11 November, 2013Issue 23.3FictionLiterature

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A New Continent of Expression

Kevin Brazil

A_Girl Eimear McBride
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
Gallery Beggar Press, 2013
203 pages
ISBN 978-0957185326

Encountering this paragraph for the first time, what would you make of it?

We are bad her. She and me. My friend I’d call. Run wound to each. Going. Going. Thither thither. Places. Going all aware. Going to no good. Perhaps. Fling. Think never ever thinking I’ll look back. Nor do I don’t I. I don’t know what and I don’t know yet.

Passages like this surge up almost casually in Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing. The novel pushes the expressive possibilities of language, breaking down syntax, disregarding punctuation while retaining an omnipresent full stop, and following the paths thrown up by rhythm, repetition and the silence between words. In so doing, McBride’s debut compresses more sheer inventiveness into its 200 small pages than almost any other Irish, or indeed British novel of recent years. One might understand it as a programmed demolition of the kind of polished and curiously prurient lyrical realism exemplified by a writer such as Clare Kilroy. Phrases such as “Fuck that virgin onto the tarmac” encapsulate, in more ways than one, the novel’s tone. But to cast it as merely oppositional would miss the novel’s far broader scope and ambition. The absence of the crutches of commas, colons and quotation marks is the most immediately noticeable difference exhibited by McBride’s syntax. But this does not arise from an Oulipo parlour game to generate a novel—or texte, rather—out of some arbitrarily chosen rules; to still have something to write when there is nothing left to be said. In contrast, one senses that it is only the locked down solidity of the full stop that is capable of keeping a lid on the teeming new continent of expression that McBride has discovered.

The novel is primarily concerned with what lies below the surface. It opens with the birth of a boy with a brain tumour, who unexpectedly survives and is then followed by his sister, the girl of the title, who describes her own birth. The novel charts her passage from being a “half-formed thing”, though a childhood ridden with Catholicism, the infinitely minute gradations of rural snobbery, the underwhelming freedom of university education, and—most importantly—through and into the dark world of sexuality. Yet the novel always keeps a distance between its narrative and the focalised subjectivity of the emerging girl—indeed, one hesitates to invoke that modernist totem, “stream of consciousness”, given the prevalence of full stops. Movement between the girl’s thoughts, reported speech, and narration in the space of a few short sentences is a repeated occurrence: “Take it away. Where are you ringing from? And she says soft, in the hospital, in such and such a place. Far from home. With you. Because.” And at certain crucial moments, another voice interjects: “Oh but he did. I’m lying. I am not I am.” Through the novel’s style, not only the girl’s subjective “I” but the “I” as an orienting function that centres the narrative, is here revealed as something in the process of being made and formed, not already there, not stable, not comfortable, not comforting.

To adopt the novel’s own bluntness, that “I” turns out to be made in one act: sex. Or “fucking”, as it would more suitably termed; for the violence embedded in that word’s history is inextricable from the novel’s presentation of sexuality. At 13 she is “Not at all ready for what I think I’ll get. But I give it. I’ll give it.” Desire makes a “Me who is just new. Fallen out of the sky. What. It lust it? That’s it. The first splinter. I.” That splintered “I” is produced by sex, often cut off into a sentence of its own—”I am. I.” “Fuck me if he could and I and I and I and I. I have that. and I do not.” One senses that “I am not I am” is produced by the splintering “it”, as desire seeps through the pores of the novel’s syntactical structure. That this desire is first realised in her relationship with her uncle—and that the novel makes it clear she is complicit in the seduction of him, even if the effects of the encounter upon her unspool much later in the narrative—accounts for much of the novel’s initial shock. Developing a language to map the emergence of sexuality, or perhaps simply finding a new way to write about sex, is a highly impressive achievement. There is a reason why, of the worthless parade of literary prizes, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is one of the few worth following. Its sexuality may be graphic—the girl explores the “sperm sperm sperm” inside her, for example. But what is ultimately more striking are descriptions of what happens in sex at its worst: “That’s it. I’ve done to him. What’s done in me.”

Which is not to say that McBride’s almost virtuoso ability to mint new modes of expression is reserved for sexuality alone. “The beginning of teens us”: how has the verb, latent in the plural “teens”, gone unnoticed for so long? A whole review could be spent simply reproducing and revelling in the novel’s rhythmic gems: “All my life is hassle and all my life is fine.” The novel doesn’t hide the “Irishness” of its remodelling of the English language, but nor does it flaunt it. Certain words and phrases situate the novel better than any flagging of “Oirishness” ever could: “salad cream”; “Medjugorje”; “Look at that isn’t he great?”—that last one especially, with its perfect encapsulation of the banalities of Irish conversation. If the novel is Irish then, it comes, to rephrase Heaney, from an Ireland of the ear rather than an Ireland of the mind. Perhaps, somewhat ironically, it is at its most Irish in this transformation of English for its own purposes, a transformation which, as that venerable tradition shows, always has a latent current of violence; from Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to Joyce’s “New Bloomusalem”.

That tradition will inevitably weigh on any Irish writer departing from McGahern’s well-ploughed lyrical tracks, and no hand weighs more heavily than that of Beckett. The comparison will come sooner or later for any (and excuse this reductive phrase) “experimental” Irish writer, almost always casting smug aspersions on the present, ironically so unlike Beckett’s own support of writers such as Aidan Higgins. In McBride’s case, however, it is more justified than usual. This not only comes from her time studying at London’s Drama Centre—within the novel itself, the echo of “go on go on you can go on” is carefully chosen. Even here, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing achieves something remarkable. Beckett, as the great terminal figure of fiction, has obsessed far too many writers of the last century: Coetzee, Auster, Banville, Johnson, Barth. There was something so unmistakably male about this: the anxiety of influence, the passing of the torch, the need for a master, a mentor. If one is going to play the stakes of literary history, what makes A Girl so quietly revolutionary is that it sees something that none of those melancholy men and their masturbating heroes could: that the place to go on from Beckett in English language writing was there at the very end, in Worstward Ho, the one book that, significantly, Beckett couldn’t translate into French. A Girl echoes most closely that work’s short sentences and its last flicker of the ability to fuse new words together: “Said nohow on.” It turns out there was a way on after all, and one imagines that Beckett would approve of the bleak place at which McBride’s narrative eventually arrives.

For without giving away an ending that one feels must have taken its author a long time to get right, the novel does end in a very bleak place indeed. Even if there is a sense that it couldn’t really end any other way, the decision to pull back just before the end from the high point of linguistic breakdown is an admirable and confident move. It is the move of a novelist fully in control of her material, and also of her language, because it is one she has invented from scratch. She is in control because the language is so completely her own. The only wonder is whether it is so unique that it cannot be repeated in what will follow. For after finishing reading (and re-reading) this singular novel, one can only wonder what McBride will do next—there is little doubt that she can do whatever she wants.

Kevin Brazil is reading for a DPhil in English literature at New College, Oxford.