Beatlebone, by Kevin Barry, Canongate, 263 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1782116134
In 1967 John Lennon and Yoko Ono bought Dorinish, one of the cluster of small islands in Clew Bay, Co Mayo. Their plan to make a home there never came to pass, and instead John allowed a New Age community known as “The Diggers” to use the island for a number of years, thus creating a piece of what Kevin Barry calls “the as yet unwritten radical history of the west of Ireland”.
Beatlebone imagines Lennon returning – or trying to return – to the uninhabited island in 1978. He wishes to spend three days alone there to engage in the therapeutic practice of Screaming (or screaming, to you and me), as taught by alternative psychologist Dr Janov of California. But what John is really after is an experience intense enough to lift him out of his creative funk, his inability to write – “His words are fucked and all over.” He finds it.
Sort of. Lost and alone in the Mayo dark, John wanders into a cave where he has a series of revelatory visions, and his magnum opus takes shape in his mind:
It will have nine songs, and it will fucking cohere, and it will be the greatest fucking thing he will ever fucking do. […] This is the one that will settle every score. This is pure expression of scorched ego and burning soul. […] Heard once it will haunt you fucking always.
But it will turn out that the actual task of making – the long slog in the recording studio – remains the hardest part.
This is Barry’s fourth book, after two excellent collections of short stories and the Impac-winning novel City of Bohane. Those books established his name as one of the most exciting and bold writers of our time; this book enhances that reputation. Beatlebone is a work of technical brilliance by a wonderful literary talent in virtuoso mode.
Barry’s Lennon is recognisably the man of his songs and TV interviews; the wit, sting and rhythm are captured by a writer with a terrific ear. The narrative is not clogged with biographical details: there are no nights in the Cavern, screaming teenage girls or squabbles between Yoko and Paul. With Lennon, the oedipal interpretation is there for the taking: he adored his mother, and was traumatised by her early death; he remained angry with his father, a failure who resembled John in many ways and who abandoned the family. Barry follows this line, but his exploration of Lennon’s inner workings is far from simplistic, an achievement of empathetic imagination.
John is accompanied by local man Cornelius O’Grady, who has been employed to help him get to the island without attracting press attention. Much more than your average chauffeur, Cornelius becomes John’s counsellor, spiritual adviser, father-figure, and, in passages, the real star of the novel. He is a wonderful, hilarious creation. There is something of a loveable Buck Mulligan about him: plump and confident, given to declamatory statements about the landscape and the sea, a calm foil for the anxious, troubled artist at his side; Barry suggests the comparison adjectivally during an outdoor shaving scene: “He slaps his face to get the blood back in. The blood comes hotly in a rush to enliven the stately face.” (And isn’t there a Joycean touch about the structure of those sentences, the commaless run of them, the repetition of “blood”?)
There’s also a touch of Flann O’Brien’s eponymous third policeman in both the gentle rural cadence of Cornelius’s speech and his peculiar blend of straightforward simplicity and occult knowledge. A bundle of contradictions that somehow add up to a plausible whole, Cornelius is both the epitome of down-to-earthness, trying to talk common sense into his half-mad charge, and possessed of a kind of pagan, otherworldly earthy wisdom. He explains to John how places in the landscape retain and transmit the feelings of humans. (After four books we can say that this notion is one of Barry’s major themes and chief preoccupations.) He delivers this and other strange nuggets as though he were commenting on the price of petrol. The effect is, to reuse a word, hilarious.
It wouldn’t do to say here whether John makes it to his island, but, inevitably, it is the journey which is the real destination – as John remarks toward the end, “Turns out the thought of it’s the thing.” The stopping-points on that journey include a pub where John poses as Kenneth, a cousin of Cornelius; Cornelius’s house, where John puts on Cornelius’s father’s old suit, and his experience briefly mingles with that of the father’s ghost (the book is full of ghosts); and an abandoned hotel on Achill now occupied by a cultish New Age threesome, where Cornelius leaves John overnight while some unwanted press attention dies down.
This group is presided over by a charismatic leader with nobody’s best interests at heart. Their therapy of choice is not Screaming but ranting – they “get the rants on”, they “go in hard” – which resembles real alternative psychological practices of the twentieth century in which, in the belief that suffering is caused by keeping it all bottled up inside, participants ritualistically verbally abused each other in order to strip away the layers of the ego.
Such theories have largely been rejected in the decades since – what goes out comes in, and it turns out that raging fuels rage as violence begets itself – but John’s encounter with the Achill freaks does provide a kind of catalyst for his subsequent inspiration. If there is a psychological theory to be found in Beatlebone it is that sometimes, at least for the artist, it is necessary to push the mind to its limits. As John explains: “What’s it about? Fucking ultimately? It’s about what you’ve got to put yourself through to make anything worthwhile. It’s about going to the dark places and using what you find there.”
What Beatlebone is ultimately about is the creative process and the difficulties of making. In fact it tells the journey of two artists: for the length of a chapter, the narrative voice switches to the first-person and describes Barry’s experience of writing the novel. He “drifted into a paranoid sea of numerological speculation”. He went to Clew Bay and encountered ghosts (more on that later). He found a cave which was eerily similar to one he had already written from imagination.
The book’s nine chapters mirror the nine songs planned for John’s new album, also titled Beatlebone (John was obsessed with the number nine – think the Beatles’ “Revolution 9”). The question then, with the narrative interrupted by a fourth wall-breaking chapter, is: does it “fucking cohere”? It bloody does. Barry and John’s experiences are in many ways parallel. And throughout the other eight chapters, Barry employs a variety of technical tricks to make this a novel about its own making. He eschews inverted commas and employs italics in such a way as to blur the borders between John’s voice and the third person narrator. John’s creative block, his struggle to find the right words, becomes the narrator’s difficulty (“How to explain these fucking things?”); and when an appropriate word is struck on, a voice which is the narrator’s but might also be John’s remarks with satisfaction, “there’s a word”. At the very end, John takes over (or is it Barry?), the narrative voice switching to the first person.
The effect is that the text seems to shift, alive as something in the process of being made. And all this is, as you see, difficult to describe; suffice it to say that Barry shows us the workings so that Beatlebone becomes both a meditation on and demonstration of the creative process. It is quite a feat, in which form and content and praxis are interwoven at the surface level. Barry is showing off, of course, and he is a performative writer, thrilling the reader with his acrobatic skill.
It remains to mention the dead – and “The Dead”. The west, the land of the setting sun, has long been associated in the mythic imagination with the land of the dead. Joyce surely had that, as much as the cultural idea of Connacht as the home of romantic Ireland, in mind when he had Gabriel Conroy gaze out a window in Dublin, reflecting on the living and the dead and realising that “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.”
Beatlebone picks up this association and runs with it. Cornelius describes paradise to John (it is a field sloping to the sea), concluding: “Certainly, John, it is in the west of Ireland.” And on his journey westward – a journey in search of personal resurrection – John, haunted by his dead parents, encounters a number of spectral presences. So does Barry, and part of the difficulty of making Beatlebone, he realises, will be “an old, old question: how do you bring up the fact of ghosts in reasonable company? Especially in the reasonable company of one’s readers?” The answer is: straightforwardly. Barry approaches occultish subjects with an unapologetic matter-of-factness that wins the reader to his side.
Beatlebone was to be John’s album “where he breaks the fucking line”. Barry here is breaking borders of form, opening new ground. The language throughout is richly poetic, the sentences finely crafted – not a word speaks out of turn – yet they unroll themselves before you with apparent ease. In its selection of Beatlebone, the case has been strengthened for the Goldsmith’s Prize as the most astute and relevant literary award around.
Matthew Parkinson-Bennett lives in Dublin and works as a writer and editor. Follow him on twitter: @MatthewP_B