The Irish author Eimear McBride’s breathtaking debut novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.
By Jenny Hendrix
It’s said that the Irish novelist Eimear McBride wrote A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing with a quote from one of Joyce’s letters taped up above her desk: “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” McBride, more completely than any recent novelist I’m aware of, has translated this crucial truth into style.
In Girl, her debut novel, she’s invented a new way of telling: one that, while it resuscitates several key tropes of modernism (not least the resistance to easy pleasure), is something all its own, wisely trading James Joyce’s linguistic blarney for an ambitious vision a great deal slimmer. You’ll feel Joyce’s influence, certainly, as well as that of Samuel Beckett (and what Irish writer could really avoid these two?), and yet McBride’s novel feels weirdly outside of literature, despite having been hustled to the forefront of it, racking up a number of prizes in Europe. The prose, while seeming literarily anarchic, is actually quite focused, stripping sentences to their bare bones not as part of some stylistic exercise, but to convey immediate experience as lived. The effect can be, at times, less that of literature than of the video feed:
That house had up hill down dale. Steps and mud. Those wellies red. Umbrella. Wondrous being dry. See fat drops plop and run like a river down for flies. Spiders. That time it was always raining. Summer. Spring.
Although time seems collapsed here (“Summer. Spring.”) it is nonetheless written live.
The novel—published in the U.S. by Coffee House, a press with unfailingly excellent instincts of late—is a portrait of the disruptive force of sibling love, between the girl of the title and her terminally ill older brother, and its entanglements with sin. A shared childhood, beautifully rendered, progresses into the usual separations forced by school and a dawning awareness of sex, an early adulthood destabilized by change, and the progression of a final illness painted so crystal-clear it is almost impossible to read. (McBride has experienced this, as anyone who also has will see at once—here there be trigger warnings.) The near-total lack of names suggests that a kind of universalism is the point.
From the novel’s first lines, the speaker is not immediately clear:
For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
Soon though, it becomes clear that the narrator, who is not yet born, is recounting a scene between her (unnamed) mother and brother. The boy has a brain tumor and undergoes an operation that will leave him physically and mentally scarred. Dialogue—here the mother telling her son he can name the unborn narrator—is embedded in the sentence along with the twists and turns of internal contradiction; scenes collapse into each other, layering. “Mammy me?” seeks confirmation but, without the comma, is also a plea.
It’s a lesson in just how far the rules of the English language can be bent before comprehension falls away.
McBride’s path into this raw, unfiltered state of prelinguistic experience—a state, one might as well note, stereotypically gendered as feminine—leads through the (typically masculine) form of the short, percussive sentence, cutting the flow of thought into biting, often contradictory chunks. There are few commas (normal or inverted) and many, many full stops. These seem related, maybe, to Céline’s ellipses, chopping reality up into units without fragmenting it completely, suggesting, by their placement, something else intruding or occurring alongside what is perceived. The prose is syncopated but is propelled forward by this series of driving, stuttered blocks. Verb forms are twisted, prepositions dropped. Contradictory thoughts and emotions sit side by side, irresolute. McBride’s aim, it seems, is to capture experience almost prior to thought, dropping the reader into events at the very moment the narrator, too, encounters them.
Despite its complexity, McBride’s novel does not, as Joseph Collins wrote of Ulysses, require “a course of training or instruction.” I quickly grew used to the way in which scraps of dialogue are tossed around and peppered into sentences, and there is little that is abstract about McBride’s language itself. If it has been compared to poetry—the narrator is a poet of a kind—the comparison is accurate only in as much as it tends to flirt with rather than embrace conventional grammar, choosing rhythm and internal rhyme (“A right hook of a look in his eye all the time”) over straightforward exposition. But McBride, though she does indulge in the figurative, is never really lyrical; her words seek not admiration but transparency. And many of the ungrammatical, almost prelinguistic sentence fragments—“My thud cheeks up,” for example—are instantly understood. It’s a lesson in just how far the rules of the English language can be bent before comprehension falls away, as though McBride had discovered a pidgin of the reptilian brain. There are moments where she compromises this oblique style somewhat, throwing her reader a bone, whether in long passages of dialogue or at the beginning of chapters where it’s necessary to establish a scene: “We’re living in the country cold and wet with slugs going across the carpet every night. Now when you are seven eight. Me five.” There are moments where, for clarity, the uncle needs to be “Uncle” rather than “he,” or the mother “Mammy” rather than “she.”
Girl hews closely to what the feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva called the “dark revolt of being” that looms within abjection, “directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside.” For McBride’s narrator, the threat is personified by her brother’s tumor (“Cosy kernelled in your head…Nasty thing. Having a chew”), but there are other threats too: the absent father, certainly, and the overbearing force of the mother’s Catholic faith. Half-formed, the girl uses abjection to separate herself—herself and her brother both—from all these things. For her, abjection takes the familiar form of sexual promiscuity, beginning at 13 in an encounter with her uncle and developing through many partners into a blooming masochistic need. There is a great deal of ambiguity here—in the girl’s conflicted response to the initial incest-rape, in the moments of pleasure experienced between pain and fear, and in the way guilt over her actual or perceived complicity acts both as relief and an inducement to continue. In these guilty moments, scraps and passages of liturgy force their way into the text as through the narrator’s conscience, their phlegmatic Catholic weight providing, like all those full stops, both anchorage and (narrative, rhythmic, emotional) impedance. Before having sex with her uncle, she wades into the lake, a kind of baptism—the first of many—in which she humiliates herself before God prior to the more visible, literal abasement. Humility, repentance, anger, guilt, and abjection are all tangled up here in a specific, Catholic mess.
While she doesn’t understand her erotic adventures, necessarily, or exactly desire them, the narrator does, as Kristeva put it, “joy” in them:
I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead… I met a man who hit me a smack. I met a man who cracked my arm. I met a man who said what are you doing out so late at night. I met a man. I met a man. And wash my mouth out with soap. I wish I could. That I did then. I met a man. A stupid thing. I met a man. Should have turned on my heel. I thought. I didn’t know to think. I didn’t even know to speak. I met a man. I kept on walking. I met a man. I met a man. And I lay down.
As she sees it, sin is a way to separate herself from the spiritual world of her mother. Sin allows her body, her self, to be real, and there is a kind of beauty in this, along with a host of contradictory emotions. In one of the book’s very few moments freighted with symbolism, the narrator smashes a statuette of the Virgin, as though metaphorically joining her schism from her own mother’s faith with the confusion, guilt, and joyful relief that will attend the loss of her own virginity, at the hands of the uncle, in the next chapter. “I am happy,” she says after that event. “Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin.” Sin, like love, is freedom for her but also a form of revenge which keeps her from being free. It also, the novel is careful to note, makes her an object, the titular “thing”: “Me the thing but I. Think I know. Is that the reason for what’s happened? Me? The thing.” In her affectless, distant narration, the girl finds existence in alienation. So: A woman invites violence to be done to her, is (joyfully) made a thing of, and becomes a subject again through, of all things, a kind of guilt bound up in love. This form of redemption, if that is what it is, can be wearying.
And yet, attempts to reduce Girl to such simple, programmatic readings will be frustrated by the way events are narrated: The immediacy of the prose sets it outside of symbolism, and so sexual violence—in particular a gut-wrenching and, in its typographic transgressions, almost onomatopoetic scene towards the end—is not allowed to stand for much, isn’t recuperated by message or theme. It’s not so much sublimated by art as purified of it. The brother, too, easily a Christ-like innocent, dying for his sister’s sins, isn’t that, and so death is given the full and awful weight with which it presents. All of this is deeply uncomfortable, and McBride, to her credit, allows discomfort to stand, along with the rest of her novel’s difficult contradictions. What she does, even in the dense prose of her beautiful final scene, is give discomfort room to breathe:
The black I swim filled with light and things and clouds that were the sky. The coldest water. Deepest mirror of the past and in it I am. Drowned no fine…And we are very clean here like when we wash our hands. When we’re in the rain. I was. His fingers in my mouth my eyes my hair. Stop. You break the surface. Gasp. Air is. That’s what air is again.
Allowed to exist in the fullness of this ambiguous proximity to love, even abjection can be a form of beauty. There is no sublimation, no transformation of it or its horrors, just a recognition that it exists, in the thick of things, arm in arm with love, with joy, and all the rest.
My wife and I were travelling on business and had been staying at the Radisson Blu in Letterkenny Ireland for just under two weeks when I caught the flu and became very congested. I’m asthmatic and congestion is a problem. My wife ran the shower for me to get up a steam, hoping a hot shower and steam would offer some relief.
The hotel wasn’t built with showers, instead a shower head is attached to a metal hose that is attached to the water main. After my wife turned the water on to run; a small rip in the metal shower hose was broke up and unknown to us, water shot out across the floor and into the hall.
We shut the water off and mopped up the spilled water with towels and called the front desk, told them the problem, asked to have the shower fixed and to have new towels brought up to the room. The clerk said he would and that was the last we heard from him.
Three hours later, I phoned the reception again and asked for a repairman and clean towels. The repairman arrived, fixed the shower head and left. Several minutes later a furious hotel manager called. She made three points in rapid succession. She was charging us $200 for the damage done by the faulty hose, there were two persons in a room booked for one and she was charging for the second person with penalties and that her workman had informed her that I was ill with the flu and did I want to see a doctor?
I was taken aback by the verbal assault and the invasion of privacy and general obnoxiousness of it all. I told her, no, I didn’t want to see a doctor. She said that it was not in the best interest of the other hotel guests to allow a sick person to “Carry on” in the hotel. I told her we were leaving the hotel that day so it wasn’t an issue.
I phoned my wife who was at her consulting site and told her about the manager’s abrasive call. She called the manager and tried to explain that the shower hose was broken.
The manager replied that “You and your husband are telling two different stories so we’ll get you both in the same room and get the story straight”
They agreed to meet at 5:00 that afternoon. I phoned the manager and told her I wanted the broken hose present as well as the workman who fixed the hose.
That blew her fuse. She went off on me. She snapped that the workman had taken the hose with him and had left the property for the day and, she informed me, I was not to tell her what to do in her hotel. I asked her to calm down. She replied in a manner that made me think she was speaking for the benefit of someone else she said “You are raising your voice at me”
“No one has raised their voice at you” I replied “I have Streep throat, I can barely talk,”
“In that case” she snapped “You are being aggressive towards me and I feel threatened by your mannerism”
I told her she was being aggressive I was simply defending myself. She hissed something and hung up. Several seconds later she called back and told me that check it was past noon and I was to leave the hotel “immediately”
I explained that we had arranged for a late checkout and we were leaving the hotel in four hours away, that I had a temperature, the chills and a breathing problem and I needed to rest before a four hour ride to Dublin. Her reply was that I was to vacate the room or that she would arrange with the local authorities to take me out of the room.
So I left.
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL
A world-renowned expert on electrocardiograms, Dr. Rory Childers was also the son of Ireland's fourth president and the grandson of Erskine Childers, a strong backer of a united Ireland who was executed by firing squad in the country's civil war in 1922.
Dr. Rory Childers was an expert on heart disease who helped set the standards for interpreting electrocardiograms that guided first-responders on life-saving action.
His work “had a huge impact in clinical care, in emergency rooms and intensive-care units across the world,” said Dr. Martin Burke, a colleague at the University of Chicago, where Dr. Childers taught for half a century.
“He standardized the interpretation of the electrocardiogram through mathematical analysis,” Burke said, which led to more accurate readings and more timely and targeted treatment.
Dr. Childers, 83, died Aug. 27 after a heart attack while vacationing in East Hampton, New York.
The Dublin-raised physician had wide interests beyond his work, most notably literature. He already spoke English, Irish, French and German when he decided to study Russian out of love for the novels of Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, whose work he wrote about in scholarly journals. And every year on “Bloomsday” — June 16 — Dr. Childers was among the performers who read James Joyce’s monumental novel “Ulysses” at the Cliff Dwellers club in downtown Chicago.
At the University of Chicago, he won the cardiology department’s “teacher of the year” award with such regularity the honor was renamed the Rory Childers Teaching Award. He kept students and fellow professors laughing, according to the University of Chicago Magazine, telling them the irreverent nicknames Dubliners bestowed on their city’s monuments to Anna Liffey, peddler Molly Malone, Dublin’s waterways, a clock and two women shoppers. They were, respectively: “the floozy in the Jacuzzi, the tart with the cart, the box in the docks, the chime in the slime and the hags with the bags.”
He came from a renowned Anglo-Irish family. In 1973, his father, Erskine Hamilton Childers, was elected president of Ireland. His English grandfather, Robert Erskine Childers, was an Irish nationalist executed in 1922 during the civil war that followed the partition of Ireland. With dashing last words, the grandfather told the firing squad, “Take a step or two forwards, lads. It will be easier that way.”
In July, Dr. Childers accepted an invitation from Irish President Michael D. Higgins to attend a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of a gun-running operation by the doctor’s grandfather and grandmother, Molly Childers, who brought weapons to Ireland — later used in the 1916 uprising against British rule — on their boat.
The Irish president expressed “great sadness” at Dr. Childers’ death.
“A distinguished academic, many tributes have been paid to him for his path-breaking work as a cardiologist and his teaching at the University of Chicago,” Higgins said. “He had a vast knowledge of Irish literature, and, as a raconteur, his sense of humor has been recalled since his death on 27th August.”
Dr. Childers received simultaneous degrees in English and French while attending medical school at Trinity College, said his son, Peter.
He operated the first cardiac catheterization lab in Dublin, according to his wife, Michele, who met him at a wedding party in New York for mutual friends.
“I thought he was a great conversationalist,” Michele Childers said. “Toward the end of the party, he said, ‘Well, this party seems to be winding down. Where are we going for dinner?’ As if we’d known each other forever . . . Six months later. we were married and moved to Ireland.”
In Ireland, Dr. Childers was writer and poet Brendan Behan’s physician. Behan was a frequent dinner guest at the Childers home and drank only soda water when he was there, nothing stronger.
“He told Rory he ‘wouldn’t drink in front of Michele’ — ‘That would be terrible,’ ” Michele Childers said,
“We were very heartbroken when he died,” she said of Behan. “He had diabetes, and Rory tried valiantly to convince him to stop drinking. But, you know, he was who he was. Rory had lots of stories about him. I wish I could hear him tell them again.”
She and her husband came to Chicago in the early 1960s, when Dr. Childers took a post as a fellow in cardiology at the University of Chicago.
They raised sons Peter and Daniel in a home where dinner conversation revolved around literature, history and medicine.
“His intellect and openness to creative work and knowledge was a marvelous thing to grow up with,” Peter Childers said.
“I just feel so lucky to be raised by someone so passionately engaged with life and who showed us by example all the different ways your life could be enriched by both the sciences and the arts,” Daniel Childers said. “Two of his gifts to me were his love of old movies and jazz. I will always think of him when I watch B movies.”
Dr. Childers was an early patron of the Court Theatre, said founding director Nicholas Rudall. Though “primarily one of the greatest cardiologists in the world, he was curious about everything — political, literary, artistic,” Rudall said.
Dr. Paul Kligfield, a professor at Cornell University, said Dr. Childers “was a great teacher.”
“Not only was he a master of interpretation of the electrocardiogram, but he also was a genius at explaining electrocardiography to others in his peer group,” Kligfield said.
Dr. Childers was former president of the International Society for Computerized Electrocardiology, which issued a statement saying, “Rory was an extraordinary man with a rich and remarkable heritage; a dedicated physician, teacher and mentor.”
He also had a talent few knew about, according to his son Peter: “He couldn’t cook, but he could make a bananas flambé. It was a very flamboyant dish, with great fanfare, nearly setting things on fire using brandy.’’
Dr. Childers is also survived by two sisters, Margaret and Carainn, and a half-sister, Irish politician Nessa Childers, a member of the European Parliament. His late brother Erskine Childers was a United Nations official.
A service is being planned at the University of Chicago, where Dr. Childers’ family will play some of his favorite music by jazzman John Coltrane.
The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for 2014 was awarded to Colin Barrett in recognition of his outstanding achievement as a fiction writer. The announcement was made by the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Patrick Prendergast, at a reception in the Provost’s House this week.
Now in its 38th year, the Rooney Prize is a highly regarded award recognising a body of work by a young Irish writer which the selection committee considers shows exceptional promise. Notable past recipients include Bernard Farrell, Neil Jordan, Frank McGuinness, Hugo Hamilton, Anne Enright, Mark O’Rowe and Claire Keegan.
“The Rooney prize is a renowned accolade practically every young Irish writer hopes to one day attain, and it is a true honour for me to be this year's recipient,” said Barrett. “Thank you to the selection committee at Trinity and the enduring generosity of the Rooney family for this amazing vote of confidence in my work.”
The annual award is maintained through the generosity of Dr Daniel Rooney, President Emeritus of the Pittsburgh Steelers who recently served as Ambassador of the United States of America to Ireland, and his wife Mrs Patricia Rooney. The award is administered by the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing at the School of English at Trinity and its committee is co-chaired by Professor Gerald Dawe.
Commenting on the legacy of the high-profile award, Professor Dawe explained: “The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature is one of the premiere awards in Ireland offered to writers of 40 years or younger, across genres. Since 1976, past recipients read like a Who’s Who of some of the best of Irish writing. The Rooney Prize, approaching its own fortieth birthday, is a generous and important gift from the Rooney family to this country and all of us at Trinity College are honoured to be involved.”
Colin Barrett is from Mayo. His debut collection of short stories, Young Skins, won the 2014 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and has been long listed for the Guardian First Book Award. It is published by the Stinging Fly Press in Ireland and by Jonathan Cape in the UK. Thirty two years old, he was born in Alberta, Canada, and has also lived in Toronto and Perth, Australia. He grew up in Mayo and now lives in Dublin. A graduate of UCD Arts, he also holds an MA in Creative Writing from the college. He has written relentlessly since his teens. It is with unexpected delight and deep gratitude that he accepts this year's Rooney prize for Literature.
Literary agent and selection committee member, Jonathan Williams, said: “Young Skins is a shimmering debut. Henry James said the house of fiction contains many windows. This collection opens a window on a very particular tract of earth. All the stories take place in or around a fictionalised small town in north Mayo, but, as with other writers who have chosen to set their narratives in a postage stamp patch of earth, it would be a grave mistake to characterise these stories as being in any way parochial. Rather, Colin Barrett’s fictional terrain will resonate with readers from various cultural backgrounds, in the same way as the settings of Maupassant’s short stories do. In Young Skins, the writer has made a world.”*
Full Citation by Jonathan Williams:
The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature is awarded annually for a body of work that, in the view of the selection committee, shows exceptional promise. In certain years a single outstanding work may warrant an award being presented to its author, especially where there is evidence of further writings in progress.
This year’s recipient, Colin Barrett, has been awarded the Rooney Prize specifically for his first book, Young Skins, which comprises six short stories and a novella. The book was first published in Ireland by The Stinging Fly Press and was subsequently published in Britain about six months ago by Jonathan Cape.
Young Skins is a shimmering debut. Henry James said the house of fiction contains many windows. This collection opens a window on a very particular tract of earth. All the stories take place in or around a fictionalised small town in north Mayo, but, as with other writers who have chosen to set their narratives in a postage stamp patch of earth, it would be a grave mistake to characterise these stories as being in any way parochial. Rather, Colin Barrett’s fictional terrain will resonate with readers from various cultural backgrounds, in the same way as the settings of Maupassant’s short stories do. In Young Skins, the writer has made a world.
There is an intensity about some of these stories. It’s as though an electric current is running along the spine of the book. Barrett can invest the most mundane incident with a tautness and incipient menace. And yet scenes of horrifying brutality – ‘the wishbone snap of a nose breaking’ is one instance – are cheek by jowl with smoulderingly beautiful prose about the Mayo landscape, about the air and the quality of the light. The varying colours of the sky and clouds – ‘warm’, ‘melancholy’, ‘lavender’ in one story – are depicted with obvious relish. In the embedded novella, ‘Calm with Horses’, which takes up nearly half the collection, just before what proves to be a particularly violent confrontation, there is a pastoral serenity:
They were beyond the farmsteads now, into reefs of bogland infested with gorse bushes. Bony, hard thorned and truculently thriving, the gorse bushes’ yellow blossoms were vivid against the grained black sheen of the sump-waters, the seamed bog fields. The sky was clearing itself of clouds. The day was on its afternoon wane, already.
Colin Barrett portrays the individuals who inhabit these stories with a potent fusion of pitiless insight and a merciful acceptance, much as Flannery O’Connor does in her fiction. Despite the prevailing despair and outbursts of viciousness in these stories, what gives them an affirmative twist inevitably is the invigorating prose. I think the greatest attribute of good writing is a verb used in a way you have never seen it used before. Young Skins has a slew of them.
This dazzling writer has a whiplash wit – one lad in ‘Stand Your Skin’ has ‘a spotty face like a dropped bolognaise’ – and there are turns of phrase to savour in his descriptions of the animal world: pigs with snouts shaped like electrical sockets and ‘cows moving like barges through the long grass’.
Reading the stories put me in mind of William Faulkner’s words that the oppressed live permanently in a kind of daze. The collection is written with a ferocious elegance and underpinned by a clear metaphorical impulse.
My colleagues on the panel and I trust that the Rooney Prize will enable Colin Barrett to write many more astringent and arresting stories (which, like all achieved work, deepen on further reading).
And I understand that there’s a novel coming down the turnpike.
Jonathan Williams was born in Wales and has worked as a literary agent in Canada and Ireland for the last thirty-four years. He is an adjunct professor in the School of English at Trinity College, where he teaches in the Oscar Wilde Centre for Creative Writing. He was the originator of the Poets' Corner venture on the DART.
The selection committee for The Rooney Prize 2014, comprised of:
Gerald Dawe poet and essayist, (Professor of English, TCD); Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, poet, critic and editor (Professor Emerita, School of English, TCD); Dr Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, novelist and dramatist (Lecturer in Creative Writing, UCD); Dr Carlo Gébler, novelist and dramatist; Dr Riana O’Dwyer , critic, (Department of English, National University of Ireland at Galway) and Jonathan Williams (Literary Agent and Editor).