Southern Illinois University Carbondale
by Jane Elizabeth Dougherty. 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.
Much of the literary criticism of Irish texts situates itself within the discipline of Irish Studies, an interdisciplinary field in which literary criticism often intersects with Irish historiography. Critical approaches to Irish literature have thus largely been historicist in focus, and studies of Irish literature which focus on literary form or take narratological approaches are still relatively rare. The obvious exceptions to this claim are studies of Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, which originate, at least, from the perspective of Modernist Studies, a field, and a concomitant set of approaches, which predates the foundation of Irish Studies. In contrast to Irish Studies, Modernist Studies is a field in which studies of literary form are commonplace, in large part because Modernism, as an international literary movement, revised so many of the classic formal conventions. By contrast, within Irish Studies there has been a particular emphasis on the content of Irish literature, as if the main purpose of an Irish work of literary art is to express Irish identity, or to explain changes in Irish society, politics, and history.
Mary M. McGlynn’s monograph is a welcome and indeed overdue exception to this critical tendency. While her research does indeed illuminate changes in Irish society and politics, it does so primarily by examining literary form rather than content. The crash of the Celtic Tiger economy in 2007-2008 disrupted the tidy, triumphalist narrative that the Republic of Ireland had written for itself. In response, McGlynn argues, Irish literary works published immediately after the crash and during the austerity regime that followed are themselves disrupted narratives. These texts evince many of the features of irrealism, which is characterized by “anti-linear plot lines, meta-narratorial devices, un-rounded characters, unreliable narrators…and contradictory points of view” (8). The irrealism of these post-Tiger texts, as McGlynn argues, exists at the level of “genre, image, narrative choices, and even sentence structure” (10). What McGlynn defines as irrealistic “ungrammaticality” includes “sentence fragments, run-on sentences, irreconcilable verb tenses…[and] present tense narration” (12). According to Broken Irelands, these formal, narratological, and grammatical disruptions reflect the bitter end of the Celtic Tiger economy, as if the Republic of Ireland were a car that had crashed, and Irish contemporary writers were trying to rebuild that car out of its broken pieces.
In making her argument about post-crash literary form, McGlynn looks at recent fictions by Joseph O’Connor (Redemption Falls), Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic), Paul Lynch (Red Sky in the Morning), Sebastian Barry (On Canaan’s Side), Kevin Barry (City of Bohane), Mike McCormack (Solar Bones), Claire Kilroy (The Devil I Know), Anne Enright (The Green Road), Alan Glynn (Winterland), Declan Hughes (The Wrong Kind of Blood), Paul Murray (The Mark and The Void), Christine Dwyer Hickey (The Lives of Women), Lisa McInerney (The Glorious Heresies), Sarah Baume (Spill Simmer Falter Wither), and Melatu Uche Okorie (“Under the Awning”). All of these fictions address, or at least reflect, the boom, the crash, and the “recovery,” and all are characterized by formal and narratological experimentation. McGlynn argues that the Celtic Tiger economy imposed a neoliberal economic regime on the Republic of Ireland and that these fictions “reflect, overtly or obliquely, on the Irish social and economic conditions of their production” (16). As she reiterates in her study, literary forms have ideological implications.
For McGlynn, then, neoliberalism is the ideology that produces the boom, the crash, and the recovery, as well as the literary forms generated in the wake of these economic shifts. This neoliberalism she associates with “globalization” which, as she suggests, is a disguised form of “Americanization.” Globalization is a euphemism, selling itself not only as inexorable but indeed as utopian or at least cosmopolitan, as characterized by advances in technology and the coming together of peoples, when it is more accurately characterized as American economic hegemony. In Chapter Two, McGlynn thus examines contemporary Irish fictions set in or referring to “America,” such as McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, to argue that their ostensible cosmopolitanism papers over the inequalities they narrate—and their unequal narrations. She writes that “Boom-era novels by Colum McCann and Joseph O’Connor give voice to marginalized groups via textual heterogeneity”—that is, through “globalist” narrations—“but in each case, this platform is summarily retracted by novel’s end” (66) as the hierarchies produced by extreme capitalism reassert themselves. In these two novels these hierarchies are race- as well as class-based. Despite the gestures of interracial solidarity made early in, and indeed by, McCann’s and O’Connor’s novels, these gestures, McGlynn argues, are ultimately retracted. It could be, and I believe should be, argued that in the Celtic Tiger years the Irish really did become white, and post-post-colonial.
Certainly, Okorie’s story, which McGlynn explores in Chapter Five, makes this implicit argument, narrating the anti-Blackness that her protagonist, a migrant African girl, encounters in Ireland itself. The story is told through a complex set of narrative choices, and McGlynn’s formal approach to textual interpretation shows how the story’s form mirrors the content. As she writes of one such formal choice, “Okorie’s use of the same phrase multiple times emphasizes the monotony and inescapability of the racist attention the protagonist receives” (241). McGlynn’s close attention to the formal and narratological features of the fictions studied in Broken Irelands will be her volume’s greatest attraction for readers.
McGlynn’s theoretical frame, which I would characterize as Marxist, certainly makes sense, and her use of this frame is an effective one in illuminating the “brokenness” of the fictions she is studying. As a feminist scholar of Irish literature, I do have some trouble with her wholesale condemnation of “neoliberalism,” which she concedes is a mushy term but which she partially defines as privileging the individual over the group and the private over the public. While the Celtic Tiger years increased economic inequality, they were also characterized by increased social equity, at least for white Irish women and LGBT+ citizens. Fundamental to this shift was a social embrace of individual rights for women and queer people, whose individual needs and desires had been subsumed by the collective since the founding of the Irish republic. McGlynn deals with this issue by writing that the effort to leave behind the collectivities of Church and sect created an Irish “myopia about the dangers of neoliberal capitalism” (32n). This is almost certainly true, but it does raise questions about what the proper balance of Irish individual and collective might be, and which collective(s) might replace the old repressive ones. It is clear that more work, both activist and scholarly, is needed in thinking through whether and how economic neoliberalism, at least when it is defined as individualistic in nature, can be decoupled from social changes in the status of Irish women and LGBT+ citizens.
Likewise, McGlynn’s Marxist theoretical frame at times interferes with the effectiveness of her literary criticism. One unfortunate tendency in what I will call “radical literary criticisms,” such as Marxist and feminist criticism, is the condemnation of invented literary characters for being insufficiently radical. As a scholar of Edna O’Brien, I have seen this in critiques of her work, which has sometimes been characterized as insufficiently feminist because her characters do not enact complete feminist awakenings. McGlynn is not immune to this tendency, writing of one character that “the dingy ribbon belonging to his daughter that Coll carries throughout [Red Sky in the Morning] [is] a clunky bit of sentiment that Lynch might better have avoided” (85) and of another that “Lilly unquestionably accepts and naturalizes the difference in scale between their lives and hers” (101). Of the latter character’s unquestioned acceptance of inequality and hierarchy, McGlynn argues that it proves that Sebastian Barry “venerates the plutocracy” (101). A character is not a text, and a text is not an author; a literary work can be feminist, or Marxist, without each character in it, or even its main character, joining a political movement to dismantle heteronormative capitalist patriarchy.
These are mere quibbles, though, in my review of McGlynn’s study. Broken Irelands is an important belated intervention in the field of Irish Studies and a smart examination of contemporary Irish fiction, including some work already recognized as important and some she brings to her readers’ attention as worthy of study. McGlynn’s close readings of the primary texts are deep, interesting, and clear. As a scholar of contemporary Irish fictions myself, I expect that I will be referring to Broken Irelands in much of my own scholarship. All scholars of Irish fiction, postmodern literature, and narrative theory should read it.