Thursday, November 10, 2016

Eimear McBride's half-formed thing

I've been reading Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. It's one of those self-consciously "difficult" books, very different from the Robert J. Sawyer Neanderthals trilogy I just finished, but I like a bit of "difficult" from time to time, and it certainly has its rewards.
McBride's language has been compared to her compatriot James Joyce, although Samuel Beckett might just as good a reference point. The idiosyncrasies of the natural Irish accent and sentence structure also come through. The punctuation appears random, or at least irrelevant, and the text veers deliriously between character, person and tense, between dialogue, thought and description.
As a young girl, the main (unnamed) protagonists' words gush out in an off-kilter barrage of prolixity. It is often difficult to follow, although the general sense - usually some mixture of angst, envy and disgust - is usually clear, even if the detail is not:
"I know. The thing wrong. It's a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can't hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can't or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush."
But even as a teenager, her language is breathless, here-there-and-everywhere, as though her thoughts are coming too thick and fast to put into words, and certainly too fast to fit into traditonal grammatical rules:
"We sliced through that fug school bus. So misfortunately new. Thicken soup-ish teenage sweat and cigarette boys slop always at the back. Held tight my rucksack filled with rattling tins of pens. Fat drizzle blotch through the polyester skirt I sideways slope to walk in. Felt my hormones long to slink quiet out of these hard eyes. Do not be seen. Do not see me. But I must turn myself to the great face of girls."
With young adulthood comes some measure of clarity, but still a whole lot of confusion:
"I do not want. I do not want to hear this. But it's clawing all over me. Like flesh. Terror. Vast and alive. I think I know it. Something terrible is. The world's about to. The world's about to. Tip. No it ain't. Ha. Don't be silly. Stupid. Fine. Fine. Everything will be. Fine. Chew it lurks me. See and smell. In the corner of my eye. What. Something not so good."
Some of the more abstract passages can be positively poetic:
"Have your lunatics. Anoint their Jesus crying eyes. Their mouths slapping tongues. Their sing praise alleluias. So levitate on the tiles. They sweep all Crist-like in. Fat coven descended to your bed. Your nervous face. Disguise. I can't disguise. Some ancient thing that catch me make me panic gag. Them. Doing it before my eyes. No. Announce yourself and hear oh Lord. Between us chattels us vessels of shame and you, blue conscious with outstretched hands will be loaded up with all their sins. And to the wilds they'll send you filled with that."
And what does all this helter-skelter tumble of words tell of? Well, it's not pretty and it's not edifying
A dysfunctional family, removed from the benighted backwoods of rural Ireland to a hard-scrabble and hardly-more-enlightened Irish town. Abusive, then absent, and finally deceased, father. Mother trapped in her medieval Catholicism, loving and thoughtful some of the time, hard as nails or downright abusive herself at others. Children with a whole textbook's-worth of mental health challenges, born into a society where mental health challenges are either concealed, belittled or just scorned, and where bullying and lubricity are commonplace. The terrible cruelty of schoolchildren.
Then, later, comes the rebelliousness, the promiscuity, the anarchy, and all the guilt and recriminations that come with them. Occasional bouts of nostalgia, hysterical maternal phone-calls, and half-hearted attempts to galvanize her feckless and broken brother into something approaching activity and normality. Then, more debauchery, more rage, more wildness and self-loathing, more infatuation with her shiftless virginity-snatching uncle. All in all, what appears to be an inauspicious downward spiral.
Towards the end of the book is a section where the spelling, capitalization, sentence structure and almost everything else gets completely lost in the immediacy and horror of the action it describes. But I won't dwell on that traumatic and brutal event here.
McBride wrote A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing at the age of 27, and then it took her nine more years to find a publisher that would touch it. Since then, it has won a bunch of awards and nominations, although perhaps not the big ones.
And I can kind of see where those early cautious publishers were coming from. But a bit of patience pays off for the reader too. The work is a (deliberately) flawed masterpiece - by turns bewildering, poignant, distasteful, visceral, exasperating, heart-breaking, and many other things - as well as a fascinating glimpse into a world most of us will (hopefully) never experience at first hand. It will always be a contentious and divisive novel, and, for that reason, if for no other, you should read it.

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