There Are More Important Things Than Happiness: On Reading Eimear McBride

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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.”

A Defense of Radical Selfishness

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The final scene of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying takes place in the bath. Heroine Isadora soaks in the tub and contemplates herself in the water: “The pink V of my thighs, the triangle of curly hair, the Tampax string fishing the water like a Hemingway hero, the white belly, the breasts half floating, the nipples flushed and rosy from the steamy water.” She’s waiting for her estranged husband, but when he enters the scene, it suddenly cuts short — the novel’s final sentences are, “I hummed and rinsed my hair. As I was soaping it again, Bennett walked in.”

It’s a distinctly abrupt note to end the novel, but appropriate for a book that takes place largely inside the protagonist’s head. Isadora is an authorial avatar to whom the term “thinly veiled” hardly applies. Her biography mirrors Jong’s almost exactly, and there are moments when the book reads as more memoir than novel. Isadora’s narration is highly introspective, rarely stepping beyond the boundaries of the self. (One chapter is literally written as a movie in which she is the star.) A 1973 review in the New York Times saw this as grounds for critique: “There is some great humor…but often Isadora’s condescension and self-consciousness reduce the experience for the reader.” Too much self; not enough other.

Nonetheless, Jong’s personal writing has political roots. It’s possible to situate Fear of Flying within a tradition of women’s “self-centered” writing, arguably beginning with postwar writers who recast the domestic sphere as the site of of violence, ennui, and dark beauty. “What is so real as the cry of a child?” asked Sylvia Plath in her poem “Kindness,” featured in Ariel. “A rabbit’s cry may be wilder/But it has no soul.” A generation later Fear of Flying focused similarly on the intimacy of inner life, but infused it with an unapologetic, cheerfully bawdy tone that broke new ground for women writers to explore this intimacy in their own work.

While Fear of Flying rode the crest of a second wave of feminism explicitly focused on politicizing the fabric of the everyday, the genre of self-reflective writing that it helped to spawn still endures, if remaining largely specific to white women of the middle class and above. (Reflecting on the inner self is a luxury afforded to those whose outer shells are relatively secure: those who do not struggle to earn enough to eat; who do not bring up children on meagre incomes; who do not occupy bodies that are sites of increasingly explicit warfare.) Even from my vantage point onto the relatively small Australian literary scene, women’s “confessional writing” is the subject of much attention, meriting a recent piece in Overland, and critiques from writers Kath Kenny and Helen Razer. It’s the familiar battleground: is the personal always political? Does a protagonist that reflects the author’s image signify a novel that is little more than a mirror? Does this kind of writing give the reader too much self, and not enough other? But in the act of reading, distinctions between self and other are rarely so clear-cut, and self-centered writing can blur these boundaries in strange and surprising ways. Taking the question of the self seriously can, in fact, open the way to a reflective reading experience far broader in scope than generally first assumed. Here, Fear of Flying still has radical lessons to offer.

Although there is a tendency to focus on the inherent literary merits (or lack thereof) of self-centered writing, we might do better to begin with the words on paper. What does it sound like, the voice of the self speaking back to the self? Isadora’s narrative style is distinctively frank and unpretentious. Sentences in Fear of Flying are noticeably short, and often connected by dashes, as if the writer simply needed to get words on paper. And indeed, this may be close to the truth: Erica Jong recalls writing her debut novel in “a mad rush, heart racing, adrenaline pumping, wanting to tell the truth about women whatever it cost me”.

So Fear of Flying was written as a crazed dash across an empty sky, the author the sole pilot of a plane with no destination. In this, the medium reflects the message — the plot of the novel revolves around a zigzagging existentialist road trip through Europe, where the only plan is to keep going. Present on this doomed trip: Isadora and flirtatious Langian Adrian Goodlove (Jong’s winking appreciation of the eighteenth-century novel is clear) whom she met at a psychoanalytic conference in Vienna. Not present: Isadora’s “perfectly nice husband” Bennett, a stable but emotionally stunted Freudian, left behind in Vienna. The love triangle acts as the book’s driving narrative force, but it’s an illusion, a flimsy paper backdrop to a much deeper drama. Adrian and Bennett are only convenient puppets fighting out the familiar conflict at Isadora’s core: security versus adventure. Death-drive versus life-force. Fear versus flying. Five years into her increasingly distant marriage, Isadora eventually finds it too hard to resist Adrian’s proposal to take off together in his battered Triumph: “I’ll discover Europe,” he tells her. “You’ll discover yourself.”

If Adrian does discover Europe, we don’t see it. Very little of the actual trip is featured in the novel; rather, their hours of driving serve for endless introspection on Isadora’s part. We travel deep down into Isadora’s childhood, her adolescence, her family history, her marriages, her struggles with writing, with Jewishness, with her husband, with herself. What sort of woman does she want to be? Her mother and sisters pressure her to “stop writing and have a baby,” but as she asks:

Why did they have to keep rushing me and trying to cram me into the same molds that had made them so unhappy?…I had published a book which even I could still stand to read. Six years of writing and discarding, writing and changing, trying to get deeper and deeper into myself…But to my family I was a failure because I had no children.

To have a child is to split and release the self in strange and terrifying ways, a prospect toward which Isadora is ambivalent. (“If I have a baby I want it to be all mine,” she says, surely recognizing the impossibility of this wish even as she gives voice to it. “A girl like me, but better.”) For now, she chooses self-containment, self-knowledge: a quest to go ever deeper. Through her work, she reproduces herself on her own terms. But she’s consumed by the hypocrisy of writing fearlessly while living cowed — hence her strange, compulsive attraction toward disastrous (but adventurous) Adrian. “No bored housewife, I,” she tells herself in that first glorious moment when the Triumph roars off and leaves Bennett behind. “I was flying.”

But liberation at the hands of someone else can only take you so far. The contradiction comes to a head when Isadora — abandoned by Adrian in Paris — is forced for the first time to cultivate survival on her own. It’s tempting to read the process of her transformation as rather too neat: gripped by anxiety in a seedy Paris hotel room, Isadora finds her journal and begins to read. “I am going to figure out how I got here,” she says to herself. Reading through the record of her life, she grows calm and philosophical. She loses her fear — and without fear, flying doesn’t hold quite the same appeal. It lacks the adrenaline of disaster, the danger that Isadora courts as an answer to “the restlessness, the hunger, the thump in the gut, the thump in the cunt, the longing to be filled up…”  By the final pages, she’s confident in her assertion that “whatever happened, I knew I would survive it. I knew, above all, that I’d go on working …”

After hundreds of pages of neurotic dithering, Isadora’s sudden flipped switch into maturity is jarring. That’s it? Just read an old journal and you’re cured? It was the one part of the book that always felt unsatisfying — perhaps because, in a novel otherwise wedged so tightly into its own time and space, the use of metaphor was at first unrecognizable. The reality of the scene was probably not a journal, and it was probably not a night in a hotel room in Paris — but the essence remains the same: to know oneself is to free oneself. We think of being “self-centered” as a different quality to being centered in oneself, but Isadora — staring into her handwritten mirror in a hotel room on the Rue de la Harpe — invites us to question the distinction.

The metaphor can be taken further – Jong hints at it when she writes that Isadora, reading her notebook, “began to be drawn into it as into a novel”. After the book’s publication, women wrote to Erica Jong to tell her that they were just like Isadora, or that Isadora was just like them. In How to Save Your Own Life, the 1977 sequel to Fear of Flying, Isadora (coincidentally now the best-selling author of a famously racy novel) receives fan letters along the lines of:
Youre Main Character (which is also you I believe) is exactly like me in all respects although Jewish … The problem is I have three children (they are loveley kids 3, 6 and 8) my husband is very jealouse and there is no way for me to go away like you did and get Adventure or Sex or even have time to think about my Development as a Human Being and Woman … My husband told me I better not read [your book] or else he would beat the shit out of me but I read it anyway!!
Isadora could not solve her readers’ problems, but she nonetheless changed their lives — not (necessarily) by inspiring them to have ill-considered affairs, but by encouraging them to reach past the bulky cushioning of domestic life and probe the contours of their own souls. A radical task in 1973, and even today — as the continuing furore over women’s self-reflective writing demonstrates. If selfishness is a literary crime, it’s also a social one – and women, especially, are vulnerable to accusation. Private lives are ‘women’s business’, but the minutiae of these inner lives — the joys and frustrations, the strangeness, the struggles, the fantasies, and the fears — are deemed unserious, selfish, when brought out into the light. Isadora’s fundamental crime in life, as in literature, is to look too much inward, and to regard this introspection as insight.

But insight works in mysterious ways. It’s not necessarily a lightning-bolt of pure knowledge from the author to the reader. I was a teenager when I first read Fear of Flying, and much of it went over my head, but I remember the feeling of relief, of grasping a hand in the darkness: Here is someone. My copy of the book had been my mother’s, but by the time I chanced across it, she was already three years dead and I was unpacking boxes in a country she’d never set foot in. I was lonely then in a drifting, aimless way; later, when I started school, my loneliness magnified and grew teeth. Perhaps more than many adolescents, I felt ill at ease inside myself, bumping into the awkward contours of my new life.

It was no coincidence that the book which became a shield against all this — the book that I read obsessively and carried around with me everywhere — was Fear of Flying. I came across it when I most needed myself, because I had no one else. The self is, after all, a tricky thing: looking too hard in the mirror might reveal things we’d rather not see. “I want to teach you not to be afraid of what’s inside you,” Adrian tells Isadora. But really it was Isadora — self-obsessed, unliterary Isadora — who offered her readers that gift. “You did not have to apologize for wanting to own your own soul,” she reflects near the end of the book. “When all was said and done, it was all you had.” Fear of Flying made space for the self, took the self seriously, and this allowed many readers an experience that went far beyond the myopic contemplation of Isadora. It’s a lesson worth considering, as the debate over so-called ‘selfish’ writing continues: introspection can be a strength all its own, and reading has the power to place you within your own life as well as within another’s. As Isadora showed me, along with countless other readers: the self can be a lifeline, a raft, a wing to fly on.