Shortly after the new year began, I read A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the multi-award winning novel by Eimear McBride. It had been on my To Read list for a couple of years — I kept reading fragments of essays and reviews about it; people whose opinion I trusted admired it; I picked up a copy once in a second-hand bookstore but put it down again. All these missed connections come rushing back in the aftermath of a book that changed you. You recall your life without it, that earlier time when you Didn’t Know. I’d spent the past few months in a kind of reading rut, unable to find anything that really excited me; I was waiting for a book that made me look forward to every moment snatched to read it. Girl was that book, and more. After finishing it I wondered how I could have gone so long without it.
This despite the fact that the book ended on a terribly sad note, dashing every fragile hope I’d dared to build for its characters. As readers of literary fiction, we’re somewhat trained to expect an ending that is ambiguously hopeful, if not happy. You can feel almost ripped off when that doesn’t happen: what value can a book offer when it leaves you feeling more mournful than before? But reading Girl — particularly paired with McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, released last year to similar critical acclaim — offers a chance to think more deeply on the happy ending. What are the literary possibilities for happiness, and for pathos? These questions feel particularly important as we face, in the world outside literature, the wholesale dissolution of many of those “happy endings” that we had come to rely upon. Our world is increasingly a site of rupture, where neat resolutions no longer ring quite true. What does literature have to offer in these new times, and how might we read it?
It’s arguably no surprise that McBride has risen to prominence under these particular conditions — her wildly unconventional modernist prose form encapsulates the disorienting loss of familiar structures. Without it, Girl is fairly straightforward: a novel about growing up in rural Ireland, and about having a devoted Catholic mother and an absent psychiatrist father, and being the new girl at school, and scandalizing your grandfather by doing forward rolls in a skirt, and having a brother who had brain cancer before you were born and has never been quite right since. But McBride’s intoxicating writing is what makes the book pulse with life. Adam Mars-Jones in the London Review of Books has written that McBride’s work is not lyrical, that it avoids “the halo of hush around beauty,” but I disagree. McBride is clearly someone who loves language, and the tenderness of that love is difficult to conceal behind even the most brashly stripped-back, chin-out prose. Take, for example, how the narrator describes her mother’s denial of the brother’s shrunken but still-present tumor: all her fervent hoping has “turned her good eyes blind.” Or this passage, detailing the narrator’s first sexual experience:
He kisses me. The deep again. With lips and teeth and with his tongue. Touch me soft there I did not know would be. Fill my mouth with it. He says, open your eyes. Is this the first kiss you’ve had at all? Flexed and on a wire I’m. He knows something I don’t. About me. That I am naïve.
The lyricism is there, but it takes you by surprise — after pages of slapping you in the face with short, jagged sentence fragments, Girl suddenly touches your cheek with gentle fingers. The effect is startling; I spent much of the book with a lump in my throat, although it doesn’t give up any easy sentimental tears. Too often we fall into the trap of assuming that childhood — and perhaps girlhood, especially — is a time of innocence, of sexual unknowing, and even of elusive, never-recaptured happiness. But Girl strips back the conventional wisdom ruthlessly, and insists on showing us the rich and strange fantasy life of a child; how deep a girl’s inner world can be, and how violent. The Irish word “girleen” is first introduced with tenderness, at the narrator’s birth — “There now a girleen isn’t she great” — but thereafter takes on a sinister tone, used only by those with bad intentions. There’s no shortage of bad intentions in Girl — from the uncle who takes the narrator’s virginity at 13; to the schoolyard bullies who humiliate her brother for his learning disability; to the mother who tells her, after her brother’s death from the returned cancer, that “I almost wish it was you lying there in that box.”
As a reader, you’re left desperately looking for a bright spot. At two different points during the novel, the narrator forms intense female friendships, but these do not last. She also fucks around a lot, but this only seems to exacerbate what emerges as her intense loneliness. The narrator — and her counterpart in The Lesser Bohemians, also a young woman — will ring painfully true to every girl who grew up bookish and solitary, whose shyness was too often interpreted by others as contempt. “Well they think you’re weird and really up yourself,” a school friend of the narrator in Girl tells her. “You’re always wearing that long coat and never talk to all the lads.” Two boys from her school confirm the same: “At least we’re out here having it instead of sitting home reading books thinking you’re so great.” But what is “it” and how can it be had? McBride’s narrators do, in fact, desperately want to be part of the crowd, for all they keep getting in their own way. In one passage of The Lesser Bohemians, the narrator — out drinking with friends, trying anxiously to live up to her idea of what a young student “should” do — nonetheless feels on the outside of the scene: “Seems with drink even pulling off panels of self, I can’t escape the audience of one I make, so resign to my private view of their fun.”
Can all these panels of self ever be broken, to let the world in? In Girl, they cannot. Early trauma — her brother’s illness, her departed father, her sense of being less loved by her mother — turns the narrator hard and cold early on. She soon loses any attachment to traditional institutions (family, home, and her mother’s Catholicism) and as a child runs off from church to stand alone under a vast empty sky, “saying fucker Christ into the fields.” Lacking love from without, the only comfort comes from within: “that inside world had caught alight and what I wanted. To be left alone. To look at it.” She has no genuine close attachments save that to her brother, whose death drives her to drown herself in a lake. “Brother me,” she says desperately, as the water sucks her under.
Ending a book with the main character’s suicide is a bold move: no hope here for the imagined future that goes on in the murky space past a book’s final pages. Still, it was appropriate: the plot of Girl seemed unable to sustain a happy ending, and McBride the sort of writer who wouldn’t write one anyway. All this made The Lesser Bohemians — set in 1990s London, and centerd upon an 18-year-old Irish drama student — decidedly surprising in its largely upbeat plot and unmistakably happy ending. The narrator starts off a shy virgin overwhelmed by the city; living in a bleak boarding-house, she spends much of her time swimming against the tide of her own loneliness, burning herself with cigarettes on Saturday nights. But soon she meets an actor, 20 years her senior, who banishes both the loneliness and the virginity. He’s got some skeletons in his closet — the retelling of which is genuinely harrowing — and theirs is not a straightforward relationship. But the book ends with them happily (re)united, all past horrors banished by the golden glow of love.
This might sound a bit sentimental, but McBride escapes that trap by acknowledging love itself as far more complex and dangerous than it’s usually taken to be. The sibling love story in Girl is unconventional for literature, where romantic or parent-child love is usually king. But in another sense, the ghost of an (unfulfilled) love for a parent lurks just behind the curtain in Girl, and The Lesser Bohemians too. Both books feature young women who lost their fathers early on, either to death or abandonment. (McBride’s own father died when she was eight.) There’s something decidedly Oedipal about the sexual and romantic lives of McBride’s characters, and she doesn’t bother tiptoeing around, as the narrator in Girl puts it, “our empty spaces where fathers should be. Whereabouts we might find them and what’d we do to fill them up.” In The Lesser Bohemians, the parallel is particularly explicit: the narrator’s lover has a daughter almost her age. In one scene, the daughter — present only in a childhood photograph displayed in her father’s flat — breaks in on the narrator during a sex scene: “This is my father. What? Mine. Just beyond. Little girl in a photo who looks like him. He made me doing this, what he’ll do with you.”
The word “made” is left — perhaps deliberately — to sustain two interpretations. It’s here — in the gap between meanings — where McBride’s prose form really shines; it embraces the ambiguous code of dreams, where words are freed from their conscious, common-sense definitions to become more than the sum of their parts. Despite (or perhaps because of) the discomfort it produces in the reader, McBride insists on clashing the two — daughter and lover, father and lover — up against each other:
He’s taken care of me. And me, from the first. But he is my father. And your father taught me this, showed me how until I love to and know him like you never can. This is my father. Taking my knickers down. Putting his fingers. Putting his mouth. This is my father. The want he makes and I have no father. Who cares? Who cares? You can never do what he and I can.
The daughter’s reprise — “but he is my father” — effortlessly overpowers the narrator’s insistence that she “know[s] him like you never can.” It is clear to both of them that daughterhood is, must be, the trump card: a daughter is a fully-formed thing. “You’ll always choose her, won’t you?” the narrator asks her lover later on. He avoids the question: “No, no more choosing for me.” She knows what his real answer is, but she has her own choice to make: “I choose your father over the dead,” she says. In the world of The Lesser Bohemians, such a choice is possible. “Re-refuse the past,” says the actor-lover. “I will not have it here. Mouth or bed or in the air.” Of course, it’s not as simple as that — our past is everywhere, whether we refuse it or not — but the characters in The Lesser Bohemians are able to free themselves from its tightest bonds, something the narrator in Girl could never do. (“Deepest mirror of the past and in it I am,” she says, as she drowns herself.)
Which of these two scenarios — despair so great it drives one to suicide, or happy forgetting — is preferable in a novel of our times? And how can we interpret them in a way that feels useful? Although The Lesser Bohemians is more pleasurable to read, and lends itself more easily to a sinking-in sense of place — all those cosy cups of tea, long walks through London, cigarettes in bed — I thought Girl was the better book. This isn’t (necessarily) because I’m a purist who doesn’t believe that joy can be literary, but rather because a neat happy ending seems unsuited to both McBride’s prose form — which is fundamentally against neatness — and the broader social conditions that we find ourselves in. In another article about McBride’s work in the London Review of Books, Jacqueline Rose gives an account of the various ways in which modernist writing has been understood. One theory has it that the revolutions that erupted across Europe in 1848 destabilised the idea of language as
immune to social and political contradictions, lord of all it surveyed, blind to the role it plays in shaping a world it claimed merely, and innocently, to reflect. Modernist writing, famously difficult, is the appropriate form for that crisis. Most simply, it brings to an end the illusion that either language or the world can be made safe.
These words ring eerily true today, when the ability to look danger in the face is becoming more and more important. The novel doesn’t necessarily have a political duty, which makes for an interesting tension between, as someone wrote on this site last year, one’s “interest in literature and [the] sense of it as a fundamentally bourgeois chronicle of individual concerns.” However, if modernist writing is a way of expressing crisis in form, it doesn’t quite work to avoid the crisis in content. Happy endings have their place in literature, but these days, pathos seems to strike a truer, more urgent chord. This is not to advocate for despair, but to suggest that struggle can be productive — in both a political and psychological sense — in a way that willful happiness is often not. At one point in The Lesser Bohemians, the narrator is taken to see Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia, and is struck by it. “From the start, it has me. I am unprepared,” she says. “Rain. Pool and bottles. Soft book in flames. You want to be happy but there are more important things.”