Literary Review: McBride, Corin, Lewis, Eggers

Published in Arts and Culture | Print

 

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
Eimear MacBride
[Galley Beggar]

In this extremely impressive debut performance, McBride gives such a total sense of bodily-linguistic continuity that its sentences seem like shivers of the nerves. That most of her sentences are fragmented assists such immediacy:  ‘She’s a bit, this aunt, relentless’. Paragraphs scurry out from an ‘I’-centre, scurry back, relent (‘I won’t. I promise. Drink again.’). Here is the verbal mind lent physical, spidering motion. It gets so good at times you start to hear glottal stops instead of full stops. Its immediacy is such that we feel for this character without ever learning her name.

McBride is adept at these ‘lone-I’ topic sentences which conflate the self-as-subject with the self-as-object, and elsewhere the reduction of recurring characters to separate pronouns suggests not human relationships, but collisions. The language cracks to syllables at moments of pressure, syntactical fissures that prove especially effective in registering scenes of sexual violence: the splintered look of all those pronouns and prepositions rucked up against each other is more powerfully cinematic for not being visual at all.

Yet this is not a forbidding verbal texture: the landscape is recognisably that of late-‘80s, early-‘90s Ireland, and all the more vivid for being experienced through the narrator’s tight, blind movement through that world. McBride spent much of her early life in Castlebar; her ear catches that resonance without ever shrinking in range to the purely local. Big words like class and fate appear in a Mayo-accented shorthand, with as much ear for the agendas and ‘undervoice’ of utterance as anybody who’s learned from Nathalie Sarraute. Meanwhile, the era’s moribund Catholicism is vividly sketched through garishly bloody Christs drawn ‘for fun’. ‘Catholic guilt’ is a weightlessly evoked cliché: A Girl is Half-Formed Thing restores its gravity. McBride has given her speaker a voice that is exact, unruly, and – I don’t say this lightly – perfectly unique. It is nothing short of electrifying.

- Tim Smyth

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One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses
Lucy Corin
[McSweeney’s]

Lucy Corin once described acts of imagination as ‘something like empathy, but with more tentacles’. Her extraordinary second collection invokes gestures of giving, tempered by feelers stretching into bleak and lonely expanses. The opener, ‘Eyes of Dogs’, reworks Hans Christian Andersen into a Beckettian universe where characters fumble for objects that emerge, transform and vanish without warning. Next, ‘Madmen’ describes a scheme designed to initiate self-absorbed teenagers into the realities of difference. Instead, glorious otherness (‘something like religion or wisdom’) collapses into cliché.

Our entry into other worlds cannot come so easily, Corin insists. The title piece – a compendium of flash-fictions – tests how far we may go in approaching the alien. Stark ashen emptiness coincides with apocalyptic cosiness; the supple conviction that a recognisable ‘I’ will persist, must persist. But it is when this solipsism is punctured that the stories soar. In an old-school ‘wind, fire and water’ apocalypse, the narrator’s body inverts, taking root in the earth and ‘pulsing with quotations’. Charged with the words and landscape of others, the self endures.

These stories do not traffic in epiphanies. With a keen ear for what Barthelme called ‘the ugly sentence that is also somehow beautiful’, Corin scatters sharp-focus moments throughout. Internet FAQS and comments, for instance, become unlikely repositories of meaningful strangeness. The ludic, self-consciously textual style never implodes, but builds towards a revelation suggestive of awkward, compelling survival.

- Gillian Moore

 

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The Allegory of Love
C.S. Lewis
[Canto Classics]

In the 11th century, a group of poets in southern France began to write about romantic love as though it were of profound significance to humanity. Their stylised obsession with desire would have baffled the Beowulf-poet, and even the rollicking Ovid would have found it vaguely laughable. Yet the troubadour poets heralded a ‘change in human sentiment’ that led not only to Dante, Chaucer and Spenser, but to the ideals of love that still haunt our inner life.

Or at least that’s the tale told by C.S. Lewis in his monumental 1936 study, The Allegory of Love, which has finally been reissued to mark the 50th anniversary of the author’s death. In exploring the scope of medieval love poetry, and tracing the development of its allegorical form, Lewis blends judicious charm with a knack for synthesis, and couches key concepts incomparably well. ‘The twilight of the gods,’ for instance, ‘is the mid-morning of the personifications’. But the seductive flow of his rhetoric – with all its grandeur and panache – gathers force of movement at the expense of moderation. There were grubbier, more sardonic aspects to medieval desire, but since they don’t really fit Lewis’s thesis, he overrules them. On its own expansive terms, however, this book remains indispensable. It revives habits of mind that are no longer ours, and with grace and good sense, grants us access to a strange and singular poetry.

- Conor Leahy

 

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The Circle
Dave Eggers
[McSweeney’s]

#WebSummit fans, look away now. Print publishing doyen and arch-sentimentalist, Dave Eggers has set a satirical crosshair on Big Data, the quantified self, online surveillance, privacy policies, over-sharing and every other dystopia immediately imaginable to a man who clearly spends more time reading Wired than actually using the internet. Satire may have the luxury of shedding some of the novel’s formal subtleties, but The Circle‘s stunning lack of character-building and moral insight makes this much less Voltaire’s Candide than reddit.com/r/skeptic. A truly phenomenal amount of surface-skimming, crude dialogue and ham-fisted plot construction means the GTA V mission in which Michael De Santa infiltrates Silicon Valley’s ‘Lifeinvader’ headquarters to assassinate a pseudo-Zuckerberg demonstrates at least as much critical acumen as Eggers manages here.

In creating a world where 98% of the population is only too happy to submit their entire sovereignty to a brazenly totalitarian tech giant’s extropianist will (and where the other 2% are such detestable pedants that you’ll find yourself cheering when they drive their pick-up trucks off a cliff), Eggers betrays an appalling anti-humanism. His treatment of his main character, the amorphous Mae, is just as savage. If it wasn’t difficult enough being a woman in the tech world, imagine being a defenseless plot device in the tragic machinations of cartoon villains out to control the entire planet. A cringe-inducing, obstinate mess.

- Daniel Gray

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