Friday, 23 August 2013

How to lose (Irish) friends and alienate people

Doing Clearing today. It's quiet. Too damn quiet. Though I have made some offers to some lovely people. If they sound downcast I point out that I got to university through Clearing, thanks to an entirely expected massive failure on the Latin A-level I was forced to do against my will. I should, at this point, say a big thank you to Bangor University for taking a chance on an unknown kid. 4 degrees later, I can confidently say that the system works!

Anyway, that's not the point of today's post. I'm going to review a book instead, John Niven's Single White Male. I read and enjoyed his previous novel about the 1990s indie music scene, Kill Your Friends. That novel was a kind of American Psycho with added Shed Seven. It was amusingly vile and a good diversion.

Single White Male applies the same formula to creative writing and academia. Kennedy Marr is a bloated arrogant, burned out, sold out Irish writer, a man who has sold out his talent to Hollywood. Having become a careless, greedy, oversexed monster, his creative, personal and fiscal lives are in meltdown and he's forced to accept a lucrative fellowship at a Midlands university which coincidentally enough also employs one of his former wives. Cue the usual rather reactionary set piece lampoons of Hollywood and trendy critical theory teachers. Not original but mildly amusing with some genuinely funny bits. My own university is recruiting a professor of writing at the moment so the novel's cynical enunciation of institutional motivation is particularly interesting.

However, the novel's representation of Irishness is such a huge stumbling block that it's impairing my enjoyment of the whole thing. Niven clearly knows Hollywood well, and invests considerable effort in the minutiae of its lifestyles: food, cars, clothes, speech patterns and so on. But when it comes to the protagonist's background, his family's dialogue and lives, it's embarrassingly close to a 19th century Begorrah stage Irish routine. Kennedy and his family are differentiated from other speakers of English in only two ways: they either start sentences with 'sure' or end them with 'so you are'. There's also a smattering of 'eejits' and 'fecks', and Kennedy sometimes tells people to 'stick it up in your hole'. The 'in' is entirely superfluous of course.

This is funny because if you turn to page 220 we find our hero reading a pile of student novels and screenplays, all of which he finds lacking:
If you don't buy the tone of the thing, you're dead. And reading some of the dialogue... he wondered if some of the authors had ever had a conversation with another human being in their lives.
Ad then he quotes some Wordsworth to prove that there's Proper Book Learning going on here.
 It is, in fact the Mrs Doyle characterisation except without the smart, affectionate insider's wit of that show:

Other than speaking like Shakespeare's MacMorris, the Irish characters split between saintly Mammies, decent sons who love their Mammies, Behan-style tear-aways like Kennedy and troubled Limerick heroin losers. It's always raining and emotionally repressive.

The problem, other than authorial laziness, is I suspect, old-fashioned British imperialism. Hollywood is distant and glamorous. No doubt Niven enjoyed his research trips to LA. But Ireland's cold, wet, local and (he thinks) familiar. No research needed. He knows what the Paddies and Bog-trotters are like. Their characters write themselves. So we end up with these tissue of clichés masquerading as characterisation and dialogue. And it makes my toes curl. 

Still, Caitlin Moran likes it, so who am I to complain?

Update: right, I've finished Single White Male now and there are plenty more reasons to dislike it. I'll just pick one.

It's a novel about masculinity, starring a hyper-macho stereotypical Irish author: he drinks too much, is too attached to his dying Mammy who preferred him to his siblings, can't live up to his father's role as a stable, quiet provider etc etc etc. So far, so tedious. It's a very knowing book: Kennedy Marr keeps remarking that there's nothing more clichéd than a book at middle-aged male authors coming to terms with responsibilities and with their own mortality. But being knowing isn't an excuse: Single White Male falls into exactly the same traps as its hero. Kennedy shags and boozes his way to notoriety and then a suicide attempt. Then the author bottles it: Kennedy survives, reconnects with his ex-wife and daughter and becomes a reformed character. Niven is too chicken to let the suicide succeed.

And so we get to a deeply conservative resolution. Having been encouraged to admire Kennedy's Irish-by-way-of-Hemingway nonconformity, it turns out that uxoriousness, familial duty and the literature of emotional commitment are what Niven implicitly promotes. Nowhere is this more clear than in the book's sexual politics. Kennedy Marr is a misogynist bastard, and we're expected to understand that the way he treats women is disgraceful. Men like him are socially destructive, as he realises when he understands that he treats women in ways he'd hate people to treat his own daughter. So far, so progressive. And yet… part of his epiphany is tied up in a sense of ownership of his daughter's sexuality (she's sixteen: children are only interesting in these kinds of novels when they're sexually maturing, which bothers me). From this, you realise that the women in the novel are completely present solely to reflect the male protagonist's 'journey'. They have no inner lives or agency of their own. They're in the book for Kennedy Marr to damage or to love. They speak only about Kennedy or other men. While Kennedy's realisation that he should properly love his daughter and ex-wife seems progressive, a structural examination of the novel reveals that they are merely Helpers and Objects in the boring old Bildungsroman male quest. It's a novel by an 'outrageous' male writer in which another 'outrageous' male writer very much has his cake and eats it.

Conservative values, artistically, politically and socially. You can't have a writer (or any artist) as your central protagonist without inviting your readers to apply the text's concepts and structures to the book and its author – that's how literature interacts with the 'real' world. Niven's vicious satire is revealed to be – like most satire – deeply conservative. Kennedy's socially destructive behaviour isn't the product of cultural ills (he could have picked Ireland, Catholicism, the relationship between the arts and capitalism), but the result of his failure to adopt the Daily Mail's programme of neat heterosexual nuclear families and 'decency'.

It was a fun read, but a few moment's thought reveals a swearier update of Waugh and Amis.

No comments: