One evening a couple of weeks ago, I passed a murderer in the front square of Trinity College Dublin. He didn’t look like a murderer – or he didn’t look like whatever it is murderers are supposed to look like. With his wavy white hair swept back from his high forehead, his tweed jacket, his beige slacks and blue oxford shirt, he could easily have passed for a professor nearing retirement age, scuttling between lectures while trying to avoid running into his students. He was even carrying an A4-sized folder under one arm. At first I thought he was someone I vaguely knew, and was about to nod blandly in his direction, when I realized why it was that I had recognized him. I must have done a quite blatant double take, because as we passed each other beneath the campanile he shot me a sidelong look of almost cartoonish wariness and culpability – swiveling his eyes toward me, and then away, and then quickly back again. He looked frightened.
I stopped for a moment, and watched him walk across the cobbled square in the direction of Nassau Street. My first thought was this: That was Freddie Montgomery who just walked past me. And then I corrected myself: No, it wasn’t; it was Malcolm MacArthur. Freddie Montgomery is a fictional character, the murderer who narrates three novels by John Banville called The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena. Malcolm McArthur is not a fictional character – at least not in any straightforward sense; he is a man in his late sixties who spent the last thirty years in prison for killing two strangers in July of 1982. He was released in mid September. He is arguably the most notorious murderer in Ireland’s notoriously murderous history.
The MacArthur story is one that everyone in this country knows, and although the murders happened decades ago, his name is rarely out of the papers here for very long. Whenever he would come up for parole (which he was repeatedly denied), and whenever he was let out on day-release (which happened more frequently over the last few years), the story would be back in the news, his face returned to the front page. The photograph invariably used by the papers was a black and white mug shot depicting a man in his late thirties, foppish and bow-tied, with an expression of mournful, distant perplexity. He looked no more like a killer then than he does now. But then what does a killer look like?
At the time of the murders, MacArthur was a well-known socialite around Dublin. He was the son of a wealthy landowning family from Co. Meath, where many of the descendants of the country’s former Anglo-Irish ruling class still live, struggling to keep their imposing Georgian houses from falling into ruin. Although he had a young son with his partner, Brenda Little, his was apparently a familiar face in the underground gay bars and clubs of the city at a time when homosexual sex was still a criminal offense in the Republic. MacArthur, who lived off an inheritance fund, had been spending time in the Canary islands with his partner and their child when his money abruptly ran out. Inspired, he claims, by the IRA’s fundraising methodology, he decided that the only plausible means of maintaining his lifestyle was to pull off a series of armed robberies in Ireland before quietly leaving the country again and returning to Spain.
In Dublin a few days after his return, he found a personal ad in a newspaper placed by a farmer in Offaly with a gun for sale. MacArthur wanted the gun, but he needed a car to get to Offaly, in the rural midlands, and to get away from the scenes of the robberies he was planning to commit. So he bought a hammer. “I wanted this hammer,” as he put it in a statement he gave after his arrest, “to injure somebody, to get a car, to travel down the country to get a gun because I had no transport. In turn I had planned ahead to stick somebody up and the object was to get money. I had been reading in the newspapers about all the robberies and this seemed a way out of my obsessive financial situation.” MacArthur put the hammer in a satchel along with a shovel and a fake gun, and he set out for Phoenix Park on Dublin’s northside, stopping in a sweet shop on the quays to buy an orange, which he ate along the way. When he got there, he walked around for a bit until he came across a car parked close to the American ambassador’s residence.
Beside the car, its owner, a 27-year old nurse named Bridie Gargan, was sunbathing. The door of her car was open, and so MacArthur ordered Gargan to lie down in the back seat, and she panicked, and MacArthur became afraid that she would draw attention to them, and so he turned and hit her in the head with the hammer, and then hit her a second time because, as he put it, “the first blow did not do what I expected it to do.” As he was driving through the park, MacArthur was overtaken by an ambulance on the way to the nearby St. James’s hospital, where Gargan worked. The paramedics noticed her in the back seat, holding her bleeding head in her bloodied hands; seeing the hospital sticker on the windshield, they assumed that MacArthur was a doctor taking an injured patient to casualty, and escorted him to the gates of St. James’s. Instead of turning into the hospital’s grounds, however, he continued driving. He then abandoned the car in a lane way, leaving Bridie Gargan to finish dying in the back seat, and ducked into a pub, where he called a taxi to take him back to Dun Laoghaire, where he was staying.
Two days later, MacArthur took a bus to Offaly, and arranged a meeting for the following day with the farmer who was selling the rifle. The farmer, whose name was Donal Dunne, picked MacArthur up from the town of Edenderry and drove him to a nearby boggy area in order to test out the gun. He mentioned that it had cost him eleven hundred pounds, and that he was not interested in selling it at a loss. After MacArthur had fired the gun at an improvised target, Dunne put his hand on the barrel to take it back from him. “I’m sorry, old chap,” said MacArthur, and shot him in the face. He then hid the body in some bushes, took Dunne’s car and drove it back to Dublin.
As pointlessly horrible as these deeds of MacArthur’s were, it was what he did next that ensured they would never be forgotten. He made his way to the affluent little seaside town of Dalkey in south county Dublin (described by Flann O’Brien in The Dalkey Archive as “an unlikely town, huddled, quiet, pretending to be asleep”). There, he looked up a friend of his named Patrick Connolly who lived in an apartment overlooking the sea, and who took him in. He stayed at Connolly’s apartment until the police eventually tracked him down and arrested him there, having been tipped off by a neighbor about a man who resembled the suspect being seen around the building. When the circumstances of the arrest were made public, it ignited one of the most extraordinary political scandals in the country’s history. The reason for this was that Connolly wasn’t just some guy who unknowingly allowed a murderer to hide out in his home: he also happened to be Ireland’s Attorney General.
At the time of the arrest, Connolly had been preparing to leave the country for a holiday in America. He went ahead with the holiday, but was quickly called back by his boss, the Taoiseach (prime minister) Charles Haughey. In the succeeding days, the weirder details of the case began to leak out to the press. While MacArthur had been staying with Connolly, for instance, they had both attended the All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park Stadium. They sat in a VIP box, where they met the Garda Commissioner, the state’s most senior police officer. The attorney general and the commissioner discussed the murders while MacArthur sat and listened politely. On his return from the US, Haughey fired Connolly; rumors of a sexual relationship between himself and MacArthur proved spurious, but were a source of extreme embarrassment to the government at the time. Attempting to distance himself from the scandal, Haughey famously referred to the whole affair as “a bizarre happening, an unprecedented situation, a grotesque situation, an almost unbelievable mischance.” The journalist Conor Cruise-O’Brien coined the acronym “GUBU” (Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, Unprecedented), and the term quickly became synonymous with the events. The pressure of the public scandal seemed likely to collapse the already precarious government, but it limped on for a further few months until unconnected revelations about phone tapping finally brought it down.
I was a toddler when all this took place, and so I have no actual memories of any of it. But my grandparents happened to live in the apartment beside Connolly’s, and so I grew up knowing about the murderer who had been arrested next door, and I remember being transfixed by the idea that something like this could have happened in a place I knew so well, that was such a part of my guarded little world. Pulling up outside the building in the car with my parents, I would picture this man, this murderer, being hauled out the front door by police with sub-machine guns, helicopters circling the building, snipers on the roof of the retirement home across the street. I was independently assured by my parents and grandparents that nothing quite so dramatic had gone down, but it was still a matter of some pride to me that events of such cinematic scope and significance had taken place in my grandparents’ building. I wouldn’t say that I became preoccupied with MacArthur, but the slight thrill of his ghostly absence was something I felt whenever I visited them.
Later, studying English in college, I read Banville’s The Book of Evidence, which I had heard was based on the MacArthur murders. I was enthralled by the icy composure and artful self-revelations of its murderer-narrator, Freddie Montgomery, the details of whose life and crimes bear an unmistakable resemblance to MacArthur’s. Montgomery is at once despicable, charismatic, depraved, and, somehow, strangely ordinary. Part of the greatness of the book was the way in which you identified with him even as you were utterly appalled by him; he was an Everymonster, part Underground Man and part Humbert Humbert. And he was also Malcolm MacArthur, at several imaginative removes – subjected to the simplifications and elisions of media coverage, to the elaborations and refinements of Banville’s imagination, and, finally, to the preoccupations and preconceptions of my own. I later went on to write my PhD thesis on Banville’s novels, and I must have read The Book of Evidence seven or eight times. Whenever I would see something about MacArthur in the newspapers, fiction and truth would become confounded, and it would be Freddie Montgomery who I would picture on day release, enduring the abuse of passing strangers who would put down their shopping bags to insult him on the streets, to call him a monster, to tell him that if there were any justice in the world he would never be allowed to walk among them.
When I would read The Book of Evidence (or Ghosts, or Athena) I would sometimes find myself wondering what MacArthur might have made of a particular passage, or whether he would have recognized something of himself in the character that both was and was not him. Surely he must have read these books. (He is a well-read man, apparently; a man who bludgeoned a young woman to death with a hammer, yes, and who shot a stranger in the face, but a man of no little cultural refinement nonetheless. In an interview I read a few years ago, Banville told a story about an acquaintance of his who once picked up the last copy of the Times Literary Supplement in a newsagent near Mountjoy prison, and who took it to the counter only to be told that it wasn’t for sale, that it was to be sent up to the prison for Mr. MacArthur, who had a weekly standing order.) There’s one particular moment in The Book of Evidence that forces me, whenever I read it, to imagine what MacArthur’s reaction to it might be. It comes at the very end of Freddie’s long monologue of ambiguous self-recrimination and stylish equivocation, equal parts confession and performance. Sergeant Hogg (whose name gestures toward the author of Confessions of a Justified Sinner as well as to the standard porcine term of cop abuse) walks into Freddie’s cell and hands him a grubby sheet of paper. This, he announces, is Freddie’s confession. Freddie is utterly baffled. “These,” he protests, “are not my words.” Hogg shrugs, telling him to suit himself – he’s going down for life either way – and goes back to finish his dinner. Freddie is left to peruse this “confession,” and in it he sees a version of himself that he does not recognize, but which he nonetheless knows to be true: “It was an account of my crime I hardly recognised, and yet I believed it. He had made a murderer of me […] I was no longer myself. I can’t explain it, but it’s true. I was no longer myself.”
I wonder whether this might be an ironically inverted reflection of what Banville sees himself as doing with (or to) MacArthur here, or of how he envisages him experiencing it. The Book of Evidence is an imagined account of MacArthur’s crimes, one that makes him seem more human, and thereby both more and less terrifying. Within its pages, MacArthur is no longer himself, and that transformation somehow seems to carry over into the real, non-fictional world. There’s a certain kind of paradox here. By transfiguring him into a fiction – by fleshing him out, as it were, into a character – Banville somehow makes MacArthur seem more real, more believable; and yet to actually see him, to walk past him and make fleeting eye contact with him, was an unsettling experience, as though I had encountered the manifestation of a fiction. It was strange enough to chance upon this fabled murderer in a tweed jacket, who had once hidden from the law in the home of the country’s most senior legal officer, separated from my grandparents by a few inches of interior wall. But the simultaneous experience of seeing, and being seen by, a character from a novel I had spent so much time reading and thinking and writing about was somehow stranger still. Of course, Malcolm MacArthur is not Freddie Montgomery. He is a terribly real person, whose actions and whose guilt are likewise real and terrible. I know this, and yet, in some vague but significant sense, I don’t know it at all. Fiction and truth can inhabit the same places at once, and the same bodies.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”—Blaise Pascal
“What’s the point in going out? We’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”—Homer Simpson
The novel is perhaps the most housebound of all art forms. At both ends of its supply chain, there is a fairly strong imperative to stay put. There have always been writers who practice their profession in unusual locations, of course, just as a certain amount of reading is always going to be done on the move—on buses, on trains, on planes. But the literary exchange is, for the most part, a sedentary one. Writers tend to hold up their end of the deal by sitting at a desk and staying there until the book is written; readers tend to hold up theirs by sitting still, book in hand, until it is read. “The novel,” as Martin Amis once observed, “is all about not going out of the house.”
Between these two static real-world points, however, is almost always plotted a line of imaginary action. The form, in other words, tends to deal in stories, in narratives, in plots—which is to say that it concerns itself, by and large, with what happens when people do go out of the house. The great narratives are all about men and women going outside and having things happen to them. Odysseus would probably not have been worth talking about had he stayed in Ithaca pottering about the palace, just as his Twentieth-century reincarnation Leopold Bloom would probably not be nearly so great a character had he stayed put in his house on Eccles Street flipping through old issues of Titbits, admiring the cat, and making sure that no one came around to have sex with his wife. The story of Anna Karenina would have been a less tragic one had she stayed at home in St Petersburg reading novels and playing with young Seryozha, but then it might not have been worth Tolstoy’s time telling it. Even Christ himself would not have made much of an impact on the western imagination had he continued hanging out at his Galilee workshop focusing on his cabinet making.
Aristotle saw both tragedy and comedy as predicated on changes in the fortune of a character (and character was, for Aristotle, subordinate to action). In comedies, stuff happens that leaves characters better off at the end than they were at the beginning; in tragedies, stuff happens that leaves them worse off (often to the point of being dead). Either way stuff has to happen, and for this stuff to happen, the characters have to go out of the house. Pascal’s pensée about all humanity’s problems stemming from “man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” may well be right—or at least might have been before the advent of the Internet—but as practical advice it is of even less use for literature than it is for life.
So the history of narrative fiction is, in a sense, a history of imagined action (poetry, of course, is another thing entirely). But there is a small but fascinating niche within that history, a sort of quiet backstreet in the vast, hustling metropolis of fiction, where nothing ever happens and no one ever goes anywhere. I developed a fascination with these books a couple of years back, when I was a graduate student writing a thesis on the work of the Irish novelist John Banville (himself a writer who could never be accused of excessive plotting). With a couple of Banville’s books, it seemed to me that he was getting away with an omission that would, in the work of most other writers, have been an outright deal-breaker: he was leaving out the plot. Novels like Ghosts and Eclipse struck me as being in some sense Banville’s purest and most honest work because of the way in which they all but did away with the artifice of plot, with the encumbrance of having things happen.
I went through a phase of seeking out books that effected this omission in increasingly extreme ways. It is probably no mere accident that this phase coincided with a period during which I was spending most of my own time at home alone, writing, reading—working or not working or, more often than not, some uneasy compound of both—and generally not going out of the house. My life felt radically plotless, devoid of incident to an almost avant garde extent. So I suppose I identified with shut-ins and hermits and layabouts in a way that I didn’t identify with characters who went out and did things, who became embroiled in plots and events. During this period, I came across a book called Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre, which seems to me to be the ur-text of this sub-genre. It is in fact not a novel at all, but a sort of anti-memoir or non-travelogue. The French aristocrat, military man and occasional author—whose older brother was the reactionary political philosopher Joseph de Maistre—wrote the book in 1790 while he was under house arrest in Turin for dueling. During the forty-two days in which he was confined to his rooms, he occupied himself by writing an idiosyncratic account of his inner life and his immediate surroundings. He begins with the following exhortation which, by managing to be at once relentlessly jocular and obscurely mournful, sets the tone for the rest of this peculiar little book:
Follow me, all you whom humiliation in love or neglect in friendship confines to your apartments, far from the pettiness and treachery of your fellow men. Let all the wretched, the sick, and the bored follow me—let all the lazy people of the world rise en masse;—and you, whose brain is aboil with sinister plans of reform; you, who in your boudoir are contemplating renouncing the world in order to live; gentle anchorites of an evening […] be so good as to accompany me on my voyage, we shall travel by short stages, laughing all along the way at travelers who have seen Rome and Paris.—Nothing shall stop us; and abandoning ourselves gaily to our fancy, we shall follow it wherever it wishes to take us.
It’s difficult, of course, and perhaps even misguided, to separate this strange anti-manifesto from its historical context. De Maistre was a French aristocrat living in Turin, and as he wrote these words his nation was undergoing a radical separation from its monarchist past which, for many members of the social class to which he belonged, entailed the even more radical separation of their heads from their bodies. A huge and violent historical narrative had led him to Turin; a small and violent personal narrative (something to do, I think, with a thwarted love affair that led to the duel) had led him to be placed under house arrest. During the time he was writing this book, his existence amounted to a confinement within an exile, to a compound displacement from the site of activity, of incident. To stay indoors is to ensure that nothing much happens to you. Not going out of the house, voluntarily or otherwise, is a way of forswearing plots of all sorts.
As a kind of real-life patron saint of literary shut-ins—as the brother superior of ‘gentle anchorites’—de Maistre bequeaths a scattered legacy of plotless novels about staying in and not doing things. Perhaps the most celebrated of these is Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov, in which the titular shiftless aristocrat spends much of the book avoiding getting out of his dressing gown and venturing forth from his St. Petersburg apartment. Oblomov’s entire existence is a repudiation of the very idea of activity, a protest against the pointlessness of motion. He is constantly baffled by his friends’ incomprehensible strivings after worldly success, romantic conquest and intellectual abstraction. Such pursuits lead too often to disaster. History itself is a grim repository of evidence for Oblomov’s stance (or, rather, recumbence). Reading history, Goncharov writes, “merely casts you into melancholy. You study and read that in such a year there were calamities and man was unhappy. He gathered all his forces, worked, rooted around, suffered terribly and labored, always preparing for brighter days. Now that they had come, you’d think that history itself would take a break, but no, again clouds gathered, again the edifice collapsed, again there was work and more rooting around. The brighter days didn’t linger, they raced by—and life kept flowing, always flowing, smashing everything as it went.”
Reading Oblomov doesn’t make a life spent in dressing gown and slippers seem appealing; despite his scrupulous avoidance of misery’s apparent causes, Oblomov is not an especially happy guy, and the novel is, as much as anything else, a satire against the shiftless entitlement of the serf-owning aristocracy. But it does make asking “what’s the point of it all?” seem more than just an excuse for apathy. Avoiding living is, of course, a perverse way of avoiding death. If life keeps “flowing, always flowing, smashing everything” as it rushes toward the ocean of death, the desire to scramble for the bank and sit the whole thing out on dry land is understandable, if ultimately self-defeating and futile.
The horrible, intransigent fact of the individual’s inevitable end seems to sit like a stone at the dead centre of many plotless novels. (Malone Dies, in which Malone lies naked in bed, and then dies, is maybe the most explicit example of this, and Beckett’s attraction to Goncharov’s novel is well documented—he occasionally signed his letters to his lover Peggy Guggenheim “Oblomov”). History is either a chaos or a plot, but both end, one way or another, in death. Although he only mentions it once in passing, it is by no means an inconsequential detail that the nameless narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s 1985 novella The Bathroom is a historian. This strange, impassively hilarious book presents the disjointed reflections of a young academic who decides to spend his time hanging out in the bathroom of the Paris flat he shares with his girlfriend. He lolls about in the empty bathtub, smoking cigarettes, listening to soccer matches on the radio, receiving the occasional visitor. He wants a life without movement, it seems, because movement itself is powerfully associated with the forward rushing momentum of time.
Like Oblomov, he wants no part of the world. Looking out his window at one point, he watches people on the street fleeing a heavy rainfall, and imagines it as a “continuous downpour obliterating everything—annihilating everything.” But then he realizes that it not the “movements taking place before my eyes—rain, moving humans and automobiles” that fill him with dread but rather “the passing of time itself.” About a third of the way into the novel, the narrator abruptly and unaccountably leaves his flat and gets on a train to Venice. Once there, he promptly books into a shabby hotel which he then spends much of the remainder of the novella not going out of, essentially substituting a Parisian confinement for a Venetian one. Inactivity is his aim because it is, as he sees it, the ultimate aim of all activity, all movement. The “essential tendency of motion,” he tells us, “however lightning-swift it may appear, is toward immobility,” and “however slow it may sometimes seem, it is continuously drawing bodies toward death, which is immobility. Olé.” This is a bit like a more explicitly philosophical version of Homer Simpson’s questioning why Marge would want to go anywhere when “we’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”
In U and I, his quasi-memoir about his long-standing obsession with John Updike, Nicholson Baker admits to feeling slightly restless as a reader when reaching that point in a novel when the author stops mucking about with description and atmospheric evocation and gets down to the serious business of plot. He takes issue with a remark of Updike’s about writers who “clog” their narratives with description. “The only thing I like are the clogs,” objects Baker, “—and when, late in most novels, there are no more in the pipeline to slow things down, I get that fidgety feeling.” Baker has gone on to make a career out of these bits: his novels are all clog and no narrative. The “plot” of Room Temperature—a great and funny book about not going out of the house—concerns a young father sitting in a rocking chair feeding his infant daughter warm milk from a bottle. Pretty much literally nothing happens; the closest we get to action is when the narrator exhales forcefully in the direction of a paper mobile hanging from the ceiling of the baby’s room, and the paper flutters around for a while. And here’s the thing: there’s not a dull moment in the book. Baker’s brilliance as a writer lies in his ability to make the (apparently) utterly trivial utterly compelling.
The attraction of plotlessness in fiction is less easy to account for than that of plotlessness in life. There is an awful lot to be said for a propulsive narrative—it is, after all, usually what keeps us turning the pages, what keeps us coming back to find out what happens next, how the characters develop, how it will all end. But when a writer manages to cut away all this artifice, leaving us with just the raw pulp of personhood, while still compelling us to read on, it is a fascinating trick to pull off. I don’t have much interest in the pronouncements of dinner party eschatologists like David Shields (the only appropriate reaction to someone announcing the death of the novel is to surreptitiously check your watch and mutter something about having an early start in the morning), but there is something undeniably compelling about a book that can do away with a thing as seemingly crucial as stuff happening.
Plots are mostly necessary. Writers need something for their characters to do, some reason for them to exist; they need some taut thread of narrative along which they can string their bright beads of observation and insight. Characters need to be kept busy so that we as readers don’t get bored with them, just as we as people tend to keep busy so that we don’t get bored with ourselves (and so that we can pay the rent). But as Oblomov asks of both the life of manic activity lived by one friend and the latest work of literary social realism championed by another, “where is the human being in this?” His own story provides an answer, of sorts, to his question. When you stay inside, when you opt out (or are kept out) of narratives and events—when you cease to be a character in a plot—what you are left with is, for better or worse, the person. The human being is right there: lying around in his dressing gown, or in his bathroom, or bottle-feeding his baby, dying alone, reading or writing. Doing whatever it is people do when they don’t go out of the house.
Image credit: Flickr/pinkmoose.