A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Part II

From The White Review interview with Eimear McBride:

It seemed to me that when attempting to tell a story from a point so far back in the mind that it is completely experiential, completely gut-reactive and balancing on the moment just before language becomes formatted thought, English needs to be made to pick up its feet and move … When I needed the language to do more, it had to come from the way a phrase was constructed. Luckily these sorts of phrases pop into my head all the time and I get a lot of nerdy pleasure in thinking of sentences then forcing the words to arrive at the same destination via an alternative route, so I can’t claim any great technical process is at work there. Of course there’s a huge amount of honing involved too, but that’s the best explanation I can offer of the basic plan.

Joyce’s version of stream-of-consciousness, aside from a notable lack of repetition, which one can understand for artistic reasons, seems to me a reasonable enough match to the way thoughts pass through our minds; and I find something curiously satisfying in stylistic terms in this kind of writing. I have always veered towards a more “oral” writing style, since I feel this comes closer to a euphonic appreciation of the way our language works. The switching between third and first persons also seems a decent way to represent how those thoughts running through our heads are engendered by events outside our minds.

McBride is nothing like this. Here are a few sentences taken from one page of her book: “Birds and beast they.” “I be new girl.” “Those herd.” “I have them talisman against all wrong they’ll do me.” It seems, before our thoughts are processed into the relatively orderly grammar of the stream-of-consciousness, they are in fact – slightly less grammatical. (Presumably it is at this deeper level of consciousness that Yoda works, to which his Jedi powers grant direct access). I must admit, I don’t believe that this is true in the slightest; or maybe I should say that, not having access to our thoughts as this “level”, I don’t believe we can make any claims about them, except that we have no evidence for there even being this more “gut-reactive” level of language. I would suggest it is much more likely, based on the evidence of my own thinking, that we pass straight from mental processes that have no relation to language, to a formatted stream-of-consciousness. (Aren’t the patterns of grammar engraven in our minds, hence perhaps why certain literary styles appeal to us?).

Perhaps though we could consider McBride’s style as a mere representation of a purer consciousness prior to thought – one which hasn’t as yet been ordered by language. Our narrator is a mixed-up girl living in a mixed-up world; would this not best be demonstrated by grasping at her thoughts before her mind has had a chance to process them and fix them into some sort of personal metanarrative. But no, such a view isn’t really borne out then by the content of her thought which, as I mentioned in my last post, is already contained in a very highly-structured personal metanarrative, and uses all kinds of familiar story-telling tools. She’s not in the process of directly experiencing the world at all; she’s in the process, if anything, of constructing narratives in order to explain the world, which seems to me a highly systemised process of ordering opposed to the lack of order in the ungrammatical style.

But this is not really the problem with the style: what I find wrong with McBride’s perverse re-arrangement of phrases (perverse because, as per my last post, I see no reason for any of it), is that in breaking up accepted euphonic patterns of language, it fails in what I consider one of the few major components of any worthwhile literature, and that is its understanding of – and its joy in – the rhythms and cadence of language itself. (You may say this is the real avant-garde, to write sentences that are harsh on the ear this way – like your twelve-tone music or whatnot – but I say, no writer – and especially not Joyce or Beckett – ever achieved greatness by failing to understand – or by denying their understanding of – how their own language works). You can of course create beautiful language by re-arrangement of accustomed grammar: Gerard Manley Hopkins immediately springs to mind: “Some candle clear burns somewhere I come by” or “As tumbled over rim in roundy wells | Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s | Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name”; but there is nothing of this in McBride: the language, violently hacked into short phrases by full-stops, perishes. Only in the direct speech of the characters, as recounted curiously for the gut-reactive level of unformatted thought in which it is contained in a perfect oral grammar, is there any relief from the unrelenting style of the main narrative.

It wasn’t then that I found the style difficult (only the first few pages are difficult; before McBride settles into a rhythm she is comfortable with); it is just dull and irritating and slow (“sheer plod” as Hopkins says, which doesn’t make “plough down sillion … gash gold-vermilion”), the narrative voice never varying with age, or indeed for any reason.

So I turn to Pierre Albert-Birot’s Grabinoulor instead, which in stylistic terms is everything this isn’t.

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4 thoughts on “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Part II

  1. You’re reading this like it’s a Peter Handke novel – Handke’s Irish misery memoir, why not – but then the book will in the end be about the failure of language. The author “needs” English to pick up its feet and so on, but in the Handke-ending, English is incapable, collapsing into exhausted gibberish.

  2. It’s funny you mention Handke, since I was thinking of sandwiching a critique of his godawful Across in between these two pieces (as a bit of light relief). McBride does remind me of him in the sense that they both strike me as quite fraudulent. I’ve long suspected about people who go on about the failure of language, that maybe the real failure is to be found in their own woolly thoughts and their lack of skill in transcribing them into any coherent form.

  3. Obviously language doesn’t fail her so much that she’s incapable of granting coherent interviews. I’m past suspicion, I believe it’s a dumb theme: trying to persuade a reader of the impossibility of communication or the failure of language to pin down concrete things, what bosh in a world where both things happen every day, at every minute, without which we’d be simply incapable of functioning.

  4. Sorry, my comment suggests McBride is one of these failure of language people, but this was not actually the nature of fraud I had in mind. In fact, in interviews McBride, oddly (refreshingly?) for an experimental novelist, appears to have no knowledge of / interest in theory; she denies the influence of Beckett, and has never read Burroughs. In McBride’s case, the reviewer’s familiar game of guessing who the writer was influenced by has proved very hazardous.

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