Saturday, February 27, 2016

Reading group: The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe

John suggested this novel set in an Irish border town in the early 60s, which begins, 'When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago...' Thus Francie Brady establishes himself as a severely unreliable narrator before embarking on a tale of the small-town ostracisation of his family for the drunkenness of his father Benny and the unstable mental state of his mother and the resulting squalor of their life, and his own reaction and resistance to the ostracisation, which ends in horrific violence and incarceration.

John said there were various questions that could be asked about this book. Is it a depiction of how to create a psychopath, or is it more simply a portrayal of the brutal lives that some people still led in Ireland in the early 60s? Or is it an exploration of the effects of English colonisation of Ireland and of Anglo-American culture on Irish small-town life? Francie's main enemies, the Nugents, are strongly anglicised: they have lived in England and their son Phillip once attended an English private school, turning up at first in his pristine uniform which marks him out as different, superior and privileged. Along with the Purcells, the parents of Francie's friend Joe, they aspire to an English middle-class lifestyle, with over-neat houses and dinner parties. The trouble between Francie and the Nugents begins when Mrs Nugent calls Francie's family pigs, a historic English insult for the Irish.

I said that I thought the book was about Irish identity and the ambivalence and confusion of realities created by the imposition of English culture on an older, more rural Ireland, and I thought it therefore significant that the novel is set in a southern Irish town near the border with Northern Ireland. Francie permanently longs for a lost past located in old-fashioned romantic love and family and preserved in his mother's romanticised tales of his parents' honeymoon - tales which will turn out to contrast starkly with the reality - and struggles always, in spite of the reality, to regard himself and his parents in this light. Yet he is deeply colonised by Anglo-American culture. His mental landscape is peopled by characters from English comics and American films, and his acts of transgression and violence do indeed have a horrifically comic-book character. It is significant that the anglicised Phillip Nugent is the possessor of a large collection of such comics, all of them preserved in a pristine state, which Francie envies and tricks out of him, the act which precipitates all the trouble between himself and the Nugents. His aggression towards the Nugents is clearly based in part in envy: he has unbidden and ambivalent fantasies in which they tell him they know he wants to belong to them and in which, to his disgust, Mrs Nugent breastfeeds him. He shares in the small-town admiration of his Uncle Alo, who has left for England and is supposed to have done so well there, and the unmasking of Alo is one of the precipitating factors in Francie's downward spiral. He has his own snobbery about traditional country people. He notes that 'a tractor went farting off home to the mountains with a trailer of muck', a derisory image contrasting sharply with a similar but romanticised image of 'an ass and cart going off into the green mountains', by which Francie is seduced, on the cover of Phillip Nugent's music book, nostalgically titled Emerald Gems of Ireland. It is significant too that it is Phillip, identified with appropriating colonisers, who, while possessing a library of Anglo-American comic culture, is also the possessor of this repository of Irish traditional ballads, including the one that Francie poignantly identifies with his mother. Francie holds particular scorn for Mrs Nugent's country-living brother, 'carrot-head Buttsy ... in a cottage that stank of turfsmoke and horsedung'. Buttsy's violent and uncouth pursuit of Francie gives the lie to the civilisation of the Nugents, the ambiguity of which is already established in their having to have returned to Ireland - a failure paralleling that of Francie's Uncle Alo. Yet the hypocrisies of the new society are more than matched by those of the older Ireland, so widely romanticised yet a seat of devastating damage: the damage to Francie's family is rooted in the trauma of his father's childhood in a Catholic Belfast orphanage, a pattern that will be repeated when Francie is sent in turn to a children's home and is interfered with by a priest.

All of this ambiguity is carried by the fact that Francie constantly slips into immature fantasies which in the end he turns into horrific reality. It is a shock to the reader to realise, when he returns from the reform school wanting to take up again his childish games with Joe, that Joe has gone on to secondary school and has outgrown such things, and to register Francie's arrested development  - signalled in the opening 'When I was a lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago' (which also prefigures the book's theme of confused history). I saw Francie's immaturity as representing the infantilisation of a people by both colonisation and religion, and it was noted in the group that Francie's name for his abuser in the reform school is 'Tiddly', neatly encapsulating the immaturity of a (historically all-powerful) Catholic priesthood.

After John's first question, Jenny had jumped in and said strongly that she didn't think that Francie is a psychopath - she thought that his behaviour is induced by circumstances and the way he is treated - and indeed his nostalgic longings and attachment to natural beauty, such as the single snowdrop that grows in the alleyway, militate against such an interpretation. However it was clear that Jenny had read the book as a psychological study. Others, in particular Clare, subscribed to this reading, and I agreed that the book did work beautifully on a psychological level as well as the political. Everyone agreed that the voice was exceptionally acute, that the book was in fact a tour de force of voice and prose style.

One question of John's that we didn't perhaps explore in enough depth was that of Francie's verbal charm, which he uses to manipulate people. Group members felt that the idea that he charms them is just another of Francie's fantasies, and that in reality they patronise or are frightened of him. I feel it's more complicated than that, but was unable to articulate why in the meeting. Francie's verbal wit is indeed quaint and acute. He comes upon some gossipy housewives in the grocery store: 'What's this? I says, the woman with three heads? When I said that they weren't so bad. Flick - back come the smiles.' I thought there was an implication that people were indeed momentarily disarmed by him, creating a cognitive dissonance (for both the characters and the reader) which in itself induces fear in others. In other words, Francie uses quaint Irish charm as a threatening weapon against his oppressors. John said that when he first read the book, several years ago, he was indeed charmed and saw Francie's actions as schoolboy pranks until they turn horrifically violent, a view that is reflected in reviews of the time. This time, he said, knowing the ending, he found all of it much more horrific.

Trevor noted that, unusually for Irish Catholics, none of the families, even the Bradys, has more than one child, and it was agreed that this is because this is not a social-realist novel, but one in which each character is some kind of representation.

Doug said that he was very impressed by the novel, but he could hardly say he enjoyed it as he found it so horrific, a view that was shared - interestingly enough, particularly among the men.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, February 22, 2016

Reading Group: Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser.

It's a long time since we held the discussion of this book, Jenny's choice, and in the meantime my head has been stuffed with my WIP (I've been a long way away, psychologically), so my memory of it is rather hazy.

The book, first published in 1997, winner of a Pullitzer prize, and more recently brought back to attention, is a kind of fable set in New York at the end of the 19th century, when a frenzy of building development was spreading upwards and outwards to create the metropolis we know. It concerns the son of a tobacconist who from humble beginnings as a hotel clerk becomes an entrepreneur, developing first a series of coffee bars and then moving into the business of building hotels, each successive one larger, more luxurious, and finally more fantastical than the last.

We all liked the book, I think, though as far as I remember Hans wasn't so sure about the unusual tension in the book between realism and non-realism. The book begins in the mode of a fairytale, using fairytale idiom and summing up the whole story to follow: 'There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper's son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune.' There's also a surreal episode near the beginning in which, before he becomes a clerk, Martin is taken to the top floor of the hotel and witnesses strange scenes amongst a troupe of actors staying there. However, the novel then quickly moves into a realist mode, with a measured, slightly old-fashioned prose very suited to the era portrayed, and a plethora of fascinating (and clearly deeply researched) historical details (which everyone loved). However, embedded within this realism is the motor of the novel: Martin Dressler's own psychic development from inspired but realist business sense to ambition, dreams, and finally fantasies that overreach themselves. As a result the novel ends in surreality, with Martin's final hotel a place that could not possibly exist in reality, with whole replicated worlds encompassed on its endless floors, including features such as real boating lakes.

Personally, I like this narrative tension a lot as a statement of the disastrous lack of realism at the heart of so many real-life capitalist projects, and indeed of our capitalist mentality and society, and Trevor in particular wholeheartedly agreed. There was some discussion as to how far in any case the ending of the book was a fantasy, those who had been to LA saying that projects there equal Martin's in their reliance on fantasy if not in impossible physicality.

Everyone was very taken with the ending, in which, recalling the early surreal scene involving actors, once Martin's final dream hotel is failing he employs actors to act as guests. In order to do so, they (for a time) become real-life inhabitants, the fantasy thus melding into reality. Finally, Martin walks by the river 'woken from his dream of stone', but unbowed, because it wasn't the particular dream that was important, but the dream impulse itself. In other words, realism can't win: the capitalist fantasy won't die.

Introducing the book, Jenny found central Martin's relationship with the two sisters he meets in a hotel where he lives before starting his own: he marries the dreamy but cool and ungiving Caroline, but takes into his confidence and business the lively and practical and less good-looking Emmeline. Jenny saw this as a depiction of the cultural (sexist) paradox in which women are required to fulfil incompatible male fantasies and be both beautifully fey and yet practical. I saw the two women (and his relations with them) rather as personifications of Martin's own psychic paradox - his initial practicality, and the dreaminess that overtakes it and leads to his downfall.

There was comment on the fact that there is a lot of repetition - especially in the depiction of these two women and their chaperoning mother. One early description of Caroline -  '...her pale hair pulled tightly back, so that it seemed to pull painfully against the skin of her temples' - is repeated several times. This is another rhetorical and rhythmic fairytale technique, and Ann pointed to the similarity with Homer's repetition of 'the wine-dark sea', noting also that it was a kind of labelling or signalling (of themes, tropes etc). A labelling technique seems indeed apt for the Victorian setting. However the repetitions here weren't exactly snappy, yet were repeated verbatim and so didn't work for several members of our group. Some people indeed found the book on the whole very wordy, though I hadn't found it unaptly so myself, and they did concede that the prose style was very suited to the era of the story.

Finally, Jenny and Clare both expressed appreciation of the fact that, in spite of this, the novel is composed of (more modernist) short sections, which made it easier to read in the short bursts occasioned by modern life. All in all, we thought it an excellent and engaging allegory of the capitalist urge, and thus indeed of present-day society.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Sunday, February 21, 2016

End of a draft

At last I reached the end of the latest draft of my wip - the typing up of it, that is. (I now have to read through the typescript and edit it). Here was my desk on the 2nd January when I started: five and a bit hand-written A4 Pukka pads, and beneath them two earlier typed-up drafts put ready for reference. And last Friday, after six weeks of sitting there at my window with the rain slashing down outside, and the sun, when it did come out, slowly creeping around so that towards the end I had to draw down the blind to see the screen, I typed the last word. Since then I have been immersed in the horror of cleaning a neglected house, the pleasanter and more therapeutic work of pruning a neglected garden, frantically catching up with my overdue reading, and basically re-learning to engage with the world around me!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The WIP trap

WIP progress report: I have been sitting still for so long now that I have a sore knee - argh! And because of that, and because I'm so near the end and tying things up, I hardly slept a wink last night. Other consequences are: a filthy house, an absolutely messy garden, my social life in utter abeyance and my awareness of the cultural events around me - theatre, film etc - at a minimum.

I do NOT recommend this working method, but I just can't help it myself: if I try to stop, I just sit there thinking about it but not doing it, and unable to put my mind to a single other thing, apart from Killer Soduko (numbers are such a great relief from words!).

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Helen Walters reviews Used to Be

Another review of Used to Be to bring me back to my blog in spite of the demands of the WIP. Helen Walters writes a lovely response to the book on her blog, Fiction is Stranger than Fact.

She says:
One of the most appealing things about this collection is that, although all the individual stories are very different and cover different subjects, there is a real unity of theme to the book,

goes on to explain that
All the stories look at alternative explanations and viewpoints on things that have happened or are happening. They examine the nature of memory, the complexities of interpretation and the possibilities of alternate reality. The y also put the microscope on the art of storytelling itself,

picks out her three favourite stories, and concludes:
All in all, an enjoyable collection of well-chosen stories with a fascinating linking theme. Recommended.

WIP bulletin (for those the slightest bit interested): woke at 3.35 and couldn't get back to sleep for thinking about it, so overslept and lost an hour's working time this morning. Stopped for lunch, a walk in the park and a coffee in Nero's and then rushed back to it. Have just finished at 7 pm, and this page keeps blurring!

Monday, February 08, 2016

Review of Used to Be on Our Book Reviews Online

Still stuck like glue to my manuscript, so still not blogging properly, but in the meantime here's another nice review for Used to Be, this time by The Mole on Our Book Reviews Online. He concludes:

A really great collection that you will enjoy, identify with, wish that worm hadn't got into your head - and each of these in equal measure.

Whole review here.

You may or may not be interested to know that I am typing and rewriting so hard and for such long hours that my back aches and my sight keeps getting blurred, which is about all the other writing news I have at the moment. The thrills of the writer's life, eh?

Monday, February 01, 2016

Bookmuse reviews Used to Be

Pretty thrilled with this review of Used to Be on Book Muse. It's short, but then it's not how much you say but what you say:
Baines reminds me of a scratch DJ, taking a conventional format and messing with it, expertly, to give the audience a whole new experience... 
...Highly readable, thought-provoking and with beautiful use of language, this collection is a rich and unexpected delight.

Read the whole review here.

I haven't managed to blog much since the New Year, in spite of my hopes. As I said, I'm typing up a draft of something long, and I thought that this would give me more headspace than I had during the actual writing, but I'm so obsessed with it that I just type and type (and edit) all day, right into the evening when I'm too whacked to do anything else. Soon be finished, I hope!