03.17.10 7:17 PM ET
Alternative Irish Classics
Have you read Finnegan’s Wake? Well, then, you’re ready for these unjustly overlooked Irish writers. Max McGuinness on the greatest alternative Irish writers.
It has long been fashionable for aficionados of post-structuralism to question the parameters of authorial control, to explore the fragmented nature of identity, and to assess the diverse “gender claims” inherent within “texts.”
But dipsomaniac civil servant, Flann O’Brien, was streets ahead of the lot of them. His anarchic 1939 début, At Swim Two Birds, introduced us to novels-within-novels, characters revolting against their author, and men born fully formed at the age of 25. Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault were still in short trousers at the time. O’Brien (which was just one of many pseudonyms—his real name was Brian O’Nualláin) also had the advantage over these rather po-faced Frenchmen of telling terrific jokes.
His next novel, The Third Policeman, was even stranger. Featuring men who become bicycles and bicycles which become men (thanks to the vagaries of quantum mechanics) along with endless footnotes quoting a deranged fictive philosopher called De Selby, it proved too much for his London publisher, who declined the manuscript. A dejected O’Brien abandoned fiction for over 20 years, devoting himself instead to a regular newspaper column, often written in a surreal mixture of Irish and English, but, most of all, to whiskey. The Irish Department of Local Government, of which O’Brien was theoretically in charge, somehow survived. Today, his U.S. sales have abruptly rocketed due to an unexpected appearance of a copy of The Third Policemen in an episode of the TV series Lost.
Earlier periods of Irish history produced writers like J.M Synge, Seán O’Casey, and Brendan Behan, who were prepared to address topical themes. But the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger boom (and now even greater bust) has been ill-served by today’s novelists and playwrights who seem, for the most part, to be more interested in the past than the present.
One outstanding exception to this trend is Julian Gough, whose bizarre second novel Jude: Level 1 constitutes the only serious attempt at a satirical treatment of the grotesqueries of contemporary Ireland. A picaresque tale, written very much in the style of Flann O’Brien, Jude follows the exploits of a hapless orphan who makes the mistake of urinating in “Dev’s Hole”—a spot of bog in which the former president himself “hid from the entire British army.” Along the way, Gough takes brilliantly funny swipes at clerical sex abuse, political corruption, and corporate greed.
Jude: Level 2 is due for publication shortly. In the meantime, Gough has been engaged in a spot of “pig-napping” at Hay-on-Wye, and sparked controversy last month when he proclaimed that his fellow Irish writers make him “puke his ring” because of their chronic failure to engage with the modern world. Gough, who previously fronted a predictably leftfield band called Toasted Heretic, now lives in Berlin (it’s cheap) where he even directs the occasional porn film.
Whereas Julian Gough has scoured the underbelly of the Celtic Tiger for laughs, Gene Kerrigan writes grimly realistic crime novels on the same theme. An experienced investigative journalist, Kerrigan nevertheless seems to have reserved his greatest exposés for novels like The Midnight Choir and Little Criminals, whose engrossing mastery of the sordid detail of underworld life is on a par with that of The Wire.
Kerrigan is even beginning to show signs of developing his fiction into a powerful social critique, with echoes of Dashiell Hammett. Last year’s Dark Times in the City expertly captures the anomie of life in a contemporary Dublin scarred by rampant property speculation and social breakdown. As the country faces what many are already calling a “lost decade,” thanks to perhaps the worst economic crisis of any Western country, it is unlikely that Kerrigan will find himself short of material any time soon.
In years gone by, famous Irish writers like Joyce, Beckett, and Wilde used to pride themselves on their cosmopolitanism and were as much at home (if not more so) in Paris, London, or Zurich as in Dublin. These days we have Phillip O’Ceallaigh, whose first collection of short stories, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse, detailed his deep acquaintance with the scummiest aspects of life in Eastern Europe (O’Ceallaigh has lived in Bucharest for some years). Exploitative casual sex, random violence, and toilet bowls “caked with history” in post-Soviet tower blocks—this is the stuff of O’Ceallaigh’s macabre tales.
And while comparisons with American “gritty realists” might come a little too easily, last year’s The Pleasant Light of Day showed O’Ceallaigh attempting a much more experimental approach. While some of these efforts may be less successful than others (witness one peculiar story concerned with sex and levitation), the collection demonstrates an all-too-rare willingness by an Irish writer to mix it up a bit. The book’s highlight—a surreal, politically charged account of strange goings-on in post-9/11 Tbilisi—also indicates a welcome level of geopolitical awareness. Perhaps the most interesting young Irishman writing today, O’Ceallaigh is best read accompanied by a stiff drink.
Max McGuinness is a columnist for The Dubliner.