Margot Gayle Backus
University of Houston

Creative Commons 4.0 by Margot Gayle Backus. 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.

Maureen O’Connor

Bucknell University Press, 2021. 180 pages.

ISBN: 9781684483358

Maureen O’Connor’s Edna O’Brien and the Art of Fiction does a lot of heavy lifting for one single-authored volume. O’Connor’s sophisticated, meticulously researched assessment of Ireland’s most eminent living practitioner of the art of fiction opens up new and enabling routes across an overdetermined terrain that has rendered critical engagement with O’Brien’s oeuvre strangely difficult. By bridging a series of mutually reinforcing quagmires in which O’Brien criticism has been prone to bog down – grievance; the lack of an adequate critical idiom; and, difficulty moving beyond the lens of second wave feminist versions of gender and sexuality – O’Connor’s study clears the way for a new generation of Edna O’Brien scholarship.

At the heart of the problems besetting O’Brien scholarship is a profound asymmetry between O’Brien’s staggering artistic achievements and their astonishingly loud and bellicose dismissal by a range of often otherwise reasonable people. O’Brien’s career has been at once so very long, and so extraordinarily fecund; her literature so fine, as art, and so annihilating, as social critique; and yet it has so consistently inspired one (usually male) critic after another to throw such extraordinary public fits. This disparity has created a gravitational field that repeatedly, almost invariably activates any feminist scholar’s defences. Even in drafting this review, with mires and bogging-down foremost in my mind, I found myself helplessly pouring forth grievances concerning the ways in which literary criticism and academic publishing have ill-served O’Brien. Ultimately, I drafted and deleted many pages of useless prose enumerating instances of critics’ and reviewers’ unfair, unrigorous, unserious and unprofessional treatment of Edna O’Brien. So grievance – the compulsion to recall and call out injuries to O’Brien, the person, as a preliminary to or even in place of engaging with O’Brien’s literary output – has certainly been a sticking point for me. And, based on my periodic forays into O’Brien-related research, it would appear that others have experienced similar problems. As O’Connor’s study leads me to conclude, this reactivated grievance that pulls or sucks one back into outmoded debates, both causes and is sustained by a lack of adequate critical language and an adequate theory of sex/gender identity.

To her inestimable credit, Maureen O’Connor has fashioned a means to soar above these interlocking quagmires, beginning with her brisk integration of a range of gendered critical responses to O’Brien and her work in a biographical introduction that handles O’Brien’s career wholistically. O’Connor balances the vitriol of O’Brien’s detractors with a far less well-known account of O’Brien’s many admirers and allies. O’Connor dispassionately notes O’Brien’s banning in Ireland, the accusations of obscenity, and the rabid attacks from critics who, as Ann Fogarty observes, considered writing by women to be, by definition, “unworthy of consideration in the Irish public sphere” (8, 9). At the same time, however, she draws together in this concise literary biography a powerfully countervailing account of the enormous recognition that O’Brien’s work has received, going all the way back to the publication of The Country Girls in 1960. From the outset, O’Brien was lauded by many well-established authors and literary professionals inside and outside of Ireland. In particular, as O’Connor makes clear in a nuanced, layered account, O’Brien has been lionized by internationally celebrated authors from Philip Roth and V.S. Naipaul to Dorothy Parker and Alice Munro, as her international reputation followed a gradual upward trajectory. Most importantly, O’Connor renders visible some unexpected commonalities connecting the writings of many of O’Brien’s champions – who frequently minimize her work in well-meaning reviews which, for instance, praise her work as fresh, youthful and girlish – to rabid attacks of her most vociferous detractors. Moreover, while noting patterns of gendered condescension that variously inform many positive reviews and interviews, O’Connor makes clear that even the most vicious ad hominem attacks against O’Brien express the same essential complaint first made by O’Brien’s one-time husband, Ernest Gébler: “you can write, and I’ll never forgive you” (5).

O’Connor’s approach resembles a feminist adaptation of Odysseus’ stratagem for getting past the Sirens. She lends a deaf ear to most of the cat calls and insults, noting only their general character: recurrent patterns of objectification and minimization, punctuated by eruptions of male overreaction to the possibility of a woman writer capable of compellingly describing the Irish Catholic family from the perspective of Irish girls and women. By summarizing these critical patterns in terms of their general affective content, rather than through an array of egregious examples, O’Connor steels herself against the fruitless temptation to engage in battles of wits with unarmed opponents. Her discipline, in turn, reaps abundant critical rewards. Effectively, by resisting the temptation to directly skirmish either with O’Brien’s detractors or with her advocates when they fall short, O’Connor frees herself from “the historical tendency to reduce O’Brien’s fiction to uncomplicated autobiography” (26). In doing so, she shifts the focus of O’Brien criticism from the author to her work, thereby producing a critical history of O’Brien’s writing and O’Brien criticism that is both new and indispensable.

In this study, Maureen O’Connor has scrupulously redefined O’Brien studies itself, in a manner that serves to neutralize the deleterious effects of the loudest, most reactionary voices, with their propensity to polarize and thereby hypostatize a public exchange. In thus reframing O’Brien’s critical history, O’Connor brings to the fore a large number of insightful and valuable points that have been made over the decades concerning O’Brien’s work in particular, and Irish women writers in general, and it is in this context that O’Connor’s own literary assessments emerge. What we have here is nothing less than a new conversation in which the many expressions of appreciation and critical insight into O’Brien’s work – and its place within broader assessments of Irish women’s writing – are no longer drowned out by the voices of O’Brien’s least qualified critics. Grounded in this new and far better-informed conversation, O’Connor has produced a fully worthy and capacious account of the whole of O’Brien’s extraordinary oeuvre that more accurately conveys the history of O’Brien criticism, while rendering the literature itself far more critically accessible.

The second of this book’s astonishing innovations – the author’s simultaneously elegant and eloquent critical style – is clearly the product of O’Connor’s carefully curated community of competent readers. As Kathleen Costello-Sullivan rightly notes in her back-of-the-book praise, O’Connor’s study is “readable yet theoretically sophisticated”. In addition to being readable yet theoretically sophisticated, O’Connor’s critical prose style evinces extraordinary responsiveness to her subject. Her delicately indexical language, like her deep familiarity with the whole range of critical commentary on O’Brien’s writing, can only have resulted from decades spent immersed in O’Brien studies. Grounded in a confidently reconfigured account of O’Brien criticism, O’Connor has found a critical language adequate to O’Brien’s elusive prose style, which ineffably interweaves beauty and grotesquery, sheathing existential and psychoanalytic nuance in a veneer of straightforward realism. O’Connor’s meticulous descriptions of the effects O’Brien achieves in individual passages, and in patterns that recur across the author’s career, fuse critical insight and stylistic grace. Here, for instance, is a claim O’Connor makes almost in passing concerning O’Brien’s allusions to Dracula: “Dracula, who can both command wolves and transform into one, has featured in O’Brien’s writing since The Country Girls, regularly lurking in the background as a romantic figure, thrilling but evil, a shadow thrown by male characters in the foreground ready to consume and destroy unwary young girls and women” (85). Such insights capture with exquisite precision how a given image pattern, intertext, theme, or psychoanalytic dynamic recurs in ways that not only enrich our understanding of multiple passages at once, but also heighten our sensitivity to the complex meanings such passages convey. Many of O’Connor’s phrases are so beautiful, apt, even epiphanic, that I found myself marking them – as I do with literary passages – with the intent to quote them in my own writing, purely to share with others the pleasure they bring me.

The study’s second chapter, “The Liberating Sadomasochism of Things”, offers up a super-abundance of such pleasurable passages, which build both conceptually and figuratively to new understandings of especially enigmatic aspects of O’Brien’s work (35-50). For instance, in one particularly luminous topic sentence, O’Connor connects her meditations on the “web of recurring and overlapping objects and images […] in O’Brien’s early work” to a psychoanalytic insight that hauntingly recurs across the study: the daughter’s characteristic loss of the one great love – the mother – and that great, primal beloved’s inadequate, socially-ordained exchange in favour of a heterosexual love object. In a delightful/insightful passage, O’Connor meditates on the painstakingly assembled domestic decorations with which O’Brien’s mothers frequently adorn their homes. As O’Connor notes, “these items are often enshrined in a ‘good’ room that is never, or very rarely, used” (41). Emphasizing the “frailty of the private bulwark they present against the harsh reality for women of Irish rural domesticity”, O’Connor observes that the vibrancy of these assemblages emanates from “their promise of ‘nonidentity,’ that is, evading the determinant power of dominant gender and sexual identities” (41).

Throughout this chapter, O’Connor focuses on decorative domestic details as extensions of the mother, in a critical language that simultaneously explicates and elegantly elaborates on O’Brien’s own meaning, as when she describes the flagrant disparity among the items that comprise one such “promiscuous assemblage”, as “respect[ing] no boundaries” (65). Through her own linguistic responsiveness, O’Connor compellingly captures the domestic space as a reflection of the status of the mother-daughter bond. Her description of a pattern in O’Brien’s fiction, whereby the tasteful decor that lends a touch of glamour to a series of originary family homes undergoes an abrupt “diminish[ment in its] beauty” that is the objective correlative of the daughter’s loss of the mother, helps the reader to see what can only be seen through committed, thoughtful reading and reflection over an extended period of time. On the basis of her impressive familiarity with the full range of O’Brien’s work, including her short stories and even her poetry, plays, and journalism, O’Connor affords us moving insights that are only visible when certain patterns are noticed across a range of texts.  This careful reflection has informed O’Connor’s critical language, enabling her to offer such rich observations as “objects lose their glamour, reclaim their thingness, whenever the mother-daughter bond is broken, to be replaced with the loneliness of enforced heterosexuality” (42).

It is through her linguistic responsiveness to O’Brien’s art, grounded in an updated, theoretically informed bibliography, that O’Connor, in many such passages, makes her third consequential intervention: radically reconsidering not only sexual desire and sexual identity, but also gender identity across O’Brien’s oeuvre. O’Connor’s synthesis of psychoanalysis, gender studies, eco-criticism, anthropology, and folklore and mythology productively complicates the standard Freudian account of female individuation and its discontents. She does so by factoring in the disconcerting reality – originally noted when Simone de Beauvoir pointed out that “one is not born, but becomes a woman” – that sex/gender identity is not a static endpoint, but a process, continually negotiating among powerful biological, intrapsychic and socio-cultural forces. Most fundamentally, O’Connor places under constant pressure the heteronormative presumptions largely shared by O’Brien’s most virulent detractors and most of her champions. “From [her] earliest novels”, O’Connor observes, “many commentators had noted that desire is at the core of O’Brien’s narratives”, yet “the true irony in such observations lies in their frequently blinkered understanding of what constitutes that desire, reducing it to a heteronormative, Barbara Cartland-style pursuit of ‘romance’” (23). O’Connor links the current of lesbian longing that courses through O’Brien’s work to O’Brien’s impressively early, explicit statement in a 1964 interview, that lesbian desire seems to be “part of every woman’s experience” (22).

Though O’Connor does not explicitly link O’Brien’s queer propensities to her observation that “Irish feminism has been slow to reevaluate O’Brien’s cultural significance”, she lets O’Brien herself describe her work’s reception by feminists and academics (22). O’Brien points out that these more sophisticated readers are often inclined to tear into her for her “supine, woebegone inclinations”, thereby capturing a vitriol that appears, strangely, to be shared by many of O’Brien’s outraged male detractors, and many of her natural allies. Indeed, O’Brien’s description of a ripping, rending reaction to her “supine, woebegone inclinations” suggests an unwittingly coordinated response to something about gender performance shared by both her most rabidly masculinist, and avowedly feminist commentators, calculated to produce what Sara Ahmed terms “queer discomfort” (2004: 22).

Yet, if O’Brien has been an overlooked casualty of hegemonic heteronormativity, the cause of this owes less to textualized lesbian eroticism than to her representation of binary gender categories as, for women, at least, alien and alienating forces imposed on that which is fluid, contingent, and in process. Unarguably, O’Brien’s explicit representations of the subjective experience for her protagonists of being gendered can evoke creepy feelings in a range of readers, because these representations so mortifyingly confront us with the alienating operations of gender itself. Conversely, as O’Connor describes in her chapter, “Myth and Mutation”, O’Brien has increasingly pushed back against the abjection that gendering imposes, in her “female and nonheteronormative metamorphoses […], [which can] function at an oblique angle to the official, binarized conception of volition and (in)dependence, […] and of the human and the nonhuman”. O’Brien’s “female shape-shifters” are refugees from the binary, who “seek to rejoin the peace and unity of the non-oppositional world” (89). In this study, Maureen O’Connor has brought O’Brien criticism to the cusp of a nonbinary gender critical framework through which we may access the disconcertingly, multifariously gendered worlds O’Brien has wrought from The Country Girls onward. Crucially, in doing so she has re-positioned Edna O’Brien’s corpus in its rightful place in the canon of international art with the capacity to demystify and perhaps neutralize the social operations of binary gender identity – perhaps the most powerful of all the tools that, as Audre Lorde memorably cautioned, we must lay down, if we really mean to dismantle the Master’s House.

I will leave the final words of this review to an elegant passage meditating on a particularly elaborate domestic assemblage in O’Brien’s short story, “The Rose in the Heart”. Here, as elsewhere in the study, O’Connor vividly shows rather than tells us how O’Brien’s strangely figurative art creates layers of gender identity and performance, lack and compensation, desire and renunciation:

The mother’s carefully archived unused and unusable mementos are the stage dressings for a lacerating yet liberating drag performance, disconnected from, indeed, alien to her own lived experience and expectation. This imagined performance of femininity at once relishes and regrets the mysterious pleasures of a denied version of womanly embodiment. (47)


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.