(I gave up on this book at p.45).
I have a lot of issues with this book, but here I am just going to discuss one, which I haven’t noticed mentioned in any of its reviews, and that is: under what circumstances is this novel being narrated? – a question I admit which, once asked, came increasingly to trouble me – but which, it’s true, you could probably ignore it you wish to; and no doubt would, if you happened to be enjoying the novel; – but which lead me to wonder about the technical craft with which it is written.
Let’s start at the beginning. The first passage of this book is being narrated by a girl in a stream-of-consciousness type manner about a time before she was born. Now, those familiar with the stream-of-consciousness style are probably used to it being used to describe the present moment: it is a literary representation of the “stream-of-consciousness” flowing through the narrator’s mind. Of course, it’s not true that this necessarily precludes describing the past: someone may quite easily be thinking about the past – even of a time before one is born (Tristram Shandy does, even if he then writes it all down in a (slightly) more orderly manner than those mere passing thoughts). But the thing is, all of this book is describing the past; – and so the question remains, when and under what circumstances is it being narrated?
Part 1, Chapter 2 begins “Two me. Four you five or so.” The review in the TLS takes this to mean that the narrator is at this point two, but this strikes me as an incorrect interpretation. The narrator is not stating her present age; she is stating how old she was in this past scene she is now describing. Her actual age is indeterminable. In the next chapter she states her age again, “Now when you are seven eight. Me five.” Has the narrator grown older between these two passages, or are they both being narrated together at a further point of time – from the end of the novel perhaps?
Another example, which may give a better clue. “If it’s summer before the sun goes down I sometimes leg it from the holy joes”, thinks the narrator on p.25. The present conditional and the use of “sometimes” imply an event which has happened repeatedly in the past and may yet happen in the future, and this seems to pin down the time of the narrative to slightly after but reasonably contemporary with what is being described. A few pages further on however, p.27, we suddenly enter a vague past tense, “That time it was always raining. Summer. Spring. I don’t know though when we were or where,” implying a far more distant retrospect is being adopted. That the entire novel is not told in full retrospect from somewhere near its end-point is also implied by the lack of knowledge the narrator possesses about her own future.
So we arrive at the most plausible idea: that this novel is a stream-of-consciousness description of the thoughts passing through a young girl’s head at various discrete moments of her life, all of which are reflecting on the past. But not merely this. As you’ll note above, she uses “you” in the narrative, and “you” refers to her older brother. So we have to assume that she is narrating the novel in her head for the benefit of her brother. Now OK, I’ll admit, this is still possible – I do indeed myself occasionally “speak to” people in my head who are not actually present; though I’m not entirely sure how often I end up recounting scenes to them at which they were themselves present.
But this isn’t the end of it. Because not all the thoughts our narrator has are what I’d call bona-fide stream-of-consciousness thoughts. Consider the following sentences. “They come with fruitcakes”. “Picture how she comes”. “She driving. Me in the passenger seat”. “Down the road had farmer girls who were my class friends”. I’ve no doubt all these phrases could pass through your mind, but here in the narrative – and once you see it, you’ll see it throughout the book – these sentences, which are all at the beginning of passages, are used to set the scene – we, the listener, are being orientated by our narrator in, I would say, a thoroughly un-stream-of-consciousness manner. (Joyce / Richardson would have reverted to the 3rd person here; McBride, determined on her 1st person narration, doesn’t have a 3rd person to call upon). In fact, the scenes are being introduced almost as if our narrator were telling a story (in her head, to her own brother, at various discrete points in her life).
And further than this, I’m accustomed to streams-of-consciousness being unstructured: our thoughts ramble from one subject to another, constantly getting distracted. But not our narrator’s. Her thoughts are very structured and focussed: despite her stream-of-consciousness, she describes each scene almost like it would be described in a novel – nothing extraneous ever creeps in; and what’s strange is that, even though each scene is a discrete moment’s thought from our narrator’s life – albeit always those particular moments in her life when she happens to be reflecting in retrospect on the relationship between her brother and herself, all the time addressing her brother as she does so; – what’s strange is that all these discrete moments of thought fit together into a kind of neat, classically structured novel, in exactly the sort of way it would have if there had been no stream-of-consciousness at all.
So, what we’re left with is a very traditional Irish misery memoir-cum-bildungsroman, written in a perverse style for no particular reason.
Oh, and there are commas in it as well.
Next post: I turn to more stylistic and philosophical criticisms of the book.