A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

(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.

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8 thoughts on “A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

  1. Thanks, you’ve convinced me not to waste my time reading even as little as 44 pages of this book! I enjoyed the post, though, and was tickled by that “Irish misery memoir” bit.

  2. Yes, I was afraid that might happen: that I might influence one or two people not to read a plucky little experimental book that’s had such difficulty getting published in the first place. I felt a bit churlish in fact writing all this. I just thought it would be better, that’s all, considering the reviews and the prizes. Besides I don’t think I’ve really got to the heart of why I didn’t like it yet.

  3. OK, so it’s a trick – I suppose the more pertinent question is, is it an effective trick? – not for you, clearly, but I thought it was, and that got me engaged with something (“A very traditional Irish misery memoir”) that I would usually run miles from. I don’t think the praise it has garnered is intended to suggest that it’s a flawless book…

  4. I don’t think it’s a trick as such, because I don’t think it’s intended. From what I’ve garnered from McBride’s interviews about the novel’s creation, she wrote this work in direct response to reading Joyce’s Ulysses, but made no compensation for the fact that this novel isn’t structured in any way like Ulysses, and that the techniques of Ulysses might therefore be inappropriate.

    Anyway, we shall do another post about the style; and then I thought I’d compare it with another little read book, Pierre Albert-Birot’s crazy Grabinoulor, and try to decide why I liked this experimental book so much more.

  5. Interesting to see two such different reactions. I wasn’t drawn to it until now but you piqued my curiosity. I’m tempted to find out what the heck she tried.

  6. I think it’s worth remembering that I don’t like any contemporary English literature, so for those who do maybe you should take leroyhunter’s word.

    I know it’s an odd thing to say of a novel so defined by style and form, but I think readers could find its content more interesting. A lot of the reviews have the line: “What’s really difficult about this novel is the content, not the form.” And I’ve never been one for plain content.

    Yesterday I spent a very pleasant evening reading Dorothy Richardson’s stream-of-consciousness narrative – quite a contrast for me in terms of the artistic experience. Quite a contrast to my experience of reading Joyce too (i.e. I actually feel inclined to return to the book again some time in the next month).

  7. I would like to read Richardson, but I keep forgetting to look up her stuff. I’ve seen her extremely highly praised (eg “best English novelist of 20th century” – a warning as much as a recommendation?).

    I hope you do follow up your analysis of this book. It’s an interesting case and worth discussing.

  8. I think the issue with Richardson is she wrote a 13-volume novel sequence throughout the course of life, and she improved – found her style – as she went along; so it’s a problem having to begin at the beginning, which is the most conventional and dullest part of the work. Lots of writers would suffer, I guess, if you were forced to read their novels in the order they wrote them.

    I will do a further post – I’ve started it, but perhaps have been feeling more creative than destructive recently.

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