Because I have been so busy lately with promotion for The Birth Machine, Ann has kindly written up our November reading group discussion of this book. Here is her report:
Carry Me Down, by M.J. Hyland, was John’s choice for the book group to read. He had heard the author talk about her major influence, Peter Handke’s novella The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, which employs a plain, factual mode of storytelling, and was curious to read this novel. The book is written in the first person and relates a period, (about a year?), in the life of eleven-year-old John Egan and is set in 1970’s Ireland, although this time period is not made explicit. When the story opens, John and his parents are living with his paternal grandmother in Gorey, a rural town in County Wexford. The family have been exiled from Dublin for lack of funds, with his father ostensibly studying for the entrance exams for Trinity while his mother works in a local shop and makes puppets. It is clear from the beginning that John Egan is a child who feels ‘out of place’ and a ‘misfit’ both at home and at school – he is tall for his age, is obsessed with the Guinness Book of Records and becomes convinced that he is able to detect lies, recording all those told him in The Gol of Seil. The unravelling events of the story form a narrative circle by which family relationships drive them back to Dublin into a council flat in an out-of-town multi-story block of flats and then back again to Gorey at the end. The first person narrative implies that we are meant to view this circle of events through John Egan’s eyes.
John introduced it as a novel with a beginning, middle and end, with an over-long middle – the section in Dublin - and was not too sure what to make of it, asking the question -was the ending happy or not? John and Elizabeth felt that it was a deliberately symbolic happy ending – implying closure for the family and allowing it to move forwards. Doug and I disagreed, feeling that the ending was very ambivalent, while Jo took the implication of the ending further, suggesting that the sequel to the novel would be more interesting as, for her, John (the book’s protagonist) was clearly still troubled and his behaviour would get worse. This led to a general feeling that there was little plot to the book – a theme introduced by Trevor – it merely related a series of unfolding events, but we wondered where the plot (as such) was going, leading or saying. Or was nothing meant to happen and the whole piece created as a symbolic circle? Doors and openings were touched on – were they symbols of future happenings and sequels? Many events in the book being related through closed doors – such as John and his grandmother discussing his father while the latter is behind the door. Then we all began to wonder if we were all trying to read scenarios into the story that simply were not there? Were we looking for symbols when in fact there were none?
A gender divide emerged, with the men in the group noting the total absence of adolescent hormones that they felt totally unconvincing. This was something missing in a portrait of an adolescent boy, making it unrealistic. Trevor and Mark considered this particularly disconcerting as they both felt themes of Oedipal sex were implicit throughout. Alternatively, Elizabeth and Jo, both mothers of boys, felt that that one aspect of adolescent change, where affection and distance co-exist and alternate, was realistic. Was the (quite gruesomely described) killing of the kittens at the beginning of the novel a symbol of this withdrawal, indecision and ambivalent parent-child relationship? I think an indication of our uncertainty about this was the subsequent discussion on whether the kitten killing was realistic – were kittens really killed like that? I suspect that this discussion would not have occurred if the narrative and characters had convinced us. Our lack of conviction here revived the question of whether we were trying to read too much into the novel. Were signs really being positioned along route, while the easy prose enabled a fast read so we missed the signs? Why did we think there should be signs and symbols and should there be any if the story is in fact being related by an eleven-year-old?
Most of the group appreciated that a sense of menace was skilfully created, but that it often promised more than the actual event that subsequently occurred – such as towards the end when John Egan attacks his mother. I was so convinced by the prose leading up to the attack I thought he would murder her, and thus make the story more dramatic – harking back to Jo’s conviction that the sequel would be more interesting. Nobody, however, found the novel a difficult read, the prose being far easier and far less dense than that of The Leopard, our previous read, but we remained divided. Most felt the book was too long, but Mark and Trevor voted for it, with Doug and Hans disliking it. Jo and I remained ambivalent. One issue that all (as I recall) felt was that John Egan was such a non-engaging protagonist. Did he suffer from autism or Asperger’s syndrome or not? As Mark Haddon has shown in A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, (read previously by the group), this should not affect a writer’s ability to engage the reader with characters. Hyland’s character was repellent, and none felt we believed him or would want to support him.
This indecisiveness meant that we took to asking questions about what was absent in the book. Where was the local priest and the role of the Church? This was 1970’s rural Ireland – and Hyland includes a single nun as a minor character? Why was John Egan an only child? Was the creepy teacher Mr Roche a potential abuser or was he a saviour? Would social services and the psychologist really behave like that? That we ended up asking all these questions suggests that we were so unconvinced by the characters and their lives, that we ended up looking for what we felt should have been there instead. Clare had not finished the book and our discussion, sadly, did not convince her to so.
The more lively and passionate discussion of the evening was the one that segued from Carry Me Down – which involved Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot. I cannot remember the content here – as everyone started talking at once ……!
This report was written by Ann.