The River Capture, by Mary Costello, Canongate, 257 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1782116431
Announced on its dust-jacket as “a glorious homage to Joyce”, Mary Costello’s second novel, The River Capture, intends to accomplish no mean feat. The novel’s eponymous theme is one of usurpation. A river capture occurs
[w]hen a river erodes the land and acquires the flow from another river or drainage system, usually below it … The natural course of one river is altered, thwarted; the river departs its own grid of understanding, changes direction, flows on and enters the sea at an entirely different location. An eternal separation from the source ensues, a catastrophic event[.]
Readers and scholars of Joyce might expect a homage to ‑ or usurpation of ‑ Finnegans Wake’s Anna Livia Plurabelle, the archetypal mother morphing into Anna Liffey. Both woman and river, she acts a symbol of the eternal, universal female (“eternal geomater” to her twin sons), on the one hand, and “Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities”, on the other. Rivers, like ALP, only stay the same by constantly changing. In Finnegans Wake, change is constant in the form of its notorious “sounddance”. Pun-heavy and impenetrable as it may be, the novel flows on and we’re afloat in it ‑ frustrated when in pursuit of meaning of course, but never less than amazed, mightily amused, and filled with delight in its moments of sheer poetic gorgeousness and unparalleled inventiveness.
Costello’s novel taps into Joyce’s river art in a different way. With Ulysses as underpinnings, The River Capture’s homage to Joyce crosses our expectations, showing itself less in a funnelling of Ulysses’s modernist experimentation and inventiveness and more in the form of a Joyce-obsessed protagonist. Sadly, he seems to have been less enriched than ruined by Ulysses. While desperately trying to be Leopold Bloom, thirty-four-year-old Luke O’Brien has more of a touch of “Dedalus” about him than he realises. We start following his pathos-filled interior monologues ‑ interspersed with well-known phrases of Joyce’s ‑ four years into his leave of absence from his teaching post at Belvedere College. Since moving back to his family’s house on the banks of the River Sullane, Waterford, Luke’s routine has mainly consisted of devotedly looking after maternal maiden aunts and cats while developing a serious drinking problem. Though he moved back home “with the intention of doing something ‑ writing a book perhaps ‑ on Joyce or even Bloom”, this idea was abandoned in favour of “a longing ‑ a necessity even ‑ to stay close to Bloom, to inhabit him day and night”. Since he’s failed to come up with anything to add to Joyce criticism, Luke’s aim is now twofold: “to convey what he felt for Bloom”, and to look for “a sign or formula or compound containing the key of life”, applying his Joyceo-Bloomian lens to the world.
The River Capture is not an easy nor entirely enjoyable read. Its prose can be clumsy or vague, while the interior monologues’ whistle-stop tour of pseudo-scientific epiphanies borders on narcissistic self-pity, routinely infused with questionable thoughts on bisexuality. More could have been done here ‑ textually and formally ‑ to open to view the protagonist’s suspected bi-polar disorder and his slipping grasp on reality and common sense. And while it is already challenging not to tire of Luke’s esoteric-transcendental musings ‑ he is perpetually “[o]n the cusp of something, maybe everything” ‑ his eugenic reasoning spurring the plot in the latter half of the novel divested me of my remaining bona fide sentiment. It had been waning since the neighbourhood’s and family’s histories were revealed in a seemingly random heap of tragedies, dropped as if to tick a box to then forget about. A walk down the road evokes, to name a few of Luke’s associations: rape and child abuse at the local chicken factory, leading to suicide; suspected rape and incest, leading to childbirth (“[d]own the toilet it went with a plop”), later insanity; a tragic childhood death, leading to trauma and mental disability; and unresolved misogynistic calumny.
On a content level, less might have been more here, whereas, on a formal level, more Ulyssean variety of styles would have surely benefited the novel. The monologues of the first half include some e-mail exchanges with Ruth, the woman becoming Luke’s love interest for a while. Ruth then disappears from the narrative in one fell swoop. Unlike Molly Bloom, she is deprived of her voice as we enter the second half of the novel, which is modelled on the style of Ulysses’s catechistic “Ithaca” episode. Stripped of all literariness, the scientific question and answer style serves its purpose within Joyce’s diversity of styles; it does not become apparent, however, why Costello employs it here. Although Luke appears increasingly disassociated with himself throughout his self-scrutiny (perhaps a result of a subject’s making itself its constant object), sticking with the “Ithaca” style until the final few pages (where Luke senses his soul “commingl[ing]” with that of the river) does the novel no discernible service.
I was also left wondering whether Luke’s knowledge of Joyce’s works and biographical facts was deliberately erroneous. His insistence on scholars’ irrefutable retrospective diagnosis of Joyce’s syphilis aside ‑ evidence for this is non-existent and the diagnosis far from conclusive, as Erik Holmes Schneider’s medical history Zois in Nighttown: Prostitution and Syphilis in the Trieste of James Joyce and Italo Svevo (2012) has shown ‑ it seems unlikely that Luke would misremember the “Eumaeus” episode as “Emmaus” or accredit Stephen Dedalus with Malachi Mulligan’s observations on the “snotgreen” sea.
Does it work, then ‑ Costello’s capture of the Joycean river? It might have worked as a parody of a writer’s failing attempts to digest or outdo Joyce, or even as a kind of Beatlebone à la Kevin Barry. As it stands, much of the “Joyce” in the novel seems little more than a cliché or sentimental drivel weighed down with solemnity. Sex, for instance, is “the transmutation of lowly instincts into godly essence”. The narrative’s mood and protagonist make ample room for us to contemplate the suffering in Bloom’s and Joyce’s lives, to feel for them. Is this the most salient achievement of Joyce’s work: evoking empathy? One is inclined to scream “no”! And there is none of the Joycean humour in Costello to relieve us. Looking for a word denoting “deep suffering” from “private afflictions” (and the “grief [Luke] feels for Joyce”) leads to a list of decapitalised German words: “… schadenfreude, weltschmerz, sehnsucht”. In a Joycean list, one would have met with something comic or obscene here, such as Darmwind (the wind wafting through one’s intestines ‑ undoubtedly a private affliction making for great suffering). But there is hope for Joycean homages yet. With the centenary of Ulysses’s publication rearing its head in 2022, we are bound to expect some of the best and, to say it with Finnegans Wake, “the worst, it is hoped, even in our western playboyish world for pure mousefarm filth”.
Tiana M Fischer is an Irish Research Council postgraduate scholar at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where she researches and teaches in the School of English and Creative Arts and runs the Works in Progress series with Zsuzsanna Balázs.