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About this book

This essential guide offers innovative critical readings of key contemporary novels from Ireland and Northern Ireland. Linden Peach discusses texts that are representative of the richness of Irish writing during the 1980s and 1990s, and reads works by established authors alongside those by the new generation of writers. The novels examined include works by John Banville, Jennifer Johnston, Roddy Doyle, Emma Donoghue, Seamus Deane, William Trevor, Dermot Bolger, Joseph O'Connor, Patrick McCabe, Mary Morrissy, Glenn Patterson and Robert McLiam Wilson.

The Contemporary Irish Novel addresses themes such as ghosts and haunting, mimicry, obedience and subversion, the relocation and reinscription of identity, the mother figure, parent-child relations, madness, masculinity, self-harm, sexuality, domestic violence, fetishism and postmodernity. Drawing on a range of critical approaches including postcolonial, gender and psychoanalytic theory, Peach explores and celebrates the diversity of Irish fiction and suggests that the boundary between literature and theory is as permeable as that between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Table of Contents

1. Interruptive Narratives

Emergent Voices and Haunted Presents
Abstract
The contemporary Irish novel occupies an especially complex cultural and intellectual space where there is a strong sense of both continuity and disruption. It is a space that is similar to that which one of our leading postcolonial critics, Homi Bhabha, identifies as the ‘in-between’ space or ‘timelag’ which those who have been previously marginalized or silenced enter before they find their new identities. Of course, Irish literature itself has occupied a central position in, for example, the development of European modernism in the early twentieth century. But within Ireland and Northern Ireland, there are many groups of people who have been denied a voice and new writers who believe they speak on their behalf. In finding a voice after so long, these groups and writers find themselves in a space which is not only new to them but marked by uncertainty — an ‘in-between’ space indeed. Moreover, the subject matter of late twentieth-century Irish literature has, and is, changing despite its, sometimes self-conscious, affinity with the past. Not only are there new topics, opinions and perspectives but also much of what was once implied, at best a covert subtext, is now more overtly articulated. Two of many important questions for us to ask are: What has this done, is doing, to the wider national identity? And what is its effect on Ireland, and in different ways, Northern Ireland’s perception of themselves as part of the late modern or postmodern world? In exploring the significance of the ‘timelag’ for, and in, Irish fiction, I am especially interested in the way this concept at the end of the twentieth century has empowered a number of women writers.
Linden Peach

2. Posting the Present

Modernity and Modernization in Glenn Patterson’s Fat Lad (1992) and Robert McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street (1996)
Abstract
In the previous chapter, I argued for the usefulness of Homi Bhabha’s concept of the ‘timelag’ in discussing the intellectual and cultural space which young writers, some of the subjects to which they gave voice and even Ireland and Northern Ireland themselves have come to occupy. But the notion of the in-between space which they enter, have entered, requires further development of Bhabha’s thesis because what has been previously marginalized or silenced in Irish history has also been shrouded with secrecy. Secrecy has been such a feature of Irish cultural life on a national, local and domestic level that even Bhabha’s vision of the nation state in general marked by ‘internal difference’, most obviously applicable to Ireland, has to be refocused to take it into account. What Bhabha has to say about a ‘timelag’ is also useful in that what has been previously marginalized or concealed challenges the very mapping of the nation. But even here it needs revisioning to acknowledge that in Ireland and Northern Ireland the previously inarticulate or unarticulated challenges our understanding of ‘modern’. Narratives, too, habitually conceal as much as they reveal.
Linden Peach

3. Secret Hauntings

Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (1996), Joseph O’Connor’s The Salesman (1998), Jennifer Johnston’s Fool’s Sanctuary (1987), Mary Leland’s The Killeen (1985) and Linda Anderson’s To Stay Alive (1984)
Abstract
Even from the few texts mentioned in the previous chapters concerning characters that find themselves in a psychological and cultural timelag, it is clear that the rewriting of lifescripts is an important subject in Irish fiction. This process of rewriting, because it arises from the way characters are inevitably located between ‘relocation’ and ‘reinscription’, in Bhabha’s terms, involves a disarming of the past. This disarming of the past at the level of individual characters, as I suggested in the previous chapters, is often analogous of the wider re-examinations of history in which Ireland and Northern Ireland are themselves involved.
Linden Peach

4. Mimicry, Authority and Subversion

Brian Moore’s The Magician’s Wife (1997), Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin (2000) and John McGahern’s Amongst Women (1990)
Abstract
The three principal texts of this chapter are connected in their preoccupation with ‘mimicry’ and its role, paradoxically, in both the maintenance and the secret subversion of authority. In each of these texts, these two principal preoccupations are closely interleaved because in each history is read through the interconnection of power, mimicry, authority and subversion. Homi Bhabha (1983) offers perspectives on the relationship between mimicry, power and authority in a colonial context which are applicable to Moore’s The Magician’s Wife, which is specifically concerned with France’s colonization of Algeria, to Donoghue’s account of women’s lives in the eighteenth century and McGahern’s covert critique of the Irish state in Amongst Women. Although Bhabha writes primarily with the colonial and postcolonial experience in mind, the relationship between power and mimicry is one that enters more generally into contexts that are dependent upon the maintenance of dominant and subordinate relations. Bhabha’s essay is dependent upon another influential postcolonial theorist Edward Said, whose recognition that mimicry is an ironic, secretive interface between the dominant presence, and its panoptical vision of identity and status, and the changing perspectives of, and sense of difference among, those who are dominated.
Linden Peach

5. Unspoken Desires

Jennifer Johnston’s Later Novels, Emma Donoghue’s Stir-fry (1994) and Kathleen Ferguson’s The Maid’s Tale (1994)
Abstract
The previous chapters have argued for the significance of Bhabha’s ideas about what happens when the previously silenced or marginalized emerge from the margins for contemporary Irish fiction. Particularly relevant to the work by women writers, which is the subject of this chapter, is Bhabha’s thesis that previously marginalized voices, emerging from and in turn determining the spatio-cultural shift in a nation’s ideas of itself, confront and contradict the dominant discourses that have been directly or indirectly responsible for their silence and marginalization.
Linden Peach

6. Fetishizing Absence

Dermot Bolger’s Father’s Music (1997) and Emily’s Shoes (1992)
Abstract
Father’s Music and Emily’s Shoes deal with themes that have not been the subject of serious fiction in Ireland and Northern Ireland previously: self-harm and shoe fetishism. They are concerned with activities which are linked in different ways to maintaining a kind of emotional control and which are shrouded with secrecy. Each of these novels also explores the subject of absence, and, what might be called, the fetishization of absence.
Linden Peach

7. Mater Dolorosa

Abject Mothers in Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper (1990) and Mary Morrissy’s Mother of Pearl (1995)
Abstract
Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper (1990) is the second of three novels devoted to the fictitious Rabbitte family in Barrytown, Dublin. The others are The Commitments (1987) and The Van (1991). Characterized by their emphasis upon the present and the different voices of the working-class community of North Dublin, they shifted the agenda according to which Irishness was generally explored and discussed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was in itself an important development as the urban working class had often been marginalized in Ireland by de Valera’s vision of a rural and agricultural nation state. Voices predominate in this trilogy; at one level, the texts appear to be more like play scripts than novels, eschewing the kind of authorial description and the kind of narrative exposition we normally associate with a novel. In particular, Ireland is presented as a country open to its own traditional influences but also absorbing influences from Great Britain and the United States, and, perhaps in its emphasis upon the latter, underestimating the impact of European influence on the Dublin economy.
Linden Peach

8. Limit and Transgression

Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors (1996), Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992) and William Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey (1994)
Abstract
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, The Butcher Boy and Felicia’s Journey involve violence to women — domestic violence, the murder of a woman who is also a mother by a disturbed child and a serial killer’s pursuit of a young woman who becomes an agent in bringing about his suicide. Each of these texts concerns a subject that had previously been marginalized in serious literature. As such, each contributes to the sense of the timelag in which contemporary Ireland finds itself, discussed in Chapter 1. At one level, in giving a voice to previously concealed or half-admitted subjects, these novels present a critique of contemporary Ireland and Northern Ireland; of post-industrial society in Britain as much as Ireland in Felicia’s Journey; of Americanization and globalization in The Butcher Boy. But in the writing itself, there is an element that both attracts and repels the reader, especially in the exposition of sexually related violence. In other words, these texts situate the reader in an in-between position, uncertain for a while at least of what to make of them. This aspect is anchored not only in the choice of subject, but also in an interest in what emerges when we push these kind of subjects to the limit.
Linden Peach

9. Return to Silence and Beyond

Speculative Narrative in Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes (1997) and John Banville’s Birchwood (1973)
Abstract
Grace Notes and Birchwood represent different poles in contemporary speculative fiction. The former, a version of the exile narrative, concerns a young composer and unmarried mother, suffering from clinical depression, who returns to Northern Ireland from Scotland on her father’s death. The latter is more of a modernist, surrealist work that appropriates the Big House narrative and is set in Ireland around the time of the Great Famine. In a different context, each has at its centre the relationship between an adult and their parents. But, although Grace Notes, despite its to-and-fro movement between different periods in the central protagonist’s life, is a more traditional novel than the highly allusive Birchwood, they are both speculative narratives concerned, in their different ways, with the return of what has been secret or suppressed. But what separates the engagement with what Freud labelled Nachträglichkeit, introduced in Chapter 3, in these texts from the novels discussed previously, is their emphasis upon exploring the possibility of transcendence.
Linden Peach

Afterword

Abstract
I have chosen to provide an ‘Afterword’ at this point rather than a ‘Conclusion’. Throughout, I have argued that the late twentieth-century novel in Northern Ireland and Ireland might be usefully read through Homi Bhabha’s work on what happens when the previously marginalized or silenced emerge from the margins and through Jacques Derrida’s ideas about concealment. I see this book as part of an ongoing engagement on both my part and the reader’s with Irish fiction. If, as I have tried to argue, the late twentieth-century novel in Ireland and Northern Ireland occupies an in-between cultural and intellectual space, then, it almost goes without saying, that space is marked by uncertainty and ideological conflict. However, it is important to separate the postmodern novel in Ireland and Northern Ireland from the Anglo-American postmodern novel. Generally speaking, the latter is often much more committed than many contemporary Irish novels to an all-pervading scepticism as to whether representation can ever be anything more than the product of, and the disseminator of, preconceptions. To adapt Bhabha’s terms, it is on the side of ‘relocation’, perhaps at times endlessly so, rather than ‘reinscription’. More often than not, it is the reverse that is true of the Irish novel.
Linden Peach
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