Greater than a story: The Lesser Bohemians by Eimer McBride

lesser-bohemians

When many hear the world “Ireland,” thoughts of many  rise with tedious predictability: border, violence, sexual repression, drunks.  Eimear McBride’s new novel, The Lesser Bohemians at once engages and shatters these stereotypes.

McBride uses the modernist style to bring the reader inside the self of her main character, Eily, as the 18-year-old woman crosses her own borders: from childhood to independence; from Ireland to England; from innocence to experience; from loneliness to love.  Her language  and insight are at times obscure but more often breathtaking, bracing and brilliant.  The reader experiences the world of Eily from inside herself, almost as if the reader has become a dissociated personality of the character.   McBride captures the essential nature of being young, unschooled, and protected but venturing into a wider world filled with the beauty of unknown art and literature, the challenges of education, and the hazards of sexual innocence.   Eily asks herself, when she visits an art gallery “Seek to feel but think instead and wonder if that’s wrong I’m a God’s fair innocent after all when it comes to galleries too.”; and the reader is immediately returned to one’s own initiations.  Eily in the initial stage of the novel is searching for her identity:”  Why am I. Why am I not. Where’s even the way to could? I’m not lost. Or not lost much. Lonely. It is that and I don’t know what to do.” As she moves through her first months at a London Drama School she acknowledges: “tried by the weight of all I don’t know.”

As she moves through that first year away from Ireland and engages in a relationship with a man whose name is not revealed until well into the novel, a famous actor, more than twice her age, constricting his life, nonetheless, to an untidy bedsit, Eily confronts her own demons: “Thy will be done. Satan under every skin. Skinful under all our skin.”  Her sexual initiation begins from a place of fear and shame” To spite myself, for him,  To hurt myself. I open my thighs saying Lads, do anything. Nothing matters and it is nothing…Shame fuses to silence letting the night maraud.While like watching TV, I watch. , killing bit by bit the useless hope of not being this girl I was. Am. She is…” And yet, Eily continues the journey of transformation from a shy Irish girl of the 1990’s (“Ireland is what it is. Sealed in itself, like me…”) into a woman who enjoys and even needs sensual and sexual fulfillment:  “Strange to my skin, him kissing somewhere else. Stranger to be on the outside, recreating its taste…”  Another achievement of McBride in this novel is to write with ferocious clarity about Eily’s emerging sexuality and her pleasure.

McBride moves to a more conventional narrative style, without losing the poetic cadence that appears natural to her, as the novel explores the love story itself. Perhaps, McBride is allowing her prose style to reflect  how Eily has moved from her lonely confusion and sense of isolation into  the satisfactions and pathos of an actual relationship which must exist or fail to exist on more levels than the purely physical or sensual.  Eily is permitted to articulate her own wisdom, “the opposite of love is despair” while retaining her haunting perception.  This transition of narrative style creates a less thrilling engagement of the reader but does not diminish the work.  Instead, McBride has creatively employed narrative technique to amplify the characters experience.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. Notwithstanding, McBride’s novel remains, to date, my reading highlight of the year.

Of Fantasy & Fortune

As of January 24, 2014, the fourth homeless person this year succumbed to frigid cold in Philadelphia. John Smulligan Jr would have turned 31 today, according to an Inquirer, Philly.com article.He was a graduate of New York University, down on his luck after tragedy and illness entered his life. Proof, one might say, that unspeakable things might happen to any one of us given the wrong eventualities in life.

Would that Mr. Smulligan’s tragic fate were an isolated event. This year (still in its first days) in the U.S. alone, the media brims with reportage of the ravages of homelessness and hunger, unemployment and illness. Often these reports rest in glossy magazines above heart wrenching photographs of people aside glistening images of sumptuous foods, romantic seascapes or superfluous products.

As has been said so often one must fear it will soon become the stuff of another political cliché without result, we indeed live in two economic realities. All our cities and towns boast well landscaped, expertly tended homes with well designed vistas, quaint shops and efficient services. Often merely yards apart, decay and disinterest ruminate through the structures and institutions which serve the people who are of lesser financial means and political power.

The central myth which permits coexistence of these two realities is actually quite simple: the belief that unforseen fortunate things might happen to any one of us given the right eventualities in life.

Perhaps, this myth is the fantasy which fuels the embrace by so many of the television series “Downton Abbey”

A costume-period soap opera, with a glacial and weak narrative,Downton has, nonetheless, inspired all things Downton, from mugs and tee-shirts, tea sets and jams to museum shows and travel tours. This is, of course, in addition to the series garnering a mass audience and much media attention. While at first this strikes one as somewhat curious, upon reflection, this might be entirely proper in our economic and political climate. Downton is, quite simply, at the heart, a glittering and lavish ode to the capitalist myths and mantras held most dear in our culture.

In the current season, the grand English estate has survived the unspeakable horrors of World War I. Not unscathed has the family remained. Loss of life, health and sanity touched even the Grantham family and fellow gentry. The gruesome violence was a great leveler at the stage in warfare when those in battles included the grand as well as more of the ordinary. Nor did the health hazards of modernization, the influenza outbreak, such as, leave the family without scars. Indeed, even the darker risks arising from the hallmarks of modernization (the Titanic, the motor car) deeply wounded the family.

Still, the Granthams who survive remain largely fixed in their traditional world view. Unquestioning, they are dressed and undressed, pampered and served by a battalion of staff who live below the stairs in unadorned quarters without privacy or the dignity of being addressed, with rare exception, by other than a family name. Intimate family matters are discussed in front of household staff as though no other human being were present. Ladies lounge in luxury eating full breakfasts in silken robes in rooms filled with sunlight and crackling fires. As the staff, dressed in subdued colors, toil and serve, the aristocrats daily don formal dress, women wearing fashionable brilliant hues and elbow length gloves. This detailed ritual is precisely executed for the simple purpose that a family may sit around a dining table together and eat a meal.

Of course, among the staff, there is never harmony. The man in charge, though sometimes evidencing wisdom above his station and a human heart, largely growls at the personnel to remind them that they are inferior. Footmen compete with each other for the affection of kitchen maids and scuttle each other’s confidence. Women fear electrical appliances beyond reason. Servants evidence ignorance of city life, ambition, morality. The viewer is invited to accept that it is unfortunate for the staff that modern times will eliminate traditional service jobs. We are asked to believe that a man who does not immediately accept a demotion in a service position is foolhardy indeed.

Most significantly, the gentry at and around Downton still cling to the Colonial power of England. Despite the fact that a son-in-law is a former Irish Republican, within a few short years, he is no longer at home in the land of his birth. Such must be the seductiveness of the life of the Upper Classes and the lure of the Colonial Power that a man recently willing to sacrifice his life for his country now doesn’t even take his daughter home to visit the country of his birth. Other colonial natives, from India, Australia, Singapore and the African colonies, such as, are rarely seen. A black jazz musician is celebrated when he remains appropriately in the background. Yet when seen by the gentry as exceeding his “place” and dancing with a young, white Lady, he is quickly removed from her company. The distaste and censure are shared by all. Not even the turncoat Irish Republican experiences class solidarity with the talented man.

It is not that the Grathams and their kind are immune to the moral duty to give unto to others. The commoner mother of the late son-in-law of the Earl is the Conscience of the family. She indefatigably promotes the welfare of the villagers in various health initiatives and in efforts of individual patronage. But what is most telling, for the Granthams: one must be secretive about generosity.

When a tenant who has been “lawfully” evicted seeks reinstatement, the Earl smiles approvingly at the bold suggestion of the tenant that the families had worked the land in question for generations “in partnership.” (A suggestion which undoubtedly, five years earlier would have evoked the violent ire of a true Irish Republican who would have witnessed or inherited countless tales of the ransacking and destruction of many tenant homes.) With a sense of true generosity, the Lord arranges for the tenant to resume the farm by himself making a loan. But no one is to know! Of course, the tale requires that family members discover the fact of the Earl’s good heart. Alas, decorum requires that this too remain a secret. Indeed, the good Earl should not be shamed with the fact that others have discovered his empathy and generosity.

In the world of 1920’s England, the ruling class of many centuries, exhausted and traumatized as was the western world by the horror of World War I, perceived an uncertain future. The upper classes sought to consolidate their wealth. For some less privileged, even some of the working class, modern times brought new opportunities. Most, however, were left not able to reach the fabulous riches of their day.

Today, we hear calls of the socially aware, of the politicians, in the State of the Union, even, to beware income inequality. We turn away in mass numbers to enter the world of the fabulously if fictional rich. If only we stay mindful that the ultimate fiction is the fantasy that is pedaled: the chauffeur does not really become a member of the family and the frog will never become a prince.