Philipps-University Marburg, Germany | Published: 17 March, 2017
ISSUE 12 | Pages: 12-25 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2017-6757
2017 by Alessandra Boller | 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.
This article discusses three short stories published in Gerard Donovan’s Country of the Grand (2008). It reads one of the short story collection’s most prominent leitmotifs, the car, as a liminal space and a heterotopia of crisis. Furthermore, the article aims at linking these two concepts to ideas about Irish identity and the historical and cultural context of Celtic Tiger Ireland and it draws on a particular theoretical framework: Turner’s concept of the liminal period and the Foucauldian heterotopia of crisis. In Donovan’s short stories, the car is turned into an ambiguous symbol since it carries various meanings and connotations. It is a means by which people move and cross boundaries, which should enable progress and provide connections between places and persons but it is also a space in which characters sit still and seem isolated and static. Hence, this seemingly simple image provides insights about a tension arising between movement and paralysis which Donovan, through his use of symbols and synecdoches, describes as central to Celtic Tiger Ireland and which thus also becomes crucial for his short stories.
El presente artículo examina tres historias cortas de la colección Country of the Grand (2008), del escritor irlandés Gerard Donovan. Se centra muy especialmente en la consideración de uno de los más importantes símbolos de los relatos, el coche, interpretándolo como un espacio liminar y como una heterotopía de crisis. Se pretende además unir estos dos conceptos con ideas relacionadas con la identidad irlandesa, dentro del contexto cultural e histórico del llamado Tigre Celta. Este trabajo se basa por tanto en un marco teórico desarrollado por Victor Turner (“periodo liminar”) y Michel Foucault (“heterotopía de crisis”). En las historias cortas de Donovan, el coche se transforma en un símbolo ambivalente puesto que lleva consigo diversos mensajes y connotaciones. Es un medio por el que la gente se mueve y con el cual se cruzan fronteras, lo cual debería facilitar el progreso y proporcionar elementos de conexión entre sitios y gentes, pero también es un espacio en el que los individuos permanecen quietos y parecen aislados y estáticos. De ahí que esta imagen, aparentemente simple, pueda proporcionar valiosas consideraciones sobre la tensión existente entre movimiento y parálisis. Será este aspecto central el que Donovan destaque en sus relatos a la hora de describir el Tigre Celta, utilizando para ello las figuras del símbolo y la sinécdoque.
Relatos irlandeses; Gerard Donovan; la Irlanda del Tigre Celta; liminalidad; identidad; heterotopías
But there are so many places and so many cars. Across the country, from Donegal to Tipperary and down to Kerry, the roads have begun to fill, coast roads, roads through small towns, roads widening into the midlands, narrowing into cities, red signs, yellow signs, bump ahead, one hundred this, fifty that. So much to notice with a shoe on a pedal, a hand on the wheel, an eye on the road. (Donovan 2008: 71)
The experience of the journey is central to literature. Any text is essentially a journey and a quest. Roads are ridden or driven along by characters which embark on journeys from here to there. Travelling is opposite of staying put. (Bâdalescu 2012: n.p.)
Even though the validity of Dana Bâdalescu’s statement cannot be denied, literary journeys often consist of more than a departure from an origin and an arrival at a specified destination. There are metaphorical journeys or psychological ones and some characters are caught in conflicts between moving on and staying put. The short stories analysed in the following article are texts in which various characters’ physical journeys contrast with their mental or social states and identities.
The three stories this article focuses on were published in the short story collection Country of the Grand (2008), written by Irish émigré author Gerard Donovan, whom Marie Mianowski regards as part of the “first wave of post Celtic Tiger writers” (2016: 5). Donovan was born in Wexford in 1959 and most of the 13 short stories collected in Country of the Grand were written while the author was living in Germany and the USA (Cardin 2014: 160). He had already published poetry collections and novels before turning to short fiction but in his well received collection, Donovan revisits his home country for the first time in his literary career. All stories are connected by certain motifs, themes and settings (e.g. archaeology and the search for the past) and the collection can thus also be identified as a short story cycle.
The following article analyses the most prominent leitmotif, the car, which becomes a liminal space and a heterotopia of crisis for its occupants. The car can generally be read as a symbol of consumption or social status; it can be a fetish and stands for fast movement. In the selected short stories, however, this means of transport has to be read in terms of space, time and crisis. Many of Donovan’s characters embark on journeys by car and this (form of) travelling also often becomes a catalyst for a character’s life-changing epiphany. Thus, the characters’ journeys also signify metaphorical or mental changes since they go on a quest to find solutions, answers or stability – also with regard to identity.
Most of these stories are set in Celtic Tiger Ireland, but Ireland at the time of its economic boom and “spectacular growth” (Battel 2003: 100) is more than a mere background setting. Both Ireland and Irish society are depicted as being in a state of crisis even though (or maybe because) the Republic is wealthier than ever before. The Celtic Tiger was not solely an economic phenomenon; it can hardly be disentangled from issues of national or cultural identity.1 Jason Buchanan explains that the Celtic Tiger was born out of a “tension between the ideas of Irish exceptionalism and a growing desire for a more worldly or modern Ireland” and thus it “came to be understood as the culmination of, or escape from, Irish history” (2009: 303). Hence, the boom (which lasted from 1992 to 2001 and was finally replaced by the 2008 world economy crisis) cannot be disregarded when talking about Irish society and identity at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century. The changes that affected individual people and society in general were massive and manifold and occurred at a quick pace. Buchanan aptly summarises the image the term Celtic Tiger often evokes by stating that it has become “the password for a newness that attempts to separate old from new, local from global, and past from present” (2009: 300). However, this “newness” is not entirely without negative connotations and effects since it also produced problems almost unthought of before. The discomfort that also haunts Donovan’s characters seems to be due to the difficulties they experience in adjusting to a new situation since the “social and cultural issues created by wealth were unfamiliar to most Irish politicians and economists” (Buchanan 2009: 304).
According to Joseph O’Connor, Donovan’s collection shows a “society that tried to run before it learned to walk”; a “sense of having come too far, of something precious being lost” (2008: n.pag.) permeates the stories. Bertrand Cardin also draws on O’Connor’s ideas and attests the collection to be a “chronicle of a collapse foretold” (2014: 163). Donovan’s Ireland is not a rural idyll or a cliché Ireland but a wealthy and more modern nation. However, the new opportunities provided in Celtic Tiger Ireland may also be held responsible for an emerging “battle over cultural self-identification” (Buchanan 2009: 304). Issues of cultural or national identity of course also affected the individual person’s identity and this is mirrored and elaborated on in Donovan’s stories. Hence, the title of this collection turns out to be ironical2 because nothing seems to be “grand” in the Ireland of Donovan’s short stories and, like in most generic short stories, moments of (personal) crisis prevail. These crises are often linked to and occur during specific journeys or are directly brought about by them. Movement, however, does not always signify an escape from crisis and the arrival at a specific destination. Instead, Donovan depicts characters that are lost, that try to (re)construct an identity either according to an imagined new state by being “modern” (whatever that means for them) and cosmopolitan or by attempting to return to the past.
Movement juxtaposed to stasis stands at the centre of many of these stories. The collection depicts characters running and driving across the country, coming to a standstill in traffic jams (although Ireland’s improved and improving infrastructure is often alluded to) or constructing roads. This image is often connected to a search for the past; time and space are inseparably connected here. Interestingly, many of the stories are not set in the capital Dublin but in Galway or in cars driving towards this city.3 However, cars should not be regarded as settings only: this article reads the car as a liminal space and a heterotopia of crisis, linking these two concepts to notions of Irish identity and the historical and cultural context of Celtic Tiger Ireland. Furthermore, it draws on Turner’s concept of the liminal period and the Foucauldian heterotopia. In Donovan’s short stories, the car constitutes an ambiguous and complex symbol since it carries various meanings and connotations. It is a means by which people move and cross boundaries, which should enable progress and provide connections between places and persons, but it is also a “metal box” (Cardin 2014: 166) in which they sit still and seem isolated and static. This seemingly simple image provides insights about a tension between movement and paralysis which is central to Celtic Tiger Ireland and Donovan’s stories. Thus, focusing on the limited space of the car and the transient heterotopias constituted in the narratives allows for a discussion of specific crises in the lives of literary characters which eventually can be regarded as synecdoches for Irish society’s insecurities during the Celtic Tiger years.
2. Liminality and Heterotopias
Generally speaking, liminality signifies a threshold, a state of in-betweenness and of becoming (Nordin and Holmsted 2009: 7). Arnold van Gennep coined the term when writing about a class of rituals with three distinctive moments (separation, margin, aggregation) in Rites de Passage (1909). Victor Turner based his famous article “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage” on van Gennep’s work. Turner focuses on liminal periods within the rituals of small-scale societies and, according to him, rites of passage are transitions between fixed and stable conditions. Transition is understood as a process and a becoming, a transformation (1999: 234): “During the … liminal period, the state of the ritual subject (“the passenger”) is ambiguous; he passes through a realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state” (Turner 1999: 235). Furthermore, liminality and rites of transition are often linked to seclusion, to a temporary withdrawal from society. During such a liminal period, the concerned people’s condition can be described in terms of confusion, ambiguity and paradox. According to Turner, transitional beings possess nothing but he also emphasises positive connotations: liminality is regarded as the “realm of primitive hypothesis where there is a certain freedom to juggle with the factors of existence” (1999: 241). Thus, it is also a “stage of reflection” (Turner 1999: 240) and the liminal period is not only about culturally defined life crises but also about a change from one state to another.4 Turner stresses the spatial dimension of rites of passage by explaining that the “passage from one social status to another is often accompanied by a parallel passage in space, a geographical movement from one place to another” (1982: 25; see also Hetherington 1996: 36). As will be explained in the following sections, all these aspects of space and identity are inseparably connected and apply to Donovan’s characters. The passage in space and the partial isolation of the characters is underlined by the implementation of the above mentioned leitmotif, the car.
In this context, the connection of Turner’s ideas to a different (spatial) concept, the Foucauldian heterotopia, leads to interesting insights. In “Of Other Spaces. Heterotopias”, Michel Foucault claims that all societies constitute counter-sites which he labels heterotopias of deviance and of crisis. The latter ones are reserved for people who are, in relation to society, in a state of crisis. They are spaces of otherness, neither here nor there and also linked to “slices in time” (Foucault 1984: 6): they break with traditional time, accumulate time or are only temporal. All these ideas apply to the car which serves as a microcosmic counter-site to the country of the boom in Donovan’s collection. The occupants are in a state of crisis, their journeys symbolise breaks in time, time is accumulated in the occupants’ memories, and these heterotopias are only temporal and last as long as the occupants travel. Only through the characters’ liminal periods and personal moments of crisis, their cars become heterotopias of crisis.
According to Foucault, societies can make existing heterotopias function in different fashions (1984: 5). In Donovan’s collection, the car is not only an ambiguous symbol, it is also used in various ways: e.g. as a means of transport, an imagined connection to a person the driver once knew or as a refuge. Furthermore, heterotopias juxtapose in one real space several incompatible spaces (Foucault 1984: 6) (which can figuratively be understood as positions, beliefs and opinions in the short stories), and they presuppose a system of opening and closing that isolates them and makes them penetrable. Besides, they function in relation to all other spaces: they can either be spaces of illusion that expose every real space as even more illusory or they are more perfect and therefore expose other spaces as messy and “ill constructed” (Foucault 1984: 8). Especially the first idea applies to the car when it becomes a space in which crises culminate and characters arrive at insights which reveal that they have clung to lies or illusions.
3. Liminality, Celtic Tiger Ireland and (Irish) Identity
In Donovan’s literary version of Celtic Tiger Ireland, the characters’ situations are far more ambiguous than in classic rites of passage. There are tensions between ideas of progress and backlash since Ireland is “on the road” to become a more open-minded nation but its path is not unambiguously defined. This theme is clearly at the core of Donovan’s collection in which characters represent parts of Irish society and therefore function as synecdoches. The liminal period as a period of insecurity and uncertainty is further underlined by the setting located within cars, which become heterotopias of crisis and liminal spaces for a specific time span. They are sites of seclusion for their drivers even though the space of the car is not entirely isolated from society and from other people driving on the same roads. The occupants can be regarded as transitional beings who are often thrown into a sudden state of nothingness and crisis without a clearly defined outcome. This differentiates their liminal period from the classic rituals which have a well-defined or expected outcome such as maturity. In Donovan’s stories, the characters’ new state is often entirely obscure.
Although the notion of Irishness has often been evoked, it seems to be grounded on myths (Smyth 2012: 135) since a homogeneous Ireland and Irish identity has never existed. This is at least partially due to the fact that identity generally is not fixed but constantly moving; it is repeatedly formed and reconstructed. Still, the idea of a particular “kind” of Irishness, which for example included Gaelic traditions and, to some extent, the Irish language and Catholicism, existed and brought with it a partial isolation (at least until the 1950s) and the exclusion of minority groups (Buchanan 2009: 302). However, these groups have moved from the margins to the centre in recent Irish society and in the literary works labelled New Irish Fiction (Smyth 1997). Ireland has become more open-minded but the fast transition, especially since the 1990s, also seems to have robbed many people of a stable basis when it comes to issues of (national) identity. (Post-) Celtic Tiger writers have been trying to explore and represent “the major mutations of Irish society” immediately before the end of the economic boom and ever since (Mianowski 2016: 5).
Despite being first and foremost an economic phenomenon, the Celtic Tiger has also changed Ireland and Irish society on many levels and the term has become a “powerful cultural signifier for progress and newness” (Buchanan 2009: 300). Still, the sense of a spectacular achievement and of having reached the destination which seemed to prevail in the 1990s may have, somewhat paradoxically, contributed to insecurity. As Declan Kiberd stressed in 1995, “The Irish self … was a project: and its characteristic was a process, unfinished, fragmenting” (120, emphasis in the original). The 1990s added a new image: “Celtic Tigerhood was an important stage in the construction of postcolonial Irish identity, arguably the first one that was not constructed on ‘otherness,’ on being anti- or not-British” (Battel 2003: 101). When differences are deconstructed in an increasingly globalised world and cultural practices become transnational, Ireland’s self-understanding as a unique country in Europe is also eroded and seems to have to yield to a new or reformed self-image (Buchanan 2009: 307).
Battel is exemplary for many critics who see diverse reasons for caution grounded in the apparent Irish success. Beside the major reservation, “deepening social divisions” (2003: 104), she lists further economic factors but also comments on a nostalgia which expresses society’s “unease with transition” because it might have happened too quickly (Battel 2003: 105). The creation of something new goes hand in hand with the destruction of something that was well established and this also had, in the context of the Celtic Tiger, severe effects on Irish people’s individual and collective identity.
Finding itself in between the “‘deadly familiarity’ of Irish history” and the promise of a new, yet still authentic, cultural identity, Celtic Tiger Ireland entered a liminal state (Buchanan 2009: 305). Thus, it is almost impossible to describe this “new” Ireland of the 1990s: it cannot be defined in terms of tradition or cliché, but it is also not clearly European or Americanised. The following discussion of three of Donovan’s short stories revolves around notions of instability and transition and reveals that the characters as well as Celtic Tiger Ireland are depicted as being forced to go through a liminal phase. These stories depict journeys but they also show a stark contrast between symbols of movement and characters that seem caught in a state of paralysis. All of the main characters in “Harry Dietz”, “Another Life” and “How Long Until” are in a liminal state of confusion, ambiguity and nothingness and their individual fates have to be read against the backdrop of Celtic Tiger Ireland.
4. Disorientation: “Harry Dietz”
Ambiguity and disorientation are embodied most clearly by the old man Harry Dietz, the protagonist of the eponymous short story, who drives from Charleston, Illinois, to Chicago. Gradually, the unreliability of the narrative voice and focalisation is revealed: Harry Dietz, a seemingly average man at first glance, has lost all sense of direction, orientation or purpose. He is relegated to his car, thinking about his family’s origin in Ireland, which he imagines as a green, mythical and rural place. In need of stability, Harry turns to his past and to clichés but, paradoxically, the reader eventually realises that Harry’s past experiences can actually be held accountable for his mental instability.
The story time spans a single day and begins with the lonely Harry Dietz waking up at the break of dawn. Only wearing a dressing gown and a jacket, he wants to buy some milk and thus drives the short distance to a shop in his Ford Zephyr. On his way home, he turns into a small street because he feels that “the street had pulled him to it” (Donovan 2008: 191). The space and movement of the car soon trigger memories and Harry’s brief, unwanted glimpses at past personal crises eventually result in a firm denial of crisis and a retreat into an imagined and idealised past.
The car seems to have accumulated mainly hurtful memories. Harry starts thinking about his former girlfriend Mary Norman, whom he had proposed to in his first Ford Zephyr while cruising the same street. The old man has been driving the same model ever since his father bestowed him with his first car which underlines Harry’s inability to let go of the past. In this respect, the car is also linked to another telling symbol: Although Mary broke up with Harry many decades ago and is now married to his employer, he still has her photo clipped to his driver’s license. This is a highly symbolic place since his driver’s license allows Harry to be mobile and independent in terms of movement. However, the fact that he still tries to cling to his past with Mary leads to his inability to look forwards and start a new relationship.
Harry Dietz becomes lost and suddenly finds himself on bigger roads and eventually on the highway to Chicago. Usually, he does not leave Charleston but “today the paved road invited him like a warm canal” and he is “glad that he’d decided to do it”, even though he wonders why he has to drive to feel better (Donovan 2008: 193). The car and the streets seem to be the active entities which decide about his trip and thus appear to have more agency than Harry himself. The reader notices something that Harry does not acknowledge: he is a confused man who tries to escape from reality. This confusion is, for example, also mirrored by his slow but chaotic way of driving. Besides, Harry has lost track of time: he suddenly notices that it is Friday, not Saturday as he had formerly thought. He calls his employer to apologise but it becomes evident later in the story that Harry has actually lost all stability in his life: some weeks ago, he was dismissed for shouting at his boss and accusing him of having “stolen” his girlfriend. Evidently, he has repressed the memory of this incident ever since.
Harry’s connection to Ireland becomes most noticeable when he stops to make his phone call at a diner where he meets John. The young man was one of Harry’s colleagues some years ago and the conversation they start reveals that both John’s and Harry’s parents were born in Ireland. Both men do not have a realistic idea of this country as they have never been there. Eventually, Harry constructs an image of a mythic Ireland which he then turns into his mental refuge. While he talks about a green country, castles and dancing at the crossroads, John at least knows that “something has changed in the country” (Donovan 2008: 197). Harry’s imagination is not only rooted in the past but also combines various Irish stereotypes to construct his own image of his country of origin. Nevertheless, this short passage is reminiscent of Ireland’s fast progress and its “unprecedented economic miracle” (Cardin 2014: 161) that seems contradictory to the stereotypical rural and stagnating Ireland which Harry still tries to conjure and to appropriate.
Hence, his turn towards an inexistent Ireland and the appropriation of an Irish cliché identity only emphasises Harry’s identity crisis. He tells the people he meets “I’m from Ireland” (Donovan 2008: 219) and thereby emphasises his longing for a stable identity. To Harry, Ireland symbolizes stability and a fixed tradition and value system. This idea is as ironic as the collection’s title: Donovan’s characters, especially Harry, are not “grand” and Ireland at the turn of the millennium was not stable and traditional. Unaware of this, Harry wants to go to Ireland with John because “
- Even though it is commonly accepted that Ireland’s economic status changed thoroughly at the end of the twentieth century, it must be mentioned that not every Irish citizen profited from the economic boom. Drawing on research conducted by Fintan O’Toole, Gerry Smyth goes even further and questions Ireland’s status as a wealthy country during the Celtic Tiger years. He explains that cash was mistaken for wealth (2012: 135) and even claims that “Celtic Tiger Ireland remained in some key respects a deeply underdeveloped country” (2012: 136). For my article, however, the most crucial insight is that the Celtic Tiger contributed to a crisis of national and cultural identity when well-established elements of what is called “Irishness” were questioned and even partially broke away when Ireland became seemingly more comparable to other EU members. [↩]
- Bertrand Cardin further elaborates on the title and the collection’s epigraph (“Frailty, thy name is man”) in his article, commenting on the paratexts’ parodic and ironical dimensions (2014: 160). [↩]
- Galway is located in the west of Ireland, a part of the Republic that is commonly associated with traditional and rural Ireland. This symbolic meaning is also very prominent in James Joyce’s “The Dead” (first published in Dubliners in 1914) which can still be regarded as one of the most famous Irish short stories. [↩]
- In later works, Turner distinguished between liminal and liminoid rituals (Turner 1982, see also Hetherington 1996: 36). However, this article focuses on liminality in relation to heterotopian spaces and Celtic Tiger Ireland only. Although Turner’s liminoid rituals might also partially apply to Donovan’s characters, the idea of “play” is too much foregrounded in this second class of rituals. Furthermore, liminoid rituals “develop apart from the central economic and political processes” (Turner 1982: 54). Thus, the concept of liminality is more helpful in connecting individual literary characters to the collective notion of Celtic Tiger Ireland. [↩]
- For example, Mary lives next to an Indian couple and meets a Polish girl (Donovan 2008: 132; 136). The very presence of these immigrants alludes to Ireland’s new status as a country attractive to immigrants. This topic is prominent in Donovan’s collection (especially in “The Summer of Birds”, which also deals with racism and xenophobia). The best known work of fiction dealing with a new multicultural Ireland might be Roddy Doyle’s short story collection The Deportees (2007). [↩]
- This short story is only one of many in Donovan’s collection which could also be read in terms of Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum. Mary, Brenda and Peter, for example, “substitut[e] signs of the real for the real itself” (Baudrillard 1988: 167). [↩]
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