The Book of Evidence

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The Millions Conversation: Mark O’Connell on Viral Celebrity, Internet Weirdness, and the Phenomenon of the Epic Fail

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Last month, The Millions entered the e-book publishing business with Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever. Staff writer Mark O’Connell has hitherto produced delightful work on, among other things, an obscure video game enthusiast named Martin Amis and “the Proust of pencil sharpeners.” In Epic Fail, he traces the origins of viral fame to a pre-Internet age, squiring the reader effortlessly from Shakespeare to the Insane Clown Posse.  Mark was kind enough to correspond with me for a Millions Conversation about his new book and early life as a middle school film critic.

Lydia: You and I are colleagues who have never met but maintain an infrequent friendly chatting over the Twitter and the emails. It’s enough distance that I didn’t know this project was in the works until C. Max Magee’s general announcement to the group, but close enough that upon hearing the news I felt the special kind of chuffed you only feel over a friend’s achievement.  Epic Fail has the distinction of bringing The Millions into a new phase of its existence, as a purveyor of e-books, which is already very exciting. And then I read Epic Fail and felt even more chuffed.  I really enjoyed it.

So now that I’ve buttered you up, I want to ask you about how this endeavor came about.  Was this something you were working as a Millions or other piece that took on a life of its own?  How long have you been thinking about the project? Our own Garth Risk Hallberg was your editor, I believe.  When did he come on board?

Mark: Actually, I have to think quite hard to formulate a coherent answer to the straightforward question of how it came about. Max got in touch early last year, February or March I think, to say that he’d been talking to Byliner about partnering on an e-book series, and to ask whether I had any ideas I thought might work for such a piece. I’d read something somewhere about this Irish schoolteacher called Amanda McKittrick Ros, who’d become widely known around the turn of the 20th century as the worst novelist of all time. I was fascinated not so much by the novels themselves – which are truly atrocious, obviously, but mostly just incredibly dull to read – as by the ironic way they were celebrated by this cultural elite in London and Oxford – C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Aldous Huxley and all those guys. I thought this was really interesting in itself, but also felt that it was a kind of fame or notoriety that we tend to think of as more or less uniquely contemporary. So I thought maybe this eccentric old Irish schoolteacher and amateur novelist might provide sort of a sneaky back door into a discussion of Internet culture, and of the whole ostensibly contemporary phenomenon of the Epic Fail. I’d been thinking about Ros as a possible topic for quite a while, but then this thing, because of the scope and length that the e-book allowed for, forced me to actually try and connect her to some wider and more contemporary cultural currents.

Garth came on board very early on – at the outline stage, in fact. He was really instrumental in helping to broaden it out conceptually in the beginning; and then, when it came to writing the thing, in sharpening actual arguments, and sort of forcing me to come out into the open and say things in a very unequivocal way. Like yourself, I come from an academic background, where things like concision and having a solid “takeaway” are, or are supposed to be, paramount; but I think, constitutionally, I’m the type of writer who only figures out what I’m trying to say – or if indeed I have anything to say at all – by blindly writing my way into it. I’m not naturally a bottom-line type of person who goes in with an argument in mind, is what I think I might be saying here (see?), but Garth really stepped in and sort of forced me to be that when I needed to be.

Lydia: That was what I found most enlightening about the essay — in terms of information I did not have before — that these literary lights of the early twentieth century went into ironic ecstasies over Amanda McKittrick Ros, held readings, formed clubs. I knew that they were elitist dicks (not a value statement) but it’s funny to think that they did something so, I guess, unproductive and time-wastey, as read these awful, awful novels, like looking at lots of YouTube videos (shouldn’t C.S. Lewis have been communing with the Lord?). But then, that’s one takeaway of Epic Fail — the thing with Ros and all the Worst Thing Evers to have followed, is that they either rise into some ethereal, sublime level of badness, or are so unheimlich in their nearness to regular mediocrity (or a combination of both), that it makes them special. (I loved, incidentally, your point about the virulent, absurd badness that actually infects the entirety of literature and art — let’s come back to that.)

I see now there are two untrue things about my first sentence above, the first being that this was the best new information I gleaned from this piece. Because that was actually the song “Miracles,” and also the song “Friday,” which I had in fact made it this far without ever hearing in its entirety. I had sort of willfully not clicked on it, because I kept seeing it everywhere and I guess that was my way of keeping my own ironic distance. So, um, thank you for those things. You do realize you kind of wrote a hypertext book, because you can’t read it and not go digging for, er, miracles, on the internet?

And, truly, the most enlightening thing was learning about Mark O’Connell’s rap phase. Although you’re a tease — first you talk about washing the lemon juice from your face (buy the book, get the reference) and lifting the veil from your readers’ eyes, then you talk about the Irish rap scene, and I was in a fever of anticipation that the next thing coming was the revelation that you had done your own Worst Thing Ever, and that it was a rap, and that possibly there were bootleg tapes about. But it turns out that the secret shame — which was a transcendent bit of prose, incidentally — is actually that you once did something really dickish yourself to an aspiring rapper. A different kind of worst thing ever.

In the beginning of the piece, your compare Cecilia Jimenez, the perpetrator of the Ecce Homo Christ fresco fiasco, to your grandmother, and you invoke the term “mortify” in the Catholic sense. Another Catholic word occurred to me when I got to this last bit of the book: penance. Sorry in advance for sounding like Geraldo, but had this been eating away  Was your ebook, dare I say, an exorcism?

Mark: I can’t believe you’d never actually heard “Friday.” That is hugely impressive to me. Although I can see how you’d want to avoid that stuff, or just never end up actually giving it the time of day. I don’t think I’ve watched more than a few seconds of Gangnam Style, actually (although that’s a whole other cultural ball of wax, obviously).

That’s interesting what you said about it being a kind of hypertext ebook. I don’t think it really occurred to me when I was writing it, which seems completely idiotic now. But then after I finished it, I wrote this essay about unboxing videos for The Dublin Review, and the editor, Brendan Barrington, pointed out that having it on ink and paper actually made a lot of sense, because if it was online, the temptation for the reader — even if the text itself wasn’t full of links — would be to just keep going away from the actual text to watch the videos being discussed. I wound up putting in a perhaps overly-cute footnote asking readers to just bear with me and watch the videos after finishing the essay, rather than whipping out their iPhones there and then. And then a couple of my friends who read Epic Fail said exactly what you’ve just said: that they kept having to put it down to go online and watch the stuff I was writing about. I suppose that would be even more pronounced if you happen to be reading it on an iPad, where you’re just swiping away the text to check out some awful YouTube video. Maybe a major flaw of the book, in that sense, is that it keeps suggesting things to the reader that are more entertaining than itself.

That’s another thing that never occurred to me at all — that a reader might think that the revelation at the end would be that I myself was a Worst Thing Ever. (Although of course I’ve done embarrassing stuff. Just probably nothing that would be entertaining for anyone who didn’t know me.) But it’s an interesting question, about the idea of penance. It’s a concept I don’t really understand. I didn’t have a Catholic upbringing, so maybe it’s a difficult thing to get your head around if it hasn’t been part of your psycho-cultural make-up. Personally, I didn’t feel any kind of relief from writing about the dickishness you mention. It actually just made me feel really awful about it all over again. In that sense, it’s probably the opposite of penance; my writing about it actually exacerbated my guilt about it. I mean, obviously we’re not exactly talking about an Augustinian level of moral self-disburdening here, but I do think that that’s the sort of niggling, more or less banal guilt that a lot of people walk around with, and that makes them wince when they think about it. Some really shabby thing they did when they were a teenager, or whatever.

But to answer your question about whether the book was an exorcism, the answer, I suppose, would be definitely not. Or at least it would be a spectacularly ineffective exorcism, seeing as I felt more possessed by it after writing about it than before. I just felt it would have been dishonest and sort of morally shifty not to talk about myself, and my own personal complicity in this culture of ridicule, in terms of the context I was writing in. Although I’m not convinced there’s not something morally shifty about it anyway. Writing is a morally shifty thing to be doing, a lot of the time.

What would Geraldo say to that?

Lydia: Well, I didn’t imagine you sitting at your carrel in a hair shirt. But I think the thrust of the book does invite everyone to put on at least a moderately hairy shirt and do a bit of reflection. I confess when I did watch “Friday,” and thought uncharitable thoughts, I was brought a bit low by the gallantry, or I guess basic human decency, you extend to Ms. Black. And while I had hitherto missed the “Friday” phenomenon, I had seen, and laughed the proverbial tits off while seeing, monkey Jesus. I found your comparison of Cecilia Jimenez to your own grandmother, your touching description of the latter as “a constitutionally private, reserved, and serious person,” and your remark that “if something like this were to happen to her, I’m afraid it might literally kill her,” sobering. The dicks of the early twentieth century argued, probably on the way home from their Amanda McKittrick Ros fan club meetings, about whether art could be good without a moral component. And I’m stodgy and I feel that’s the case, so what I perceived as a slight bit of moralizing on your part made the piece resonate with me. But since you have a sense of humor, (number-one most desirable quality in a writer), you don’t try to act as though these things aren’t hilariously bad. You just provide a friendly reminder that the road of the Worst Thing Ever in the technological age is one hundred percent of the time going to lead to a YouTube comment saying “I hope you die/get raped/etc.”

I was probably projecting about the rap stuff. In my experience the only thing that approaches the shame of shabby teenage things done is the shame of ludicrous teenage things written. And when I think about “Friday” and then some of the horrible things I wrote in high school or college, I offer a prayer or thanks to the monkey Jesus that I did not have to bear that particular cross at a time in my development when I would have been constitutionally disinclined to survive sustained mockery.

Having managed to turn your interview into my personal feelings time, let’s go back to Epic Fail. You mentioned Gangnam Style, and I thought of that phenomenon while reading. The same way that truly terrible efforts can, as you write, infect the whole of art with their badness, good writing invites the mind to romp. Epic Fail caused me to spend a Saturday afternoon sort of furiously taxonomizing, trying to sort through the spiritual differential of something like the film The Room, or something that seems well-produced and self-consciously zany (and thus, I think, unexciting) like Gangnam Style, or terrible Eurovision-style songs, or Susan Boyle, or the (brilliant) show Arrested Development. It sounds like faint praise to call something “tidy,” but I really admire how you (with Garth’s careful shepherding, it sounds like) avoided getting bogged down in trying to explain the whole landscape of viral fame, and list all the sort of subspecies and things that are not x but are y and so on. Your examples seemed really exemplary, and the whole effort was very clean.

That said, it’s such a vast field of inquiry, with many tributaries (I think I have like 200 metaphors in here so far). Do you feel finished thinking about it? You said in your last response that you feel more possessed by the subject than before. Would you consider a long-long-form on this topic?

Mark: Can I just start by saying that the phrase “laugh the proverbial tits off” is itself a phrase that makes me laugh the proverbial tits off? But, to swiftly resume an attitude of moral seriousness – before no doubt just as swiftly relinquishing it – your point about things you did as a kid in high school is an important one, I think. Because part of what’s so fascinating and troubling about this stuff is the almost complete randomness of it. You get the sense that this kind of viral celebrity could befall almost anyone. (Which is maybe, actually, another way of thinking about what the term “viral” actually means in that formulation.)

We’ve all done stuff to some extent that could make us a source of amusement to a large number of people. I was just thinking the other day of this notebook I used to keep when I was about eleven or so, where I used to write in little reviews of films I’d watched on video. My sister found it in a drawer a few years back, and it had these hilariously po-faced reviews of movies where I’d give star ratings and list cast members and stuff like that. But the combination of wrongness and priggishness was kind of fantastic. Like there was a review of Glengarry Glen Ross (and I’m laughing just thinking about this) where I took grave umbrage at the unnecessary level of swearing in the film – “the characters seem to use f-words instead of punctuation” – and gave it 2 stars, memorably dismissing it as “a waste of an all-star cast.” And then you turn the page and there’s a five star review of Sister Act 2 that is just enraptured with the whole thing. I mean, if I was an 11 year-old kid nowadays, that would probably be a Tumblr or something, and those reviews could have wound up being a source of amusement to a lot of people outside my family, which would be a whole other story. Like that lady who reviewed an Olive Garden for her local paper last year and briefly became the Internet’s woman of the hour. It’s just very weird how randomly that stuff can happen. She seemed fine with it; she ultimately seemed not to give a rat’s ass, but not all octogenarians would be so cool about something like that happening. I kind of love that woman actually. Her whole reaction was basically “What the hell is wrong with you people? Get back to work.”

Yes, I know what you mean about that taxonomizing urge. (If it weren’t too aggressively meta, the whole human species might have been taxonomized as Homo Taxonomiens.) It was definitely a temptation for me, but I don’t think it would have been all that helpful for the reader. Although I do talk at one point about the difference between “organic” or “free-range” epic fails and genetically engineered weirdness like Tim and Eric and that sort of stuff. I don’t know that I’d want to write a whole book on it, because I feel like I’d like to move on to something else, but you never know. I do seem to be preoccupied by Internet weirdness. That unboxing video essay consumed me for a long time – and to be honest the essay became a sort of cover story for indulging that compulsion – and I’ve just finished writing a thing about ASMR videos for Slate. You’re welcome. But who isn’t fascinated by that stuff, really? (The answer to that rhetorical question is actually, no doubt, lots of normal people.)

Lydia:  The juxtaposition of Glengarry Glen Ross and Sister Act 2 in the notebook of Mark O’Connell, aged 11, the toughest critic on the block, is such pure comedy that I think the writers of Arrested Development would really struggle to find something as home-grown and delightful (local, organic, free-range fails, if you will).  All the better because this was probably just before (or concurrent with) the moment when, according to your book, you yourself became hip to the joys of “entertaining ineptitude” and found nothing funnier than the vast distance between ambition and execution.

Which brings me to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a part of your book that I found really fascinating.  Brutally paraphrasing, Science has proven that the more of an idiot you are, the greater your confidence that you aren’t an idiot. It occurs to me that in a sense being a kid is one sustained exercise in Dunning-Krugerism. In fact, arguably to be a proper kid you need those moments of total unselfconscious and total commitment — it’s hateful to think of a child having to posit his or her movie reviews or, ahem, paeans to exotic cats and cars, in some ironic, self-conscious frame. Once you get to middle and high school and college, where there are strange and multifarious forces at work — your teachers try to nurture your better instincts and squelch your worse ones, while you and your peers spend much of your time trying feel one another up whilst putting one another down — slowly you learn to think about your output (artistic or otherwise) in a different way.

In terms or raw artistic ability, the wheat and the chaff alike have to go through this process of maturation. But your A. M. Ros, your Tommy Wiseau (of The Room), somehow come through it all with a really majestic, unshakable belief in their own ability that certainly exceeds that of people who really make great art. (When I read Epic Fail I was in the middle of re-reading Of Human Bondage — have you read it? — which has a whole section on artistic toils. Everything synced together beautifully at the moment when Philip the protagonist asks a professional painter to look over his work and give an opinion: “Don’t you know if you have talent?” the painter asks, and Philip says, “All my friends know they have talent, but I am aware some of them are mistaken.”)

Okay, so you don’t want to write a book about YouTube comments.  I will forgive you. But according to your bio in Epic Fail you have a book on the horizon — about John Banville? Please to explain.

Mark: I have read it, but it was years ago. Actually, it was one of the first bits of “proper/serious” literature I ever really connected with – as in it wasn’t about dragons or aliens or what have you. I don’t remember all that much about it, but I do remember the business with the club foot, and that Mildred girl being a total bitch. (Am I somehow wrong in remembering it this way?) (Ed.: No.) I do remember being really impressed with myself for finishing it, though. I should probably read it again, through not-15-year-old eyes. I almost certainly didn’t get it at all. But yeah, the Dunning-Krueger effect is a good one, isn’t it? The ironic thing about it, of course, is how primed for misuse it seems to be. The last people who would ever see it applying to themselves are probably the people most affected by it. It’s a usefully scientific-seeming way of explaining why other people are such idiots. Why “The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”, as Yeats put (it in a context so different as to make even bringing it up here wildly inappropriate). I do think most writers – most people, really – could probably do with a touch of the William McGonagall or Amanda McKittrick Ros or Tommy Wiseau unshakable self-belief. If you could somehow combine that with actual talent, you could do a very brisk artistic trade. That’s possibly some kind of formula for genius: major talent combined with the self-belief that’s more often associated with talentlessness.

I do have a book on Banville on the horizon. Last I heard it’s due to come out in July or thereabouts. It’s based on my PhD thesis, which I finished a couple of years ago now. It looks at Banville’s novels from the point of view of various psychoanalytic understandings of what narcissism means. It sounds quite narrow, but narcissism is so variously and broadly interpreted by theorists from Freud onwards that it’s actually become almost like a kind of synonym for psychoanalysis itself. Even though it contains no quips about Trapped in the Closet, it will nonetheless be tremendous fun to read, I assure you.

Lydia: Well, two things are clear. Number one, I must pray for “major talent combined with the self-belief that’s more often associated with talentlessness.” Number two, I must read John Banville.

Mark, I can’t thank you enough for chatting with me about yourself and your wonderful book. Any parting thoughts or, better yet, YouTube videos?

Mark: It’s unacceptable that you haven’t read Banville. That needs to be redressed straight away. Unfortunately none of his books are set in Turkey, but there are parts of The Book of Evidence and Shroud that are set in a kind of warped version of San Francisco, if that’s any good to you.

Thanks for the back-and-forth, Lydia. It was a lot of fun. Like a proper old-fashioned epistolary set-up. Plus this whole thing has been a textbook example of vertical integration, when you think about it.

Lydia: I hate that I just had to google vertical integration, but am also grateful to now know what that means. Ye olde one-stoppe shoppe, that’s us.

Double Take: A Momentary Encounter With a Murderer and his Fictional Likeness

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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.

Staff Pick: Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

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Here, in its entirety, is the “plot” of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style: On a crowded Paris bus at around midday, the unnamed narrator observes a young man taking an older gentleman to task for deliberately pushing him and stepping on his feet. Then a vacant seat appears, and the young man rushes to occupy it, thus bringing the confrontation to an abrupt end. About an hour later, the narrator happens to pass the same young man as he is standing in front of the Gare St-Lazare, being informed by a friend that he ought to have another button sewn onto his coat.

That’s it. Literally nothing else happens in the book. And it’s not as though Queneau spins this dull succession of non-events into some kind of mock epic, or crams his narrative so full of detail and description that it metastasizes into the sort of exploded view of the insignificant that Nicholson Baker trafficked in with his early fiction. By the end of the first page, you have learned everything you are ever going to know about the events on which the book focuses. What Queneau does do, however, is re-narrate this same scenario a further 98 times, in a series of distinct styles. The book is like a sequence of false starts, as though its author were attempting to begin a novel with no sense of the tone or attitude he wants to strike, and so becomes trapped in a comic holding pattern of writing and rewriting. Each of the 99 sections is given a simple and utilitarian title — “Notation,” “Hesitation,” “Precision,” “Official Letter,” “Insistence,” “Comedy,” “Philosophic,” and so on. From this at once laughably and ingeniously simple premise results one of the great high-concept show-off acts of twentieth century fiction.

It’s laughable because this is, obviously, no sensible way to go about writing a book. It’s an amusing idea that you would imagine might be best left as merely that, as the kind of droll “how-about-this” notion that might be floated to other writers well into the home stretch of a night’s drinking. It’s good for a chuckle, certainly, but not something you would really want to sit down and actually knock out a book on. What’s ingenious, though, is how Queneau actually manages to transcend his own absurd restrictions by remaining punctiliously within them at all times. By being so staunchly committed to its shallowness, in other words, the book somehow contrives to seem kind of profound. (It’s very much one of those books, by the way, that steers you away from words like “novel” and “fiction” toward more generically non-committal terms like “composition” and “work” and — may God forgive me — “text”).

The only way to read Exercises in Style is to just gird your loins and do it in one sitting; otherwise, its pleasures and frustrations are in danger of getting spread too thin. It should be experienced, I think, as the overwhelming imposition on the reader’s good will and patience it was surely intended to be. It also has a powerfully cumulative effect that requires compression in time in order to be fully felt, and it benefits from a mounting sense of absurdity that would be lost if you were to just pick it up intermittently. (I’ve read it both ways, I should say, and I’m convinced the single-sitter is the only way to go. Its neatly partitioned structure and its utter lack of plot or character might suggest otherwise, but don’t be fooled. It can also comfortably be read in a couple of hours.) Much of the joy of reading it, which is also a kind of exasperation, is in wondering what he’s going to do next and whether he’s going to be able to pull it off.

To give a sense of what Queneau is up to here, it’s worth providing a few examples of the way he goes about it. This is how the section headed “Surprises” begins: “How tightly packed in we were on that bus platform! And how stupid and ridiculous that young man looked!” And this is from “Homeoteleuton”: “On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at a great rate, late, had to accommodate an ornate, tracheate celibate, who started to altercate with a proximate inmate, and ejaculate: ‘Oi, mate!’” The “Official Letter” section relates the entire incident as though it were the subject of a formal complaint to an office of some or other bureaucratic body: “I beg to advise you of the following facts of which I happened to be the equally impartial and horrified witness. Today, at roughly twelve noon, I was present on the platform of a bus…” One of my favorite exercises is entitled “Blurb.” It’s not just that it’s funny; it’s also one of the purest examples of metafictional effrontery I’ve ever come across. It’s good enough and brief enough to warrant quoting in full:
In this new novel, executed with his accustomed brio, the famous novelist X, to whom we are already indebted for so many masterpieces, has decided to confine himself to very clear-cut characters who act in an atmosphere which everybody, both adults and children, can understand. The plot revolves, then, round the meeting on a bus of the hero of this story and of a rather enigmatic character who picks a quarrel with the first person he meets. In the final episode we see this mysterious individual listening with the greatest attention to the advice of a friend, a past master of sartorial art. The whole makes a charming impression which the novelist X has etched with rare felicity.
Queneau’s stochastic method might put you in mind of one of those invariably lame improvisational comedy setups whereby a performer has to switch registers according to an audience’s shouted commands — delivering, say, a funeral eulogy first as infomercial sales patter, then as rap-battle braggadocio, then as bawdy Elizabethan comedy. And the book is, in an obvious sense, pure play, sheer diversion. Its effect is subtly paradoxical, like a less harrowing version of Chatroulette: you can be pretty sure what you’re going to get when you turn the page, but you have no idea in what form to expect it. A maximal level of monotony integrated, in other words, with a maximal level of variety. By turns frustrated and delighted with Queneau’s exploration of the limitless possibilities of limitation, I was reminded of a particularly memorable passage about the mathematics of tennis in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Schtitt, the quasi-mystic coach at Enfield Tennis Academy, is said to understand the sport as not a matter of reduction to pattern and order, but as one of “expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth,” as a “diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent.” Like tennis in Schtitt’s (and Wallace’s) understanding of it, Queneau’s literary game is all about the way in which an infinity of things can happen inside a finite and tightly delineated space.

The book feels as though it could have been published last year, despite the occasional archaisms of Barbara Wright’s 1958 English translation (which, given the presumably immense difficulties of translating such a self-conscious piece of writing, is itself a work of playfully restricted art). The barefaced cheek of its linguistic divertissements seems to anticipate the simultaneously nifty and irritating textual gimmickry of some of Jonathan Safran Foer’s work. There’s “Pig Latin” (“Unway ayday aboutyay iddaymay anyay essyay usbay Iyay oticednay ayay oungyay anmay…”), there’s “Spoonerisms” (“One May, about didday, on the bear fatborm of a plus…”), and there’s a whole sequence of “Permutations” by groups of words and letters of increasing numbers (don’t even ask). Exercises in Style was first published in French in 1947, and so it slightly predates the Nouveau Roman. It also precedes the formation of the Oulipo group — of which Queneau was a co-founder and which numbered Georges Perec and Italo Calvino among its members — even though, with its linguistic games and its creative restrictions, it is often seen as one of the movement’s exemplary works. The closest thing I can think of to an immediate predecessor is Chapter 14 of Ulysses, the “Oxen of the Sun Episode” set in the National Maternity Hospital, which is narrated in a progression of historically advancing styles, from the birth of language, through Old and Middle English, the language of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, right through to early 20th Century Dublin slang. The effect is quite different, however, because Joyce’s stylistic ventriloquisms are in the service of the substantial theme of gestation and birth. Queneau’s substantial theme, on the other hand, is style itself.

Though it seems the slightest kind of literature imaginable, Exercises in Style in fact places a very heavy weight of significance on its seemingly inconsequential diversions. “On the surface,” as John Banville puts it in The Book of Evidence, “that is where there is depth.” Queneau’s book seems all surface; it appears, as it were, to be all stylistic mouth and no narrative trousers. But it makes, or implies, some radical claims about the relationship between form and content, not least that the former isn’t simply a vehicle for the latter, but rather the way in which it is constituted. It is not so much an exercise in the privileging of style over substance, in other words, as an argument for the consubstantiality of the two. Just as in Kantian epistemology there is no separating the act of perception from the thing perceived, what we see through Queneau’s linguistic kaleidoscope is that there is no isolating the thing expressed from the mode of expression. Or, to put it another way — which the book exhaustively establishes as something one can always do — the ediummay is the essagemay (if you’ll orgivefay the iticralcray ichéclay).

Working on John Banville: My Awkward Relationship with My Subject

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My relationship with John Banville is a strange and unnatural one. In some odd sense I can’t quite identify, I often think that it might even be an unseemly one. A few months back, I finished a Ph.D., having written my thesis on Banville’s fiction. It took me about four years to complete, which means that over that period—at a rough calculation along the lines of a 42 hour working week and a 50 week working year—I spent something in the region of 8,400 hours engaged in activities that were directly Banville-related. 8,400 hours: that’s basically the equivalent of an entire calendar year spent reading his novels, thinking about them, reading and thinking about other academics’ opinions of them, formulating my own opinions, and thinking of clever things to write based on them. There’s nothing remarkable, of course, about a person spending a non-trivial portion of his or her life writing a doctoral thesis about the work of a single writer (university English departments are full of such misfits) but it is presumably fairly unusual for a person to spend four years writing a doctoral thesis on the work of someone who is not only still living and writing, but doing so within a couple of minutes’ walk from where that thesis is being written.

Dublin is a fairly small city. While I was working on my thesis in Trinity College, it wasn’t unusual for me to leave the library to go for a sandwich somewhere and to pass Banville on the street. It happened more than once that I would be having lunch and he would enter the restaurant and sit down a couple of tables away, or walk past the window with his fedora, his large and quaintly flamboyant scarf, and his mysterious canvas carrier bag. (Containing what? Groceries? Surely not. Books, most likely, but then why would Banville be carrying around books? Where would he be taking them, and to whom?) When this happened, I would usually nod casually and discretely in his direction and say to my lunch companion something like “there goes the boss man,” or “there’s the gaffer now.” It amused me, for some reason, to think of myself as a low-level functionary, labouring away obscurely for years, scrutinizing texts and producing a complex 100,000 word response unlikely to be read by more than a tiny handful of specialists, as though this were a service for which I had been engaged by an eminent and enigmatic novelist.

I had also convinced myself that it amused me to be utterly unknown to Banville, and yet to be spending my working days doing nothing but thinking about his novels. But I’m not sure it really did amuse me. I think it felt a little indecorous; even, perhaps, a little shameful. I sometimes joked about feeling a bit like a stalker, but I wasn’t always entirely sure that I was joking.

It wouldn’t have felt so strange to be writing a thesis about the work of Bellow or Dickinson or Joyce or Woolf, because these are no longer men and women, as such, but historical figures, Great Writers, bodies of work to be read and thought about and, if you’re so inclined, interpreted. Even, as we say in the lit-crit racket, “working on” a living writer like, say, Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo would not carry with it this faint but indelible stain of unseemliness, because these people are remote, semi-legendary figures, securely encased in their reputations and, more importantly, their foreignness. Even if I lived in Manhattan and were writing a thesis on Thomas Pynchon, I would be unlikely to find myself standing behind him in the queue for the ATM (and even if I did, it is highly unlikely that I would realize it).

But while I was working on him, Banville was everywhere. My period of postgraduate research coincided with his ascension to a level of fame and visibility he hadn’t previously inhabited (not long before I started writing my thesis, he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea). He was giving readings from as-yet-unpublished novels across the square from the library where I was writing about his published ones. He was curating exhibitions of eighteenth century etchings in galleries on the other side of town. He was getting into public squabbles with crime novelists for writing a highly successful series of mysteries under a pseudonym and bragging about how easy he found it (Banville has always seemed to enjoy mixing it up). At one point, presumably undergoing a particularly severe bout of inter-project restiveness, he was even embroiled in a weirdly out-of-character controversy over vivisection at the School of Medicine at Trinity. The spat became a minor news story, culminating in J.M. Coetzee’s weighing in on his behalf in the letters pages of The Irish Times, and involved his taking part in a small but vocal protest by animal rights campaigners outside the college, which I had to pass one day on my way to the library. Surely Richard Ellmann never had to pass Joyce on a picket line; surely Boswell was never called a scab by Dr. Johnson? (Nobody called me a scab, I should clarify—and neither am I seriously comparing myself to Boswell or Ellmann, or Banville to Johnson or Joyce—but the image is an amusing one, so I’ll let it stand).

For four years, the question I was inevitably asked by anyone who happened to express an interest in what I was doing with my life was this one: “Have you met Banville yet?” It’s a question I got slicker at answering the more I was asked it, until it became a sort of automated response. It was always some minor variation on the following basic template: “No,” I would say, “I haven’t. In fact, I’ve sort of been avoiding him. I’ve been in the same room as him quite a few times, at readings and that kind of thing. I’ve passed him on the street Christ knows how many times—Dublin is a small town, after all—but I’ve never felt inclined to speak to him, to introduce myself. To be honest, I don’t think it would do me or my work any good. I don’t think a critic should have too close a relationship with the writer he’s writing about, or better still any relationship at all. Why would Banville’s opinion of my opinion about his work have any bearing on those opinions, when you think about it? It’s not about what he thinks of me, it’s about what I think of him. Interviewing him would just compromise the integrity of my work.”

This last phrase I always delivered in an ironic, jocular staccato, as though acknowledging the pretentiousness of such a notion, as though highlighting the absurdity of the idea of my work having anything like integrity (I have this highly irritating habit of being dismissive of my own endeavours, and then immediately feeling as though I’ve slighted myself unforgivably). Like a lot of things we say to people, I suppose I both believed this and disbelieved it at the same time. Ambivalence was always the dominant affect of my thesis-writing years.

Behind the jokes about stalking Banville lay a real discomfort with the fact that I was spending so much time thinking about him and writing about him—or thinking about his fiction, at least, which may or may not amount to the same thing. He is, I think, a fascinating novelist, and among the more important presences in contemporary literature, and so it makes perfect sense for there to be a considered academic response to his work (there’s loads of it, by the way, which, given his stature and his prolificacy and the finely-textured allusiveness of his writing, isn’t surprising). It also makes sense that I, as a scholar in the early stages of my career, should choose Banville as the subject of my apprentice work, because I am provoked and perplexed by it in intellectually productive ways and, even now, after all the time I’ve spent with it, still derive real pleasure from reading it. He is, I think, a great writer, and may even turn out to be a Great Writer. But he is also just a guy, and this is something that his physical proximity to me—the fact that I kept passing him on the street—made very difficult to ignore. I often asked myself what it might feel like to know that, somewhere in your city, a person with whom you are entirely unacquainted is spending his days writing a psychoanalytic examination of your life’s work. I was eking out an existence for myself—you couldn’t quite call it a living—through government-funded scholarships that were contingent upon the value to society, however hypothetical, of my interpretation of Banville’s fiction. I did occasionally have an unpleasant image of myself as a parasite living off a large animal who was innocent of my unobtrusively, harmlessly blood-sucking presence. You can have a certain image of yourself and then reject it, but you’ve still had that image: it has come from somewhere. I would have been a lot less uncomfortable had I been working on someone who was dead. (The morticianary insinuations of that sentence were not intended, but they are discomfitingly apt. It is only now, in fact—as in right this second—that I finally fully get Banville’s biographer-as-embalmer joke in The Newton Letter.)

Strangely, when I did finally end up sitting down and having a conversation with him just a couple of months ago, his first reaction to my telling him that I had written my thesis on his work was to apologize for not being dead. I laughed, but made no comment on the spooky perceptiveness of his joke.

“You must absolutely despise me,” he said. I told him—truthfully—that I had somehow managed not to. What I didn’t tell him was that he had often, indirectly at least, given me occasion to despise myself. The awkward ambivalence of my psychological relationship with him, though, was not something I thought it wise to bring up over mini salmon vol-au-vents and room temperature white wine. I had not planned the meeting; in fact, I had had no idea that it would be happening until a couple of hours beforehand. I had received an email from my former Ph.D. supervisor, who had himself just received an email requesting, as a matter of extreme urgency, that someone—anyone—volunteer themselves to conduct a public interview with Banville that evening in a lecture hall in University College Dublin. He was due to receive an honorary lifetime membership of the university’s Law Society that evening, and whoever had initially been scheduled to handle the interview aspect of the proceedings had to cancel at the last minute, and they were now desperately looking for someone who could pull it off at short notice. I wasn’t sure that I was necessarily their guy but, deliberately denying myself any time to think about it, I rang the number anyway, and two hours later I was sitting in the UCD staff bar with the boss man, making small talk. (Against all reasonable expectations, Banville is really very good at small talk.)

While acknowledging that he would be unlikely to conceive of it in the same way, I had always imagined our eventual meeting would be a kind of lower-intensity literary version of that café sit-down scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, in which Pacino and De Niro appear on screen together for the first time. (In moments of greater clarity I understood that, at best, it would be an episode of Inside The Actor’s Studio, with me as a less polished and fulsome James Lipton). The way it panned out, though, not even I could fool myself into sensing any kind of frisson of tension or significance. Banville appeared not to have any particular interest in the topic of my thesis—or at least if he did, he managed not to betray it by asking me any questions on the matter. I was both slightly disappointed and slightly relieved by this. The thesis was entitled “Narcissism in the Fiction of John Banville”, and so there was always the slight but non-negligible possibility that he might understand the whole project to be a long-winded and tortuous accusation of self-obsession and vanity on his part. Even if he didn’t take it personally, there was a chance—far less slight and non-negligible—that he would consider the whole approach facile or wrong-headed or obtuse or in some other way completely beside the point. I had absolute confidence in my work, but—as paradoxical as this might sound (and probably is)—less than absolute confidence in my ability to maintain that confidence in the face of any degree of criticism or dismissal from of its subject. Now that I think about it, it’s likely that Banville had similar reasons for not asking me about it.

Apropos the issue of my spending (give or take) four years reading, thinking about and writing about his writing, he mentioned having interviewed Salman Rushdie for the New York Review of Books in about 1993, at the very height of the fatwa. He spent two full days transcribing their taped conversations. By the time he had finished, he said, he was consumed by an intense hatred of both Rushdie and himself. So he could, he assured me, imagine how I must feel about him after four years.

I chuckled drily and, I hoped, urbanely. It struck me that having a conversation with the man amounted to having Banville on tap. All I had to do was make a comment or ask a question and, as though I’d popped a coin in a vending machine, it would provoke an emanation from the same source that produced The Book of Evidence, Doctor Copernicus and Shroud. I felt an unaccountable, giddy compulsion to start pointing to things and people and demanding that he describe them. How would you characterize the taste of these vol-au-vents, Mr Banville?; or See that elderly man over there at the bar? Let’s have an adjective for him; or What would you say if I asked you to describe this wine? This was, after all, someone who has described the taste of gin more frequently and more variously and more vividly than probably any other novelist in history—gin, with its “silver-sweet fumes” (Eclipse), and its “cold and insidious and subtly discomposing” taste with “the faintest tinct of paraffin-blue in its depths” (The Infinities).

At this point the undergraduate from the university’s Law Society who had introduced us—and who seemed to be the main organizer of the event—had excused himself to go and check on the turnout in the lecture hall. Banville had just finished his own wine and was wondering aloud, presumably rhetorically, whether he might get away with swiping the untouched glass the Law Society guy had left behind. I gave him my blessing, though he seemed not to require it.

A large grey-bearded man with a German accent sidled up to our table and shook hands with Banville. He congratulated him on what he called his “apotheosis”—presumably he meant the lifetime membership of the Law Society—and handed over a pile of about five or six first editions and foreign translations, which Banville dutifully signed. (The man offered him a biro, but he declined, withdrawing from an inner pocket of his jacket a gracefully gold-trimmed Mont Blanc. This glamorous implement now unsheathed, the mere idea of Banville ever writing with anything else was instantly relegated to the category of the preposterous.) I thought how strange it was that the man had used this word, “apotheosis,” so enduringly associated as it was, for me, with Banville’s writing. I had, in fact, written something in my thesis about his repeated use of it.[1] I wondered, briefly, whether the man could be making some kind of sly allusion here, but then checked this flight of obsessive fancy, realizing how unlikely it was that he would be as wonkishly preoccupied as I was with Banville’s fondness for a particular word, and what it might mean in the context of his work as a whole.

The conversation turned again, somehow, to the topic of death, specifically that of Banville’s death. We spoke briefly of the difficulties future biographers and scholars would come up against now that no one, not even novelists, wrote letters any more. He pointed out that emails were probably more useful from a future scholarship point of view, given that they were all automatically archived and organized and searchable, to which I countered that that was all well and good if you had the password. He conceded that this was a fair point, and suggested that if I played my cards right he might think to pass on his login details to me before he died. I said that I would be honored. The idea of Banville having anything as vulgar as login details, however, seemed as strangely implausible as Nabokov owning a pickup truck—he is that kind of writer. Did he use instant messaging, I wondered? (It was an odd thought, but it was not inconceivable. A few years ago, I interviewed the philosopher Peter Singer for a magazine, and he still occasionally pops up on Google Chat, an occurrence which gives rise to all kinds of inane impulses.) I speculated idly on whether Banville’s password might be something like “@pose0s1s” or, maybe, “banvillenobel2016.” Was he a Gmail man, I wondered? Probably not. Outlook Express, if anything.

The interview was less of an ordeal than I had imagined it might be. On our way down to the lecture theatre I had told him that I had agreed to it only a couple of hours previously, that I was as a consequence grossly underprepared and that he would therefore have to do a lot of the heavy lifting himself, and he had patted my arm lightly and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m a raddled old whore at this stage.” My questions seemed to me to shift from the bafflingly gnomic to the recklessly long-winded without ever occupying any intervening sweet spot of coherence and concision but, true to his word, he responded to them with an eloquence that, retrospectively, made those questions appear shrewd. Afterwards, there was a flurry of book-signings and hand-shakings, through which I stood awkwardly off to one side. There was some kind of official photograph that needed to be taken, and I allowed myself to be hustled into the shot, and then that was pretty much it for the evening.

As we walked toward the exit, Banville asked me whether I needed a lift home. I had not anticipated this; had I foreseen it as a possibility, I might well have taken the bus there instead of driving. I told him that I had my car—I think I may even, moronically, have produced my keys and held them aloft, as though some kind of proof of my having driven might be required—but almost immediately regretted doing so. It would, I thought, have been worth the trouble of getting the bus back the following morning to collect my car, had it meant getting a lift home with Banville. I found myself wishing, suddenly, to know what kind of car he drove and, above all, what kind of driver he was. Would he handle his car like he did his prose, with supreme confidence and restraint, changing lanes with suave precision, overtaking with brisk wit and style? Or would he be ill at ease behind the wheel, as I imagined his protagonists would be, constantly wrong-footed by the stubborn actuality of traffic lights and lane-mergers, the boorish incursions of other motorists? I remembered a bit in Martin Amis’s The Information about the comparative driving skills of poets and novelists. The (almost certainly spurious) jist was that Novelists are generally decent drivers, while poets don’t drive, or at least shouldn’t: “Never trust a poet who can drive. Never trust a poet at the wheel. If he can drive, distrust the poems.” And then I remembered Banville’s tendency to make grandiose-sounding claims in interviews about his aspirations of forging some sort of formal synthesis of poetry and the novel. Would he drive, I wondered, like a poet or a novelist? Would I gain some oblique insight into his mind, into his philosophical stance toward the world, by observing him negotiate the M50 and the Red Cow roundabout (that black comedy of infrastructural errors in which thousands of Dubliners play a daily role)? What would we chat about? How would he respond to questions as to fuel consumption, reliability, general performance? What radio stations, if any, would be preset on his car stereo? Would he have a SatNav, or one of those hands-free Bluetooth earpiece setups for his phone? I would now probably never know the answers to these questions. But perhaps that’s not such a terrible thing.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I successfully convinced a publisher that my thesis was worth the time and money it would cost them to publish. So I’ll be spending a further few months on Banville-related activities, hacking and thrashing the thing into a book-like shape; and then, if I’m lucky, my first monograph will afford me some sort of reputation as an academic, as, specifically, a Banville scholar. And these would all be great things, things that might—I permit myself to hope—even lead to that greatest of great things, an actual full-time job. In the meantime, I’ll just have to get over my discomfort with what seems to me to be the rank presumption of regarding oneself as an “expert” on the work of someone who is still living and writing and (who knows?) possibly using a hands-free Bluetooth earpiece while driving.

Eventually, I’ll have to come up with another topic on which to position myself as an expert. In my cockier moments, I sometimes fancy my chances with Nabokov. I would, of course, imagine him being utterly dismissive of whatever reading of his work I might decide to argue for. But that wouldn’t matter very much, because he is safely, unapproachably dead, and therefore reassuringly unlikely to sit down at the next table in a café, or offer me a lift home. I think it would be an easier relationship.

Back | 1. In a section dealing with the novel Shroud, I find that I wrote the following: “‘Apotheosis’, in its associations with ideas of self-perfection and deification, is a key term in Banville’s later work. The narcissistic content of the word as he tends to use it is connected to the notion of the self as a work of art.”

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