage. But the theatre is also a fitting backdrop to the central theme of this new book, which is our fitful command and grasp of our own identities, amid the eddies and strains of the world. Shadowplay offers much in the way of notes on camp: personalities are donned and shed and donned again as costumes are in the theatre: and it is implied that, as the narrative itself is constructed from shreds, so too, perhaps, are our very selves – and we must embrace our fragmentary, fissured forms, for fear of the damage that may result if we fail to do so.
Stoker himself is something of a lesson in this regard, for he provides us with a glimpse of a madman in the attic: he writes his tales in cramped spaces under the theatre eaves; and the dark rooms of his mind are closed, inhabited by elements of his self which he has rejected, and which are forever to be fended off with, we sense, increasing exhaustion and at considerable psychological cost. Early in the novel, we glimpse him standing at his window in Dublin, peering out anxiously at the figure of an acquaintance standing on the doorstep: the young Oscar Wilde is flamboyant and at ease and he wishes to whisk Stoker away on a healthy, liberating seaside constitutional – but Stoker is having none of it: it would never do to be seen in the company of such a one, not in gossiping Dublin; and indeed, his homoerotic urges are to be sublimated and held at bay for the remainder of his life. That a famous novel in due course emerged from this warren of locked doors and barred windows, is all well and good – but the cost exacted was, we sense, excessive.
This is a marvellous novel: at once freewheeling, exultant, fully inhabiting the momentary, transitory nature of its world; and intensely aware of the limitations – too frequently self-imposed – of our painfully fleeting lives.
Neil Hegarty’s latest novel is The Jewel (Head of Zeus).