Tiger, Tiger: The Hunt for the Great Irish Novel

After years of boom and a painful economic bust, where is the great Irish fiction to render into art the country’s travails? Two novels now contend for the title.

In early 2010, Irish writer Julian Gough was asked by Dalkey Archive Press to take the literary temperature of his country. Never one to pull his punches, Gough asserted that, “If there is a movement in Ireland, it is backwards. Novel after novel set in the nineteen seventies, sixties, fifties … Just when we need a furious army of novelists, we are getting fairly polite stuff … that fits into the grand tradition.” Gough posted his remarks to his blog, from where they were picked up and published by the Guardian, sparking a minor but intense local controversy and touching upon a dissatisfaction that many observers had been feeling for quite some time: the Celtic Tiger, which had roared its last a little over a year before—and which had been documented to a degree in a host of crime and “chick-lit” titles—still remained curiously underrepresented in Irish literary fiction.

Driven by international investment and a rapidly swelling property bubble, Ireland, since the mid-nineteen-nineties, has undergone some of the most profound economic and cultural changes in its history, yet its novelists seemed to be at something of a loss as to how to represent them. Paul Murray—Booker-longlisted in 2010 for Skippy Diesconcurred in part with Gough, telling the Guardian that, “it seems there is a danger that the Irish novel could become this nostalgic form where readers go to get images of priests and donkeys and so on.” Literature, it is true, often takes a long time to say anything of significance about the big events of history (witness the hand-wringing in the US over fiction about the September 11th attacks). But Irish writers, as a number of critics including Declan Kiberd and Fintan O’Toole observed, have been particularly unable to produce The Great Realist Novel on social and political themes.

This year, two Irish books published for the first time in the United States seem at last to have gotten the conversation started. Claire Kilroy, with The Devil I Know (Black Cat), and Donal Ryan, with The Spinning Heart (Steerforth), do not alone amount to the army that Gough desired—but they certainly are furious.

It is not the present, however, that Kilroy presents, but the future. The year is 2016, and Tristram St. Lawrence, heir to an Anglo-Irish dynasty that once made up a part of Ireland’s ruling class, has been called before a mysterious court to give account of the activities in which he participated ten years previously along with the country’s new ruling order of developers and speculators—a cast of grotesque caricatures, including Hickey, Tristram’s corrupt business partner and former drug dealer, and M. Deauville, his unseen benefactor, AA sponsor, and tormentor. Over 10 days in mid-March (not including St. Patrick’s Day, which has been declared a national day of mourning), Tristram recounts his directorship of a company that “bought nothing, sold nothing, manufactured nothing, did nothing,” but managed nevertheless to make enormous profits.

Kilroy, who began her career with the tight, lyrical modernism of Tenderwire and All Summer, finds in satire a medium capacious enough to allow her imagination its fullest sprawl. The plates of her plot spin ever more feverishly towards absurd calamity, but she balances perfectly the comic and the monstrous. Witness, for instance, the moment at which a character adjusts the position of a roll of banknotes in his trouser pocket, “as if it were his penis, which in a way it was,” or another, only two pages later, when the backsliding Tristram likens the way a pint of Guinness settles to, “[a] chaos so calamitous that you don’t know where to turn to escape it, but by then it is too late. The chaos is inside you. That is the nature of a pint.”

Moments such as these are well imagined and well described, but just as impressive are the ways in which Kilroy weaves her fiction with the more outlandish realities of the Tiger years, such as the scene where Tristram and Hickey go to bribe the aptly named government minister Ray Lawless. Waiting in a pub with a bulging parcel of cash, the former asks “Will we get a receipt?” to which the latter: “Will we fuck” —a funny enough line, but one that comes across as altogether appalling if one happens to know, as everyone in Ireland does, that it, along with the situation described, is more or less a direct lift from witness testimony heard by the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments.

Also pulled from the headlines is the moment when a group of developers, drunk both on money and on wine, plans to thumb its collective nose at the old oppressor by “purchas[ing] Britain,” or at least the island shaped like Britain in Dubai’s artificial The World archipelago—a plan floated by the real life Treasury Holdings, and an apt, Baudrillardian metaphor for the serious moral questions raised by such rapid and cavalier circulations of funny money. That is Kilroy’s knack here: the combination of the believable fiction with the unbelievable fact. Again and again, the documented past lends itself more than willingly to the service of the hyper-real, so that by the time the plot kicks into inevitable gothic overdrive it does so with an eerie believability, leaving us in a situation completely unrealistic and, for that, completely true.

While the narrator of The Devil I Know stands as the accused, the many narrators of The Spinning Heart serve both as plaintiffs and as jury. Ryan’s debut, a surprise inclusion on last year’s Booker longlist, adheres closely to John Berger’s dictum that, “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.” Recognizing that all truth is a matter of perspective, Ryan assiduously refuses to offer a single version of Ireland’s collapse, presenting instead a chorus of twenty-one voices each relating the manners in which their owners have been coping in newly straitened times.

Ryan’s location is at once more and less recognizable than Kilroy’s, his setting not the boardroom or the mansion of the city but the failing high street and the shoddily built “ghost” estate of the rural town. It is an everyplace, thoroughly Irish but perilously vulnerable to changes in the prevailing global winds. The talk of the town, and the book’s organizing events, are the kidnap of a child and a brutal patricide, the latter of which—as does Ryan’s attention to the rhytms of common speech—owes an obvious debt to JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, that foundational text of modern Irish literature, which centered, as does The Spinning Heart, on discovering the difference between “a gallous story” and “a dirty deed.”

These events, though, retreat somewhat to the background, since Ryan’s foremost concern is not with the unfolding of plot but with the delineation of each character’s inner life in his or her own voice—and at this he excels. Here, for instance, is single mother Réaltín describing her absconded lover’s involvement in the same island purchase that Kilroy relates: “We heard he’d put all his money into some stupid thing to do with a fake island or something out in Dubai. Now he’s made a run for it. He’s lucky, Daddy says, because if I ever get my hands on him I’ll kick the living shit out of him.” And here, the deranged worldview of kidnapper Lloyd, who has decided to live as a solipsist: “I am alone in the universe; the universe is created by me and for me and nothing exists outside my consciousness. I have to explore the edges of myself … I have to not care about the feelings I ascribe to my creations”—by which he means other people.

Locked within the confines of its characters’ inner lives, with its sections overlapping and none exceeding a handful of pages in length, The Spinning Heart is a formally disjointed book, various and subjective. At times, it is a struggle to keep relationships straight or to piece together events—which, of course, is entirely the point. We might not ever, and probably cannot ever, know the whole story of Ryan’s town, or of Ireland’s recent past. But as aging prostitute Lily reminds us, in what amounts to Ryan’s thesis: “Yerra what about it, sure wasn’t I at least the author of my own tale? And if you can say that as you depart this world, you can say a lot.”

Neither of these books is The Great Irish Realist Novel on social and political themes. But each goes a long way towards demonstrating what one suspects many Irish writers have known to be true all along: that the idea of such a book is, and always has been, an illusion. After all, the official narrative of Celtic Tiger upwards-only progress was blatantly unreal, unfathomable, and, as Kilroy demonstrates, unbelievable at the time—but that didn’t stop people buying into it, both literally and figuratively. Perhaps what the era lacked most, though, as a subject for literature, was, to borrow a phrase from Frank Kermode, “the sense of an ending.” Irish writers certainly have that now. What remains for them to do—whether overlapping, concurring or contradicting—is to speak.