Grammar of Discontent

Funny ideas people have, about the way Irish writers think. When Eimear McBride's first novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, was published in 2013—she'd finished it a decade before—it was rightly celebrated for its exacting style and unwincing narrative of child sexual abuse. The book won prizes in Britain, where it first appeared; but its ambitions were easily misread by critics whom the prose flummoxed. Here is a sample: "Two me. Four you five or so. I falling. Reel table leg to stool. Grub face into her cushions. Squeal. Baby full of snot and tears." Some reviewers, gulled I suppose by McBride's ordinary enthusiasm for Joyce and Beckett, took her unverbed sentences, proliferation of periods, and sometimes acrobatic syntax as proof she was a dauntless avant-gardist of the old Irish school. (As if, having discovered or declared such influences, one reads nothing else.) The novel's "difficulty" was in fact overstated: McBride's style is striking but swiftly immersive, beautifully suiting the disintegrated first person of her vexed and reckless protagonist.

The anonymous narrator of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing speaks at first from her mother's womb, addressing her older brother; during much of her childhood he is ill with cancer, and he will die as a young man. When the girl is thirteen, she is raped by an uncle. Years later, she welcomes a sexual relationship with this uncle, so ruined is her sense of worth, agency, fate, and faith. At the end of the book, in a gesture that McBride has since described as transcendent but not redemptive, the still-unnamed girl drowns herself: "Floating hair. Air-famished eyes. Brown water turning into light. There now. There now. That just was life." Small surprise that even the book's critical champions wondered where McBride could go next—unless of course one admits that writing about such things (and in such a voice) is just the start, not a more or less conscious limit, of present Irish literary ambition.

Certain of A Girl's qualities are still in place in McBride's second novel, The Lesser Bohemians—a young female narrator, a background of abuse, a degree of stylistic or textural strangeness—but the new book is a wholly different tale. Eighteen-year-old Eily arrives in London from Ireland in 1994 to study acting. Her inner monologue hints at childhood sexual trauma, but she wants to banish that voice and its import: "don' COME BACK." She is eager to rid herself of naïvete ("I have a heart that I hope art will burn") and Irish shame. "Enslithered" by alcohol, quickened by drugs, she flings herself into Camden nightlife and soon ends up in bed with an older and intermittently successful actor, Stephen, whom she spots in a pub reading Dostoyevsky's The Devils. Here Eily's troubles begin, or restart, because Stephen is a floridly bruised individual who has tried to smother his own history of violent sexual abuse (by his mother) with a life of ruinous addiction and almost rigorous promiscuity. Sex between Eily and Stephen is a complex admixture of release, concealment, recovered innocence, and violent rage.

McBride's descriptions of sex, from Eily's perspective, are among the most remarkable passages in the novel. There is the emotionally asymmetrical, physically blundering fact of the first time between an eighteen-year-old, "intacta yet," and a well-meaning but damaged man of nearly forty. That experience at least is contained: "I lie in the pain. Climb his cities of books. Hand between my legs. The wet, true, blood. So that's done and something wrecked, what should I do next?" With intimacy comes more anxiety: "And I let him do all sorts now, modesty flying everywhere. It's only him backing me back to the bed, suffering Fuck you do that well, that re-catches me old sight of myself and opens the anxious eye. Wrestle." And with the fearful complexities of their relationship comes the revelation that sex can be blessed and poisoned in the same night and the same bed.

Eily (short for Éilís) is clearly not the narrator of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, but there are obvious affinities. She speaks mostly in full sentences, but as in the earlier novel these are broken or stifled, this time not only by full stops but also by white-space pauses in the middle of the page and brief retreats into a smaller typeface that denotes mere tributaries of consciousness. Among other things, McBride here essays a smeary picture of London in the mid-1990s—residual anti-Irish feeling, Betty Blue posters on bedsit walls, white lines chopped with check-guarantee cards—but her prose at times risks a century-wide slant, recalling the city of Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot: "stray sludge splinters in the face of England go by. Bishop's Stortford. Tottenham Hale. I could turn I could turn. I cannot. Too late for. London. Look. And a sky all shifts to brick. Working through its tunnels, now walking on its streets, a higher tide of people than I have ever seen and—any minute now—In. Goes. Me." Eily is about to get in over her head.

Cecily Brown, 1000 Thread Count, 2004, oil on linen, 90 × 78". Courtesy the artist.

The main stylistic and structural shift between McBride's first novel and The Lesser Bohemians comes with Stephen's story, which he tells at length in the middle of the book. The headlong image-gallop and the sonic energy of Eily's language—"Starched and parched I jit in the wings"—both fall away, and for nearly seventy pages, with occasional pauses to still the tic in his face and suck down a cigarette, her broken lover unspools his life so far. How his violent and depressed mother, under the guise of atoning for her outbursts, would come to his bed at night and in time began to molest him. How he escaped to London and his acting career but trashed his life at every turn. How his ex-partner had taken their daughter away to Canada and allowed only sporadic letters. Stephen's voice is articulate and plain, and slips only on the same mid-sentence blanks that McBride deploys with Eily: "I should've known to push her off and it sounds ridiculous but the way she had me I couldn't go against her at all."

So arresting is the language McBride gives to her female protagonists, it would be possible to feel aggrieved that so much of The Lesser Bohemians is dominated by a conventional narrative voice and prose. (That is not to say that Stephen's near-monologue is easy to read, rather that its horrors are relatively calmly rendered.) One might also object that the stream of consciousness, or near-consciousness, in which Eily thinks and speaks has been compromised by the narrative's clarity of retrospect. There is a section toward the end when Stephen, having met up again with his ex, Marianne, recounts what she said she knew about his childhood—all of this filtered through a conversation Marianne had with Stephen's stepfather many years before. This passage starts to seem both neat and clunky (also a touch implausible) until one realizes, or at least suspects, that McBride is testing the structural possibilities of delayed storytelling and (more important) the effect on a life of revelations that may come too late.

There are clues all over The Lesser Bohemians to the provenance of these concerns, formal and emotional. The novel is set during Eily's first year at drama school—McBride herself studied at Drama Centre in London in the 1990s—and her curriculum is dominated by Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. Is it too much of a stretch to say that McBride is interested in the efficacy of soliloquy, the resolving dramatic power of confession? I think not, and she seems keenly aware that, just as in certain early-modern plays, the monologist risks merely speaking to himself or herself, fathoming little and healing less. There are persistent if muted references to The Tempest throughout the book—"wrack" for "wreck," pearls, Eily's submarine dreams—and a sense perhaps that Stephen's story resembles the history of familial trauma that Prospero belatedly tells his daughter. That performance leaves Miranda with many more questions; the relationship between Eily and Stephen barely survives the wound that opens up in his tale's telling.

The Lesser Bohemians concludes, after seemingly all the stories have been told, and Eily and Stephen have split more than once, with a lyric final chapter in which she has finished her first year of classes, and they lie in the grass on a hill above the city and discover at last some peace. Most of the novel's early reviewers have contrasted this ending with that of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, and rightly so—as Eily tells us in the final pages, "I take one last look at him there against the evening sky then go naked to him, open to him, full of life." But so much remains unbalanced at the end of the book: Stephen has unburdened himself of his past, reconciled with his daughter, finally overcome his various addictions. And Eily? Her language in the closing pages has begun to resemble her lover's. But she has not fully told, maybe will not tell, her own story of abuse. Instead she blurts something out in the middle of an acting exercise and is informed uselessly by a teacher, "The Emotion Memory opens doors it's important to shut again properly."

If The Lesser Bohemians is the more affirming twin of McBride's first novel, its ultimate calm seems only to half-drown a disquieting past, or eruptive future. McBride said recently that her third novel will be "quieter"—I doubt she means it will be less agitated all the way down.

Brian Dillon is the UK editor of Cabinet magazine and the author of The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) and Objects in This Mirror (Sternberg Press, 2014). He is writing a book about essays and essayists.