1 June, 2009Issue 9.6EuropeFictionLiteratureNorth America

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Big City, Fallow Field

Laura Kolbe

toibinColm Tóibín
Viking, 2009
252 Pages
ISBN 978-0670918126

Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn is well and humbly crafted, though hardly magisterial. It is experimental neither in form nor in content, devoting a taut 252 pages to the progress of a young Irish woman, Eilis Lacey, who is delicately but inexorably coerced into leaving her beloved County Wexford in order to find work in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1950s. Eilis is careful, thoughtful, and polite to a fault, a combination that wins her a circle of admirers, bullies, and bullying admirers. She falls in love with an Italian-American named Tony, but with so many competing claims on her loyalty and kindness, Eilis must ultimately decide whom to please and whom to disappoint.

The trouble with trying to evaluate Brooklyn is that it is an exactly acceptable novel, a fine example of what John Banville, in a recent Paris Review interview, witheringly dubbed “middlebrow fiction”. I prefer a slightly less castigating label: “adequate fiction”. There are no obvious fumbles in Brooklyn, but, at the same time, it provides nothing new either for the craft of writing or for the average contemporary reader’s understanding of the psychological and historical terrain Tóibín covers—the experience of young single women, or of Irish immigrants, or of Brooklynites in the 50s. It is difficult even to find sentences to quote for particular praise or blame; most drive straight down the middle of the road. The characters’ speech is often interesting, particularly in the countless tiny idiomatic particularities of Eilis’s Enniscorthy home—”you’re best to go” or “it’s great gas”—but I assume that what sounds like neologising is simply an accurate rendition of Wexford English. Nothing about Brooklyn suggests that Tóibín had a single ambitious or reckless impulse during its composition.

Perhaps the bigger challenge for the reviewer, having arrived at this conclusion, is whether and how to judge “adequate fiction”. Tóibín is already the author of five other novels, a collection of stories, several nonfiction books, and countless essays, with no sign of slowing down. Brooklyn, a book with considerably less lustre than his previous two works of fiction (The Master, 2004, and Mothers and Sons, 2006) might signal the need to take the long view. Nearly all prolific writers produce work that varies in quality; the great ones are those who use their less enthralling literary offspring as occasions to learn something new—a technique, a psychological insight—which, reborn in some as yet unwritten book, acquires a honed force absent in its first incarnation. Few are in a better position to understand this than Tóibín, whose long fascination with Henry James (which culminated in the biographical novel The Master) focused on five years in the author’s life that were devoid of masterpieces. From 1895 to 1899, James took stock of his earlier career and struggled to achieve the breakthrough in style that would result in a new voice and, arguably, his best work, at the dawn of the 20th century.

Time will tell what Tóibín will glean from Brooklyn for future novels, but for now we can posit a few hypotheses. Brooklyn’s author seems interested in using conventional, almost prefabricated plot outlines: a young person from Europe comes to America, finds it scary but ultimately exciting, falls in love and in the process begins transforming into an adult and an American. The grooves of this well-worn narrative path are perhaps Tóibín’s way of trying to borrow for his fiction what he professes to admire in poetry, the flint edges of form against which the writer’s voice can spark and ignite. In an interview posted on his website, Tóibín says that as a teenager he had hoped to be a poet, and that even now he reads and learns from the genre, particularly from “poets who take an inordinate interest in form”. When a fiction writer uses a plot “form”, though, the sturdy predictability of its structure should allow the manner of its telling to be more daring. The writer must challenge or rework the fixed form, or at the very least, explode it with innovation or depth. The stereotyped plot of Brooklyn, though, is only rarely ignited by linguistic imagination.

Besides trying to work within the constraints of an established plot type, another kind of self-education that Tóibín pursues in the course of Brooklyn is an oblique examination of the writer’s profession. Although Eilis is gifted at maths, she sometimes appears to be a stand-in for the novelist, adopting the words and personalities of others:

She found herself thanking him in a tone that Rose might have used, a tone warm and private but also slightly distant though not shy either, a tone used by a woman in full possession of herself.

As Eilis realises, this new voice she relishes is not quite her own but a persona. And, again like a novelist, her watchful gaze upon other characters is usually unreturned. No-one around her, not even her eventual fiancé, comes to know her more than superficially. Yet she takes in their words and gestures hungrily:

Tony, Eilis saw, had ceased to have any interest in her at all…. He spoke at some length to the people behind him and conveyed what they had told him to Frank, ignoring her completely as he leaned over her to be heard…. Out of the side of her eye and sometimes directly she started to watch him, noticing how funny he was, how alive, how graceful, how alert to things. She did not mind, indeed, she almost enjoyed the fact that he was paying her no attention.

As Tóibín’s The Master has demonstrated, the novel can be a powerful medium for explicitly depicting the novelist. In Brooklyn, Tóibín seems to be attempting a more veiled portrait of his profession, though again the bland diction and the lack of material detail (what does Tony say that’s so “funny”? what does his voice sound like when he speaks “at length”?) makes the scene fall flat.

“Flat” describes much of the novel’s language as well as its three geographic landscapes: Enniscorthy, the sea, and Brooklyn. It also describes the fallow field that Brooklyn seems to mark in Tóibín’s career. Raised in an agricultural county in Ireland, Tóibín would understand that describing a field as “fallow”—that is, left temporarily unproductive so that the soil can yield a better crop in years to come—is less an insult than a recognition of the pause that often precedes a regenerative change. Compared with earlier efforts, Brooklyn does not show Tóibín to be wrestling with a difficult or innovative subject matter or style. Nonetheless, it still reveals a writer thinking carefully about the work of the novelist and about the resources and lessons available to him from the idea of form.

Laura Kolbe is an MPhil student at Jesus College, Cambridge, where she is studying American Literature.