Thursday, August 16, 2007

A life in fragments

Anne Enright's The Gathering

"This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family - a whole fucking country - drowning in shame."

- Anne Enright, The Gathering

Another day, another Booker prize long list book, another novel about a family mourning for the loss of a loved one. Sigh.

This time around the deceased is one Liam Hegarty, and the person mourning him, or at least the person whose mourning we are witness to, is his younger sister Veronica. Liam, a long time alcoholic and quintessential black sheep, has drowned himself in the sea off Brighton, and his death shatters his younger sister, who has always been close to him (they are less than a year apart in age). What follows is 250 pages of fractured, hysterical narrative as Veronica tries to make sense of Liam's death and the life that preceded it. There are many things to confront here: a murky secret from their childhood together, from a time when, abandoned by their parents, they lived for a while in their grandmother's house; the myriad jealousies and rivalries of a family of twelve children; Veronica's growing recognition that her own life, though perfectly pleasant and successful by every conventional standard, has somehow turned out to be unsatisfying and false. As she puts it:

"I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go 'home' where I could 'have sex' with my 'husband' just like lots of other people did. This is what I have been doing for years. And I didn't seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died"

Veronica's real problem, of course, is guilt. Guilt and shame. She clearly feels that she did not do enough for her brother, let him down, did not try hard enough to save him from his demons; and in order to avoid feeling this she needs to find a way to establish where things really went wrong, and, if it all possible, to pin the blame on someone else - her grandmother, her mother, her father - anyone at all except she herself, or her beloved Liam.

This quest for closure soon becomes the ruling force of Veronica's life. She stops sleeping with her husband, is negligent towards her daughters, stays up all night and goes for long drunken drives to nowhere. And she thinks back over the past, trying to remember, trying to imagine what must have happened, what she must have missed. Where did we drift apart? How did I betray him? What were the best times? The worst times? These are questions that haunt Veronica, and Enright does an excellent job of bringing this manic depression of hers to life, telling the story of Veronica's life (and consequently of Liam's) in a haphazard back and forth of fragment and memory.

The trouble with The Gathering, I think, is that Enright succeeds in bringing Veronica's state of mind to life a little too well. Veronica's hysteria comes across loud and clear, but the result is a novel's worth of prose that is self-indulgent and whiny and annoyingly incoherent. Any sympathy you might have had for Veronica evaporates by around page 100 (if not earlier) and by the time you get to the end of the book you're heartily sick of her going on and on about the whole thing and want to slap her in the face and tell her to get a grip. Enright calls her book The Gathering, but Veronica is not picking up the pieces of her life, not trying to put them back together - she is simply toying with them, holding them up to the light now and then, showing them off. There is a great deal of atmosphere here - an entire weather system of gloom and guilt and sexual malice - but you have only to step back a little and sniff it with a clear head to know that what you're smelling is just a lot of stuffy, stagnant air.

The other problem with The Gathering is that it's too, well, literary. James Wood [1] famously coined the term 'hysterical realism' to describe a tendency in modern writing, and I think it's safe to say it applies here. Consider this description of one of the central characters of the story, Lambert Nugent:

"He must be reassembled; click clack; his muscles hooked to bone and wrapped with fat, the whole skinned over and dressed in a suit of navy or brown - something about the cut of the lapels, maybe, that is a little too sharp, and the smell of his hands would be already a little finer than carbolic. He had it down, even then, the dour narcissism of the ordinary man, and all his acts of self-love were both subtle and exact. He did not preen. Lamb Nugent watched. Or he did not watch so much as let it enter into him - the world, in all its nuance of who owed what to whom".

It's not just that this is a lot of fine words thrown impeccably together to say very little. That, in a way, is a motif of the entire book - what does its story amount to, after all, but a woman going into a tail-spin of despair because her brother has killed himself? It's also that these are supposed to be the thoughts of a woman guilt-ridden and grief-stricken to the point of dysfunction by her brother's death. If this were a writer, a story-teller of some sort, giving us a rollicking, high-handed description of a man in the middle of some yarn he was spinning it would be one thing, but put in the mouth of a grieving sister, and so at odds with the general tone of depression that pervades the book, it seems like a definite false note. Yet it is a false note that Enright strikes again and again, indulging in little flights of imagination, constantly blurring the line between writer as character and writer as narrator. Writing like this feels contrived in context, and undermines the genuineness of Veronica's grief for her brother, making her even harder to sympathize with than she already is.

Mind you, Enright can write. There are some fine sounding and lyrical passages here, and every now and then a sparkling little insight will jump out at you. But it is a scattered, patchy effect, like shards gleaming off the floor where a glass has been broken, and it does not compensate for the larger pointlessness of the book as a whole.

There is a point in the book when Veronica, driving to the airport to go collect her brother's body, starts to cry. Enright writes:

"At Collins Avenue, a man stuck in the oncoming traffic looks across at me, sobbing and gagging in my posh tin box. He is two feet away from me. He is just there. He gives me a look of complete sympathy, and then he eases past. It has happened to us all."

And that, in a nutshell, is the response that this book deserves. A quick skim, a moment of sympathy while you're stuck with it, and then you shrug your shoulders and move on, secure in the knowledge that in a little while you will have forgotten all about it. It's not that you're callous or uncaring. You just don't want to get involved because for all the sobbing and the blubbering and the tears there's nothing really wrong here, no big tragedy, just a fairly ordinary person getting needlessly hysterical about a fairly ordinary event. She's entitled to her grief, of course, but there's no reason why you should get dragged into it.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; Cross-posted on Momus]

[1] Who's joining the New Yorker, yaay!


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Anonymous said...

arn't u being a tad bit hard?...isn't most poetry about melancholy n the quest to make meaning of experience?if that be in long drawn out words be it. n like u quote her words." it's happened to us all"....guess that sums it alrite - n yet these lil' shards of glass as u put it so eloquently are what pinch the most , n get people in a tailspin of despair,once they get under u'r event of a death being just the catalyst?.the 'moving on' doesnt happen so easy -closure being a word oft used.n yet how do u 'close' an experience..u carry it , n it shapes u despite all attempts at 'closure' life in inverted commas.....nice:)

The distinction between a character and a narrator..ah well.that's another realm altogether isnt'it,but we hold judgement on that until we read this...u've made us wanna read it :) which i suppose is wht a critique ought to do.