Bleak House

The Bee Sting BY PAUL MURRAY. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 656 PAGES. $30.

The cover of The Bee Sting

THE DUBLIN-BORN NOVELIST PAUL MURRAY, who entered adulthood during Ireland’s rapid modernization in the 1990s, writes fiction about the problems that modernity everywhere has failed to solve. His characters come up against cruelty and abuse, inequality, grief, terrible loneliness, death—but generally their problems boil down to one of two sources, their families or their money. Murray’s 2010 boarding school–set bestseller, Skippy Dies—with its fucked-up children of sick or divorcing parents, its neatly bidirectional line between the traumas of childhood and the disappointments of adulthood—tilts toward the former, resulting in a warmly humane novel with an occasional YA-ish texture. In 2015, Murray returned with The Mark and the Void, a shaggy comic metafiction about the European sovereign debt crisis and an aggressively materialist novel. Its characters are career investment bankers without partners, children, or even living parents; much of the dialogue concerns opaque financial derivatives. Was Murray self-consciously declaring his allegiance to a different, spikier, less psychological kind of literature? Early in the book, a banker meets a novelist, who laments the clichés he’s been noticing in realist character-driven fiction: “A boy goes hunting with his emotionally volatile father; a bereaved woman befriends an asylum seeker; a composer with a rare neurological disorder walks around New York, thinking about the nature of art.” In place of all that interior stuff, the speaker wants to write fiction about the intricacies of high finance.

Fiction about the intricacies of high finance is hard to pull off, which is perhaps why The Mark and the Void remains underrated. But in his new novel, The Bee Sting, Murray has tried again, from a different angle. Instead of focusing on the architects of Ireland’s financial collapse, The Bee Sting trains its gaze on a cast of characters further downstream from the crash: a single Irish family, battered by the economic downturn. Having swapped out a chilly corporate setting for a small-scale domestic one, Murray has found a more quotidian route back to the systems-sized concerns of his previous novel. He’s even made use of the father-son trope that The Mark and the Void winkingly renounced: there are, in The Bee Sting, many scenes in which a boy goes hunting with his emotionally volatile father.

That father is Dickie Barnes, whose financial troubles occasion an ambitious, high-drama family saga with a surpassingly propulsive plot in no way confined by the novel’s domestic setting. Over 650 pages, the recession exposes the Barnes family to blackmail, addiction, a biblical flood, threats of gang rape and assault via hammer, doomed gay affairs, dead lovers, a scary catfishing scheme, and the ominous, lightly magical presence of Irish folklore that also lurked in the corners of Skippy Dies. A novel this action packed risks feeling ungainly, shambolic. But the world of The Bee Sting is spacious and three-dimensional enough to handle it, in part because Murray, in his fourth novel, seems to have at last settled on a balanced theory of the origins of contemporary bourgeois unhappiness: every escalation in the novel’s relentless series of unfortunate events is the outcome of intimate circumstances and world-historical ones in equal measure. A tragedy of middle-class decline and self-annihilation, The Bee Sting’s accomplishment—a major one—is to bring together the family and the economy as truly intertwined subjects, into a double helix of oikos and oikonomia that twists toward dread.

The four members of the Barnes family live together in provincial Ireland, where, we learn on The Bee Sting’s first page, they are among a handful of “well-known families in the town.” The novel passes in wide turns between their perspectives, each of which is fine-tuned and distinct. The social dramas, classroom comedies of manners, and destructive internet habits of teenage Cass and her tween brother, PJ, are written in a persuasively adolescent high key, inflected respectively by Instagram poetry and first-person shooter games. (Murray opens the novel with two long sections following each kid in the close third person, which means it’s slightly top-heavy with the kind of naive child perspective that has been one of his fallbacks since the prep-school hijinks of Skippy Dies.) Their mother, Imelda, is beautiful, depressed, and unworldly: “Imelda did not listen to the news,” Cass observes. “She didn’t want to hear a whole load of blather about global this and economic that.” Like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, Imelda’s sections are written with almost no punctuation, which gives them a rushed, hysterical, not-quite-literate texture, graced occasionally with unexpected enjambments: “Feeling like it doesn’t matter whether you sit or stand Come or go Live or die It will all disappear in the silence a tiny speck of white on white Bouncing off the walls like an echo of yourself.”

Dickie, her husband, has the least gimmicky narrative style of the four, the closest to Murray’s natural voice, and he anchors The Bee Sting as its voice of adult consciousness. As the family’s sole breadwinner, he also operates as the novel’s leading indicator of Ireland’s fiscal health. Narrated partially in flashbacks, Dickie’s storyline maps precisely onto the Celtic Tiger era, when Ireland’s economy expanded at a sensational velocity thanks to a Thatcherite program of business-friendly tax and regulatory policies, a flood of foreign investment, and increased trade within the EU. The Barneses were beneficiaries of all that free-market growth: Dickie’s dad, we learn, established a Volkswagen dealership in the early ’90s and ran it successfully over the course of the ensuing happy decade, when money was easy and, at least in Murray’s telling, somebody was always bumping “Wonderwall.” Eventually Dickie inherits the dealership, and for a while, family life parallels Ireland’s national shift from traditionalism to consumerism. Imelda, who grew up in Cinderella-ish poverty, “drifted away from angels, religion, got interested in home furnishings.” Cass and PJ grow up with vacations to Málaga, a Brazilian housekeeper, “serious discussions of an indoor sauna.”

Murray has been a critical chronicler of Ireland’s era of prosperity for a long time. Even before he satirized Dublin’s financial power players in The Mark and the Void, characters in the pre-recession-set Skippy Dies were referring ambivalently to “the country’s vertiginous modernity.” Initially, Dickie accepts his family’s upper-middle-class lifestyle with weary detachment: “The world was made with this kind of life in mind, he came to realize. The world was a machine designed to sustain and perpetuate this kind of life.” By the time The Bee Sting enters its present tense (an unspecified year in the 2010s), the machine has broken down. As Fintan O’Toole puts it in his book about the corruption and cronyism that led to the Celtic Tiger’s catastrophic end, Ireland’s era of development has revealed itself to be “a false economy of facades and fictions,” the country’s banking system has collapsed, and the fate of the Barneses once again neatly indexes the national financial situation. A portentous, deflationary tone sets in. With the market for foreign cars cratered, “an air of dread gathered over the showroom,” Cass reflects. “She couldn’t bear it. The unloved, unbought cars, still dazzling desperately, reminded her of stray dogs in the pound, waiting to be put down.”

Thomas Street, Dublin, Ireland, July 4, 2012. William Murphy/Wikicommons
Thomas Street, Dublin, Ireland, July 4, 2012. William Murphy/Wikicommons

The crash is global, but the Barneses feel it personally. Downward mobility pulls each character in distinct directions, toward distinct kinds of chaos and alienation. (For much of the novel, no family member quite understands what the others are up to; scenes in which they talk past, mishear, or choose not to speak to one another are frequent.) Cass develops a furtive drinking problem and begins spending her evenings at the Drain, one of the novel’s many lovingly sketched bars. PJ, fleeing racketeering bullies, attempts to raise his own funds by selling off his toys (slime kits and Poké Balls: Murray clearly has a real son), jettisoning the physical signifiers of childhood in a preadolescent version of Chip Lambert’s critical-theory fire sale in The Corrections—the book that established the template (perspective-switching, flashback-heavy, class-conscious or at least class-anxious) for this century’s big family sagas.

Precarity makes itself felt on Dickie and Imelda’s marriage, too. Long-dormant family traumas and secrets—Imelda’s past relationship with Dickie’s dead brother; Dickie’s parallel past relationship, in college, with a man—erupt under the pressure of austerity, cool into isolation and lovelessness. Murray’s deft use of switched perspective allows us to see the contempt with which the couple sees each other, and with which they’re seen from without. “The Crisis had transformed Main Street into a mouthful of cavities, businesses big and small shuttered in its aftermath,” he writes in one of the novel’s more omniscient passages. “Yet the collapse of the garage was felt by the townsfolk to be of a different order. A fall as dizzying as the Barneses’ couldn’t come from simple economics. There had to be a moral element.”

Moral misgivings, loss of fortune, the word “townsfolk”—the novel can sound self-consciously Victorian, down to the Gilded Age name of the Barneses’ last remaining asset, a wooded property they call “Goldenhill.” Much about The Bee Sting echoes the sprawling novels about family and class written around the turn of the twentieth century: its financial highs and lows are Whartonesque; its richly mapped provincial world and sense of the individual as complex social allegory bear something in common with Middlemarch; its rapturous flashbacks to Dickie’s gay campus love affair read like censored scenes from Maurice. (Maurice, in The Bee Sting, is the name of Dickie’s businessman father, as if to suggest that these modern people really were birthed by some prior era of fiction and morals.) The effect of all this old-fashioned style is an apparent neatness of subject and form. Fin-de-siècle literary devices, Murray suggests, can bleakly illuminate our current social landscape of fin-de-siècle inequality.

And yet Murray is also attentive to capitalism’s more recent developments. (A masterful example from earlier this year: his very funny first-person investigation for New York magazine, nearly novelistic in its own right, into Zuckerberg’s metaverse.) One consequence of the Celtic Tiger, as with many neoliberal programs, was to shift financial risk from the public sphere onto private households—part of a widespread transformation of the nuclear kinship system, as the historian Melinda Cooper argues, into “a wholesale alternative to the twentieth-century social state.” New magnitudes of debt were shouldered by individuals, families were encouraged to operate like little corporations (at Dickie’s inherited dealership the labor hierarchy is practically Freudian: his dad can still fire him), and private vulnerability skyrocketed; in Ireland, as O’Toole writes, the average household lost roughly half its financial assets during the 2008 crash. In staging an old-school riches-to-rags story within this punitive post-Thatcher system, The Bee Sting poses a question: What happens to the family saga in an era in which there is only the family?

Faced with a faltering society and a faltering tether to it (he does indeed get fired), Dickie withdraws—not just into home life, but into a totalizing antisocial fugue. In the woods behind Goldenhill, he embarks on a project of “future-proofing”: building a bunker where, “if the grid goes down,” he imagines the family can hide out together and live off the land. With PJ in tow, he starts camping out with a mysterious buddy, Victor, who is preoccupied by the coming apocalypse. The prepper is entirely without backstory, one of The Bee Sting’s few truly anti-psychological characters and thus, in a novel governed by the logic that your family and class background turn you into yourself, a source of great ominousness. Victor watches survivalist videos on YouTube, and “sometimes their voices weave their way into Dickie’s sleep: he finds himself dreaming about George Soros, wire cutters, deals on Amazon Prime.” As if in defiance of the networked world pulsing opaquely around them, the men learn to skin and eat squirrels. They dig a makeshift well and contract E. coli. They buy guns.

An unemployed dad with an obsessive hobby is standard stuff for family sagas (think of Franzen’s Alfred Lambert, spending months repainting the porch furniture), but Dickie’s attempt to build a four-person private security apparatus points to something darker than paternal absentmindedness or malaise. It’s as if his family’s financial perils have opened Dickie’s eyes to the totality of modernity’s wrongs, attuned him to the fragility not just of the economy but of everything else. (“If Maurice Barnes Motors can go down and no one’s able to stop it,” PJ reflects at one point, “then a grid can probably go down too.”) After weeks or maybe months in the woods, Dickie’s formerly measured voice grows wilder, more paranoid. “How much of life is insane, when you think about it?” he wonders. “Civilization itself is insane, it’s insane to continue as normal when the world is burning alive.”

What larger apocalypse is the bunker anticipating? After hundreds of pages of sustained foreshadowing and dread, in which catastrophes threaten to fall at any minute onto every member of his family—failing grades and alcoholism on Cass, schoolyard violence on PJ, existential grief on Imelda—Dickie’s own fears are, in contrast, oddly unfocused, cohering only into the abstract imperative to “protect” his family. But what is he protecting them from? Does he hope to shield his family from the threats posed by climate change, a subject his Zoomer kids have taught him to worry about? Is he protecting himself from his wife, who to be fair is always yelling at him about his failures? Is he building himself a literal closet, guarding his secret queerness? Is he defending against the whole litany of terrifying possibilities that his prepper friend recites: “Ageing infrastructure. Storms. Solar flares. Nuclear attack. Unforeseen black swan event”?

Nuclear attack never comes, but the end of the novel is truly shocking, not unlike that of this year’s other daringly plotted novel about a bunker, Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood. In his vague, increasingly unhinged desire to defend his family and their estate against the creep of all of society, Dickie subjects them to an outcome more final than any financial downturn. Is this the fate of the family saga, in a historical moment when the image of the family in its traditional novelistic form—bourgeois, property-accumulating, compulsorily heterosexual—has been mobilized so effectively by forces of reaction? “The world is how it is,” Dickie tells himself at the novel’s end. “That’s not your fault. You can only think about your family.” There is in fact, in this roaming and expansive novel, a full world beyond the family, a world of things that Dickie, if not his wife and children, repeatedly withdraws from: solidarity, education, love. In exchanging the whole of that world for an impossible dream of private homeland security, Dickie begins to resemble O’Toole’s description of modern Ireland in crisis: a state, he calls it, “in the throes of a demented property cult.”

Lisa Borst is the web editor of n+1.