Saturday, November 6, 2010

Irish Arrested Adolescence

The fantastically named Fintan O'Toole examines why Irish writers can't, or won't, escape adolescence:
One could go farther and see youth as the comfort zone of Irish fiction. It is certainly arguable that the novel of growing up, from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to John McGahern’s The Dark and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls , is the quintessential Irish form. The archetypal Irish short stories, Frank O’Connor’s My Oedipus Complex and My First Confession, are told from the point of view of children. Two of the great narrative voices of 1990s Irish fiction, Roddy Doyle’s eponymous Paddy Clarke and Patrick McCabe’s Francie Brady in The Butcher Boy, are young boys.

To look at this negatively, it certainly reflects an absence: that of a strong socially realistic tradition in Irish fiction.

But this absence is not accidental. It derives from something Frank O’Connor identified: the absence of a fixed society. Irish society has remained, through all its radical changes, so porous and fluid that it has been impossible to frame a big, stable public narrative around it. It is striking that the only epic novelist we have at the moment, Joseph O’Connor, has spun his epics not from Irish society but from the act and consequences of leaving it. The emigration story – mobile, shifting, laden with reinventions – is our equivalent of the English novel of society.
O'Toole concludes Irish writers are characteristically drawn to young protagonists because the Irish, as a people, the idea of Ireland itself, is in a constant state of becoming. A provocative thesis, but right on the money, I think. Remember, Ulysses, the Great Irish Novel, is about, among a hundred thousand other things, a young Irish punk locked out of his house.

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