‘It’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it.’ A dubious cliché when it comes to fashion, granted, but one I’ve always found particularly appropriate for literature: it’s not what you write about that matters, it’s how you write about it. Take Eimear McBride, the Irish novelist whose 2013 debut A Girl is a Half-formed Thing — first published by a tiny Norwich imprint (Galley Beggar Press) after a nine-year run of rejections — became an instant hit, going on to win her half a dozen prizes. That novel was successful because it managed to wrench complex, powerful emotions from an otherwise conventional narrative, doing so through a deft mix of stream of consciousness and grammatical laceration. This proved just as true (if not more) in the book’s theatre adaptation, at least when I caught it at the Young Vic a few months ago; bare-boned, the production had just one actress, Aoife Duffin, on an empty stage for an hour and twenty minutes, left to embody McBride’s scattered language in more tragic, absolute terms than I thought possible. To say that performance stunned the audience would be an understatement: the person sitting to my left had to move off her seat and lie down against the theatre wall half-way through in order to stop weeping.
The Lesser Bohemians, McBride’s anticipated follow-up, is also something of an emotional mess, but not the kind to shatter its readers. Ostensibly about a young Irish woman who falls in love with an older actor after moving to London to attend drama school, this is, more than anything, a book about sex. Sex in all its persuasions (save for one) and forms, from magical to horrible, loving to scarring, and every little bit in between. The author admitted it herself in an interview: part of the impetus for writing the novel was that she ‘was really bored with the way sex was written about.’ What Lawrence Durrell did for love in the Alexandria Quartet — presenting us, in the span of four books, with its different variations — McBride does for sex, in the span of one, and with two characters.
And for a while it works brilliantly. The 18-year-old girl, fresh in the big city and waiting to fall in love (or rather, lose her virginity, as the obsessive language makes clear) may be an easy trope, but it’s rarely felt so alive. Here is Eily — a name not revealed until the end of the book — going to a museum for the first time with a newfound friend:
‘Still and so we’re here for Art. She has the tickets while I have a heart that I hope art will burn. But her shrug au fait keeps my mouth shut and I map my gait on how she walks. Blasé with the sculptures. Stooping to the glass. Paintings mostly lingered at the same amount of time. So this is how I do it too and when the crowd gets hard for art to squeeze out through I chase after. Encourage it myself. Seek to feel but think instead and wonder if that’s wrong—’
Simultaneously, then, we see the young student out to discover the London art scene, the jaded friend showing her around, and a sexual fixation… always on her mind one way or another. The novel goes on in this intricate manner for the first forty pages, until she finally gets in on the act with a caring, careful, and moody 38-year-old. The ensuing romance isn’t as much a whirlwind as it is characteristically British (weather-wise, that is): unpredictable, replete with sensuous highs and lows, at the cusp of which either character settles their angst by sleeping around with strangers.
It becomes clear that both are emotionally stunted — and not so in a casual, modern way either. Tension languorously builds up until the middle of the novel, when the man, Stephen, makes his big reveal. In what may become the dominant McBride motif, he discloses a history of childhood trauma; Eily’s own dark past, intimated but yet unexplained, will be divulged not long thereafter. Given that for both of them sorrow has origins in certain Irish characters (he, a northern Englishman, happens to have an Irish mother), much like it did in her debut, one may be entitled to ponder whether McBride has fallen in with the long line of Irish writers who demonize the Irish.
This crucial moment also happens to be the part where language unravels — or, rather, tangles back up to spectacularly ordinary form. Stephen’s reveal seems like a parody of Ulysses’ Ithaca chapter (otherwise known as the ‘catechism chapter’), with Eily providing short questions to contrast his never-ending answers. Its style, however, could not be more dissimilar: gone is the wit, the subtlety, the general cleverness of McBride’s writing, replaced as it is with thirty to forty odd pages of straight sordid narrative.
Having killed off the magic, the author unashamedly lets the second half of the novel run on automatic. The couple’s fights turn from petty to downright silly (they had always been cheating on each other whenever things turned sour, and suddenly one of Eily’s escapades — in response to one of Stephen’s, no less — threatens the whole relationship); the language starts to become repetitive (besides the ever-present sex scenes, thankfully), and disappears behind an increasingly jaunty narrative. The ending itself is so prim and perfect it’s enough to make one wonder whether McBride wasn’t trying to compensate for her debut’s woe-and-horror show.
By toning down the linguistic bravado at her novel’s most crucial moment, Eimear McBride reveals the plot to be just as conventional as was always feared. Few are the novelists who possess a comparable facility of language, and it is dispiriting to find her falling back on clichés and banalities the moment her story is in need of some resolution. Hers is a unique virtuosity, and it need not — must not! — be wasted; perhaps McBride ought to be more ambitious with her fiction, not be afraid to make a show of vanity, indulge in prosaic flourishes. Then, and only then, can she truly demonstrate her gifts’ extent. If not, what’s the point?
THE LESSER BOHEMIANS
by Eimear McBride
320pp. | $26 | £16.99