Universidad Complutense de Madrid | Published: 15 March, 2007
ISSUE 2 | Pages: 44-56 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2007-2569
2007 by Andrzej Gabiński | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
The present paper analyses the way in which Colum McCann’s novel Songdogs (1995) constitutes an attempt at reconstructing and reconciling oneself with the past, a theme that a number of contemporary critics perceive as characteristic of the Irish literary experience. It will be argued that via the novel’s non-linear, fragmented narrative structure, on the one hand, and its frequent use of static images reminiscent of photography on the other, McCann engages the concept of memory and translates its founding functional principles into a personal literary technique. The task of recovering significance from distinct media – be it still images or the novel’s texture – will be construed as operating on two levels. The novel’s mixed plot lines constructed out of apparently unrelated clusters of images and the reader’s efforts at organising them into larger meaningful compositions will be understood as parallel to the protagonist’s attempts at forging all the stories embedded in Songdogs into a master narrative of his family’s history.
El presente ensayo analiza la manera en la que la novela de Colum McCann Songdogs (1995) constituye una tentativa de reconstruir y reconciliarse con el pasado, un tema considerado por un gran número de críticos contemporáneos como característico de la experiencia literaria irlandesa. Se propondrá que la estructura no-lineal de la narrativa por un lado y su uso frecuente de imágenes estáticas reminiscentes de la fotografía por el otro le permiten a McCann adentrarse en el concepto de la memoria y traducir sus principios funcionales en una técnica literaria personal. La tarea de recuperar significados de distintos medios – sean imágenes fijas o la textura de la novela – se observará en dos niveles distintos. Los varios argumentos, construidos a partir de grupos de imágenes aparentemente independientes, y los esfuerzos por parte del lector para organizarlos en unidades significativas más grandes serán paralelos a los intentos del protagonista de aunar todas las historias incluidas en Songdogs en una narración completa de su historia familiar.
Memoria; Reconstrucción; Fotografía; Mirada; Literatura Irlandesa contemporánea
One of the major difficulties anyone interested in investigating contemporary Irish literature encounters is the ephemeral, undefined status of that literature; on the one hand, Ireland has undoubtedly produced fine and by now well-recognised authors whose names can be found in any literary encyclopaedia, but, on the other hand, these texts somehow fail to give account of recent Irish literature as a coherent and structured phenomenon. Looking through some of the volumes devoted to literary history, both world and European, one cannot fail to notice an absence – it appears that Irish literature is a series of particular figures, Joyce, Heaney, McCourt or O’Brien, to name just a few, who produce, or have produced, exceptional literary works that are, nevertheless, suspended in a contextual void. Rather than forming a continuum that would emphasize structural, linguistic or thematic similarities and respective influences, recent Irish literature is summarized by a handful of names and titles. In a lecture on contemporary Irish fiction delivered at the Irish Writers’ Centre, Derek Hand asserts that: “Contemporary writers are thus disconnected from a literary tradition and have no points of reference or models that they can look to for guidance”, and emphasises how numerous critics argue an almost palpable tension existent within that literature between the somehow discarded, remote and inaccessible past and the novel present obliged to affirm its novelty exactly by disconnecting itself from its possible traditions1 That tension, the critics maintain, is a pre-requisite for any contemporary writer to engage seriously in Irish literature.
Hand opposes to such a drastic rejection of Irish literary traditions and, instead, proposes a different understanding of the relation between present and past. Following Fintan O’Toole, Hand underlines the connection between the two temporal realities and the importance of their eventual reconciliation. He writes:
The best Irish writing over the last 200 years concerns itself with trying to make connections between the past and the present in order that a more fruitful future can be imagined. And indeed, the same – I would argue – is true of the best Irish fiction in the present moment.
The above observation is certainly true when considering the writing of Colum McCann2 , a contemporary Irish writer, whose novel Songdogs (1995) the present paper will analyse. It will be argued that the novel’s fragmented structure and its three parallel plotlines reflect the tension between past and present commented upon above; the simultaneous development of the three stories will be considered as an attempt to establish a continuity between the two opposing temporal realities in order to re-construct the complete history of a mixed-blood, Mexican-Irish family.
The novel will also be argued to dramatise a re-encounter between past and present on a more personal level, between its protagonist and his elderly father, two personae that need to confront their past in order to give some significance to the vague, fluctuating and almost phantasmal present they live in. The analysis will pay particular attention to the novel’s imagery, its insistence on visual elements within its textual body and the author’s use of static, photographic scenes rather than swift narrative developments. In the course of the discussion the concept of the gaze as understood in psychoanalytical criticism will be employed in order to provide both a clearer understanding of the act of visual recreation of meaning and a deeper insight into the tensions present between the novel’s characters. Finally, the discussion will consider the concepts of history and memory in order to argue their infinitely subjective status within the novel; both will be perceived as highly private notions whose content and signification, contrary to traditional considerations, are actively constructed on a personal level.
I. How does a plot resemble a photo album?
As has been pointed out above, McCann’s Songdogs includes three plot lines that, although simultaneous in their development, constitute three distinct stories: the first one is that of the narrator’s homecoming and his painful re-encounter with his father; it encompasses seven days and constitutes the novel’s temporal super-structure. The second story resembles a fragmented biographical narrative – it reconstructs the life of the narrator’s father, Michael, until the present day where it inevitably blends in with the first, surface plot line. Thirdly, the novel also discloses some of the moments from the protagonist’s life prior to the homecoming (this plot-line is the most fragmented and least complete) –incidentally the third plot-line also eventually coincides with the original plot-line, which in a sense, apart from functioning as the surface narrative that at particular moments triggers off the immersion into one of the two sub plot-lines, might be considered in terms of a caesura– its resolution also terminates the other two plot-lines.
McCann’s novel is a continuous interplay of flash-forwards and flashbacks, and the intention of this paper is to focus on the writer’s technique of moving from one fictitious reality into another. The element that somehow allows for the three plot-lines to remain closely inter-connected is the figure of the father or, to be more precise, the photos he took throughout life, photos that serve as both a testimony of his voyages and miseries, and a structural component that effectively binds the three narratives present within the novel. Although all the seven chapters (corresponding to the seven days the protagonist spends with his father in his hometown of Mayo, a rural community in North-West Ireland) of Songdogs begin on the level of the surface narrative, each section of the book contains numerous flashbacks into one of the remaining plot-lines and it is noteworthy to observe that these reminiscences are usually activated by images, highly visual sections and static descriptions of persons, places or sensations:
… I would go downtown to buy flagons of hard cider, then return … to clean the names of the two Protestant ladies underneath their explosion of cerise wildflowers.
He was almost twenty-one when he stood in a Fascist camp and watched great white loaves of bread showering down on Madrid … (McCann 1995: 17, layout original)
… he would have frozen down there otherwise, the length of time I knew it was going to take him to make that fly, with all its colours, all its trapped motion.
Bus stations are among the saddest places in America. Everyone looking for a way out. Slinking around. Looking for lost children. Keeping eyes glued on nothing in particular, waiting for life to happen. (McCann 1995: 130, layout original).
The shifts from one plot line to another are usually rapid and unannounced; one section (from any of the three narratives) finishes and immediately another section (from a different narrative) begins without any transition whatsoever. With but a few exceptions, McCann is consistent in employing static images as intersection points between the narratives throughout the novel; one reason for such a structuring might be the relatively limited action that takes place within each of the plot-lines – apart from sections from the father’s pseudo-biographic narrative, which in some respects resembles a road novel3 , Songdogs does not include movement, mobility or rapid changes of narrative pace. Rather, its semantic significance, which will be commented upon in the following section, favours a more slowly measured and slowly unfolding development that the technique of employing still images certainly favours.
The status of static descriptions within the novel’s structure – as pivotal points that allow the narratives to overlap – is paired with their profound semantic significance that offers another possible explanation for the particular composition of Songdogs. As has been pointed out above, the protagonist’s father is a photographer who has been restlessly portraying his entire life, the places he has visited, the people he has met, the human miseries and joys he has witnessed, on Polaroid paper. At one point in the novel, while recalling his own past in the mountains of Wyoming, the narrator confesses: “I trudged home under the blanket-black night … took out my photo album, flicked through it. It had become a habit of mine, looking at the album” (McCann 1995: 135). Although the protagonistrefers to the album as his it is evident that the photos included in it are also some of his father’s snapshots taken years ago in all the places the old man had visited. If looking through the album is the protagonist’s habit then it might be conjectured that while visiting Mayo the narrator also has the album with him and that the lonely hours he spends in his father’s house (Michael goes fishing for a giant salmon, his obsession) are in part devoted to contemplating the moments captured in the photos. Thus, the fragmented structure of the narrative and its three subplot lines might all constitute a faithful representation of the act of exploring an actual photo album and momentarily immersing oneself in the miniature realities the images have arrested. Each photo evokes a different story, complete with its characters, the location, the smells and the noises; a glance at the subsequent image immediately moves the narrator away from the story he has been recalling and obliges him to begin re-constructing a new one.
Early in the novel the protagonist confesses: “I became the camera, the camera-man … I walked into the photos, parted the canvas door of the tents … talked to the women” (McCann 1995: 22, italics mine) and later, while looking at photos his father took in the Bronx, he adds: “They have no names when I walk to meet them, these immigrants. But I know their jobs … ” (McCann 1995: 136, italics mine). Songdogs is not a novel about observing passively, glancing indifferently at black and white snapshots of distant realities; on the contrary, McCann’s book engages past events actively – the narrator’s gaze scrutinizes each image, reads deep into its details and attempts to re-construct its complete context: the precise moment a photo was taken, the atmosphere, the movements, the emotions felt by the persons captured. By looking at the photographs the protagonist becomes the owner, the master of each moment, for it is he who assigns signification and converts static, still images into vivid mini-narrations full of motion and life. His gaze is creative; rather than simply witnessing past moments the narrator actively embraces them, metaphorically enters their realities, “walking into the photos”, and brings them back into momentarily existence, immersing himself into surrogate experiences he never had.
On the surface, Songdogs is organized by a traditionally-handled, linear temporal frame, which limits the novel’s time span by imposing a rigid division into sections corresponding to the seven days the narrator spends in Mayo. Underneath that firm super-structure, however, McCann carefully elaborates a kaleidoscopic interplay of images that fracture the smooth narrative surface and divert the linear plot along much less restrictive paths. Constantly submerging himself only to re-appear on the narrative surface once again, the protagonist appears to be literally voicing his impressions upon looking at old photos, distracted from time to time by his own reality, his father’s shabby and miserable country-house. Fully aware that his visit in Mayo is brief, the narrator consciously confronts past enigmas and mysteries so that upon his imminent departure the scattered images that somehow suggest and represent his own memory might be properly ordered, as in a photo album.
II. Reconstructing the past
The surface plot line of McCann’s novel is set in contemporary Ireland, yet the country as such is not highly contextualised, in the sense of visibly pointing towards a particular spatial or social presence. Apart from sporadic references to the Irish political past and present, such as mentioning election posters of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the great famine of the 19th century or the continuous migration of young people in search of a better life abroad4 , the novel does not explore history on a broad, national level that would allow it to be read as dramatising a common (Irish) experience; instead, it deals with past reconstruction on a more private, personal level.
Even though the protagonist’s main reason for returning to Ireland is the renewal of his green card (he has settled in Wyoming, in the same area his parents visited in their journey across the United States), it becomes evident that the questions of his family’s history, its (his) heritage and the mysterious disappearance of his Mexican mother Juanita continue to haunt his mind and constitute the underlying stratum of tension that somehow conditions Conor throughout his life. The protagonist explains that his motive for actually abandoning Mayo after his mother disappeared without leaving so much as a good-bye note was to establish his own identity, to understand who he actually was: “These days in London … I pondered my dual heritage, the Irish in me, the Mexican … I had wanted to announce my manhood … ” (McCann 1995: 42). Soon, however, the narrator realises that the true nature of the longing he experiences is actually to find his mother, to be again re-united with the person who used to embody closeness and parental care:
In bookshops … I looked at guidebooks to Mexico, wondering if my mother might step out from the pages and appear to me … In those bookshops … I decided that I would make my trip to my mother’s country, find her, make her exist for me again (McCann 1995: 42-43).
The longing remains unsatisfied until the end of the novel when the protagonist actually confesses it to his father:
‘You know where I was, Dad? Those first few years when I was away? You know where I was?’ ‘Where?’ ‘I was looking for Mam’ (McCann 1995: 191).
The narrator’s search for her had proven futile – none of the places he had visited and none of the persons he had met during his journeys had been able to direct him towards his mother or so much as give him indications of her whereabouts. Juanita had disappeared without a trace, leaving the protagonist suspended in the greatest of uncertainties: that of not knowing, or not understanding, one’s roots. Apparently, the only way to somehow liberate these phantasmal obsessions is to face the one held responsible for all the miseries – the narrator’s father5 .
The re-encounter takes place in Mayo, but for Conor the homecoming implies a new recreation of all the facts and suppositions about his parents’ lives he has been able to gather. The primary source of these is his photo album – as has already been observed above, the protagonist has the habit of looking through its contents and ‘entering’ the realities captured by the images via the constructive power of his gaze. Throughout the novel the narrator often immerses himself in the diverse temporal and spatial contexts held prisoner within the snapshots – the Madrid bombing photos from the Spanish Civil War, mining camps in the deserts of Mexico, the disastrous forest fires in Wyoming or the busy streets of working-class Bronx, for example – yet his primary interest are the photos that immobilize instances and moments from his parents’ past, a past he attempts to recover.
Upon ‘entering’ the images the protagonist appears to engage himself in a process of double-reconstruction: on the one hand, his gaze retrieves significance from the photos in his album and, on the other hand, Conor recalls all the stories that beginning with early age up until manhood formed an essential part of his every-day experience: “It was only with enough tequila in my system that I could make sense of the stories my parents had told me, their endless incantation of memories” (McCann 1995: 68, italics mine) or “Long ago, when they told me their stories about Mexico, Mam and Dad, I believed they were true” (McCann 1995: 72). Understanding perfectly just how important these maternal and paternal narratives were, the narrator states:
They were my songdogs …They tried very hard to tell me how much they had been in love with one another, how good life had been, that coyotes really did exist and sing in the universe of themselves on their wedding day (McCann 1995: 72-73)6.
The stories told by his parents constitute Conor’s sense of self and his understanding of family heritage, which might explain his particular obsession with recovering the past. Born to a mixed-blood couple of nomads, young Conor cherishes all the narratives he is offered as if they could replace the ultimate incompatibility of his father and mother with a series of referents that would constitute a familiar context, a sense of tradition. The protagonist’s hopes prove illusory, for eventually the family breaks up (with his mother’s disappearance) and the delicate identity framework becomes shattered; consequently, the narrator leaves Mayo and embarks on his journey with the aim of visiting the places and resurrecting the moments that populate the stories he remembers.
In this respect, the encounter with Cici, a hippie and ex-friend/lover of his mother’s, proves particularly illuminating as it enables the protagonist to gain access to a vital part of his parents’ experiences in San Francisco and then Wyoming; above all, Cici reveals some highly intimate details about his mother’s emotional condition and their brief amorous adventure. The narrator comments: “ … she
- María Losada Friend, for instance, observes that: “… este acercamiento novedoso que quiere estudiar un presente literario e intelectual de múltiples voces, sigue poniendo de manifiesto la recurrente e irremediable aparición del pasado en obras irlandesas” (Losada 2003: 57). The critic further argues that numerous Irish authors represent the constraining past either in the form of ghosts that haunt their literary realities or, more recently, as memory, a non-physical collective body of experiences and beliefs that must be reconciled. The latter proposal appears much more revealing in the light of the arguments that will be developed in this paper. [↩]
- Some publishers and critics provide an alternative spelling of the author’s name, MacCann. For reasons of clarity the former spelling, McCann, will be used in the present essay. [↩]
- McCann’s novel resembles in many respects the most important road novel in American literary tradition, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). Apart from telling the story of a journey, an obvious pre-requisite of that sub-genre, the author of Songdogs establishes numerous thematic continuities with the beat writer, among them matching locations (rural, dust-covered towns in Mexico, the hippy, avant-garde atmosphere of San Francisco, the raw, mountainous regions of NorthWest United States, crowded, tumultuous New York), a parallel temporal frame (the 1960’s) and ultimately the condition of travelling towards an unknown destination, emphasizing the experience of movement as such, rather than the prospect of an arrival. Other critics, such as Christina Hunt, have also noted the impact of Kerouac’s writing upon McCann: “McCann’s writing is influenced by Jack Kerouac, whose novels his journalist father would bring back from the States” (Hunt 1998: 261). A more thorough analysis of the similarities between the two novels would exceed the limitations of the present paper and neither is it its primary concern. [↩]
- Some critics have observed that, given the rapid economic developments experienced by Ireland and the consequent changing social patterns, migration as such does not constitute an indispensable experience confined to Irish reality. Christina Hunt observes: “Exile continues to be a fact of life and a staple of fiction; but Irish emigrants in books, as in reality, now show up in unlikely places, and are rarely forced to remain there against their will indefinitely” (Hunt 198: 275). Interestingly, Hunt’s commentary juxtaposes the present experience of emigration, understood in terms of a personal opening-up to the world, with the more traditional vision of poverty-struck Irish men and women fleeing their hostile homeland and populating the lowest ghettos of great industrial centres. [↩]
- Throughout the novel the protagonist confesses the negative feelings he experiences towards Michael: “ … even when I hated him … ” (McCann 1995: 173), ’Ask my bollocks,’ I said. From then on, that was one of the few things I said to him” (McCann 1995: 210) or “ … and I had come home, detesting my father … ” (McCann 1995: 183). It is important to point out that although the commentaries come from different time points and even different plot lines they were all made after the publication of the first erotic album with mother’s photos. Initially the protagonist was not aware of the actual implications of his father’s project, yet the constant taunting he experienced at school and in town, followed by his unauthorized incursion into his father’s darkroom, eventually reveal to him the true significance of the photo album: “A huge feeling of sickness rose up in me … I remember feeling as if a big vacuum was sucking the air from me, dry-retching, a world churning in me … ” (McCann 1995: 174). Conor’s reconstructions of his childhood usually depict Michael as a distant, reserved and basically uninvolved father, which might explain the protagonist’s close attachment to his mother and the consequent powerful desire to find her. [↩]
- The protagonist explains that, according to Navajo cosmogony, it was a pair of coyotes that summoned the world into existence through their incessant howls. By recalling the Navajo myth and later denoting the parents as “his songdogs” (which is the name used to refer to the original coyote couple) the narrator establishes a parallelism between the animal howls that create the world and the stories that create identity and personality. [↩]
- In this respect the protagonist resembles a detective figure who has to organize all the available evidence in order to draw proper conclusions and, consequently, solve the mystery. Interestingly, the detective figure can be, in turn, traced back to the original knowledge quest and its character, a mythical hero, whose task consisted precisely of gathering items/pieces of information and later employing them to his advantage in order to succeed in a challenge/test. [↩]
- A traditional, psychoanalytical reading of the character would undoubtedly comment upon negation being one of the primary defensive mechanisms our self employs and would possibly argue that the father’s unrealised desire is the cause of his suffering. Although the present paper is not, strictly speaking, a psychoanalytical study, it is ready to accept the notion of negation as one possible interpretation of the father’s conduct. [↩]
- Simultaneously, the narratives also depict Michael’s preoccupation with old age and his initial efforts at disguising its first signs, such as loss of hair. In general, the protagonist’s father appears not to be able to cope with the inevitable changes that accompany linear time. The theme will be developed more thoroughly in the following section. [↩]
- The primary one being, as has been argued above, the ultimate impossibility of recovering his mother. [↩]
- Michael’s attitude might be said to coincide with the ideas of the ancient Greek poet Horace, whose best known piece, entitled Exegi monumentum, portrays a great man attaining immortality through the superb quality of his verses. I have wrought a monument more lasting than bronze And loftier than the peaks of the regal pyramids, Which neither the gluttonous rain, nor the blustering wind May destroy, or the innumerable Series of years and the flight of times. I shall not wholly die, and a good part of me Will surmount Libitina: Always shall I, with future Praise, arise and become new, so long as the Capitol The Pontiff with the calm virgin scales. I shall be said; where resounds raging Aufidus, And where Daunus, poor in water, Ruled his rustic peoples; to have become from insignificant The first able to Aeolian song into Italian Verses lead. Take exquisite pride In these merits, Melpomene, and with the Delphic Laurel willingly crown my hair. A man’s achievements, most notable his artistic creations, will forever remain present within the invisible strata that constitute human knowledge. Michael appears to share such an understanding of art; his photos will glorify his life and constitute an imperishable testimony of his experiences. [↩]
- Early in the novel the narrator points to his father’s apparent lack of interest in young girls during adolescence. Still an amateur photographer Michael already viewed the feminine as a theme for his images, rather than the object of an emerging sexual desire: “Sometimes the girls would try to get him to come in and dance, but it didn’t interest him, dancing, unless he could take a picture of it” (McCann 1995: 11). [↩]
- The idea of a pact between the reader of fiction and the text boasts a long tradition in Western literary tradition; poignantly expressed by Coleridge as “a willing suspension of disbelief”, more recently it has attracted the attention of the theory of fiction. In particular, the pragmatic approach to fictionality appears to generally employ the notion of the pact in analysing the performative force of fictional statements with regards to the reader. [↩]
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