Edited by Luz Mar González-Arias
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
In a world which always tends to very high standards, to perfection, in profession, career, social status, not to mention body and appearance, imperfection is a double-sided issue. The overtone of incompleteness, fault, blemish or deficiency embedded in the word can be disturbing, and yet it is a natural part of everyday life.
Such sense of disturbance comes to the fore in the title of the volume edited by Luz Mar González-Arias, National Identities and Imperfections in Contemporary Irish Literature, whose subtitle, Unbecoming Irishness, highlights an implication of instability in the role that the imperfect, the unsettling and the disconcerting have played in the fluidity of Irish identity throughout the Celtic Tiger years and beyond. The polarity between “identities” and “imperfections” creates a dynamic process that underlies the volume, marked by a stimulating multidisciplinary approach assembling a variety of essays on the general issue of imperfection in contemporary Irish literature from a variety of points of view. And diversity and variety underlie this collection, since the different contributors often provide a personal interpretation of the issue of imperfection.
The main concern of the volume is Irish literature, yet the “Foreword” is by Bridget Flannery, a painter and visual artist whose painting, “Days Beside Water”, forms the cover of the volume. This stands out as a programmatic perspective in the cross-disciplinary stance of the book, drawing attention to what is irregular, and therefore enriching, in different facets of Irish society and different kinds of artistic perception. Her brief contribution – “On Irregularities” – sheds light on the objective of the collection, since “Irregularities help us to see more clearly” (xi).
The purpose of the book is to have a better insight into what is irregular thanks to its own imprecision or imperfection. “The odd catches the eye”, writes Flannery, and this seems to provide a unifying motif to González-Arias’s book in relation to Irish identity. The odd covers a variety of perspectives, which is underlined in the choice of the plural form in the title, Imperfections, from the lack of precision on language, to the imperfection of memory, to the instability of a rapidly changing society, to the corruption of the diseased body.
National Identities and Imperfections is organised into five different sections, each of them grouping from two to four essays, dealing with macro-topics: political and social imperfections, religious and familial dysfunction, corporeal and spatial oddities, with particular reference to disease, the limitation of stereotypes and distortion of Irishness. Part Five, an interview to writer Lia Mills, forms a companion piece to González-Arias’s introductory Chapter One. Both provide a frame with mutual cross-references, and the interview in Part Five deals mostly with the imperfect in the creative sphere.
National Identities and Imperfections is holistic, in that it tries to provide a comprehensive approach to the issue of imperfection and to create an organized whole in which imperfection as such is scanned from different perspectives in the context of Irish literature and Irish society.
Comprehensiveness underlies Luz Mar González-Arias’s introductory essay, “The Imperfect as a Site of Contestation in Contemporary Ireland”, as the author covers a wide range of reflections on Irish literature and society, making reference to writers like John Banville, Marina Carr, Ceila de Fréine, and also to visual artists Amanda Coogan and Carmel Benson. González-Arias highlights the changes in Irish society, a context in which “representing the imperfect becomes a strategy of resistance” (4). As she points out, since the 2000s “the disquieting, the imperfect and the dystopian” have gradually gained a greater relevance in literary production, so that the act of writing itself fixes what is imperfect in contemporary Ireland. The multidisciplinary purpose of the essay is highlighted by the reproduction of works by Coogan and Benson.
Part One of the volume, “The Tiger and Beyond: Political, Social and Literary Fissures” combines a detailed psychological and socio-economic analysis of the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath with a reflection of its crisis in the literary scene. Ciarán Benson underlines the way in which the economic crisis following the boom of the 1990s also meant crisis in identity. His psychological stance is not disjointed from the awareness of the social, economic and political context that led to the lack of certainty in the years between 1999 and 2014 and the gradual deterioration of the faith in politicians and economists.
His detailed analysis paves the way for the two other essays in this section. Juan F. Elices focuses on Post Celtic-Tiger Ireland in Peter Cunningham’s novel Capital Sins, exploring the complexities of the phenomenon of the Celtic Tiger through the use of satire. Cunningham’s novel, writes Elices, provides a “caricaturesque vision of Ireland’s most recent history” (3), pointing out the capital sins that mark the weaknesses of the country.
In her study of John McGahern’s first and last novels, The Barracks and That They May Face the Rising Sun, Anita Morgan considers the imperfect as a state of incompleteness in Irish national identity in both novels. In particular, Morgan focuses on the imperfect in Ireland making reference to Fintan O’Toole’s and John Water’s identification of “self-delusion as a failure of self-understanding” as “fundamental flaws” (51), which provides a reading key to McGahern’s work.
The three essays of Part Two interrelate imperfection with the disruption of religion, family and marriage. Patricia Coughlan’s study of sibling relations in some contemporary novels opens with the psychological and sociological analysis of family and siblings, considering the diversity of family types since 1990s, and then figures of siblings in Irish literature as a personification of the odd and the imperfect in an extended sense. Highlighting the role of literature in disclosing “fundamental issues in social thought” (69), Coughlan starts with Maeve Brennan’s The Bride, defined as “a remarkable story of sibling displacement” (72), and then moves to more recent fiction by Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright, touching on poems by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Bernard O’Donoghue. In particular, Coughlan provides a remarkable juxtaposition between sibling song scenes in Joyce’s Portrait and Enright’s The Gathering, analysing parallels and contrasts. This gradually leads to a reflection on the issue of abuse in apparently normal relations in Enright’s novel as a sign of the irregular and the disturbing that creates a bond between brother and sister.
A similar perspective is the focus of Marisol Morales Ladrón’s essay on Emma Donoghue’s Room, a novel that somehow recalls the experience of captivity in the cases of Natascha Kampusch and Elisabeth Fritzl, which came to public domain in 2006 and 2008. The mother-son dyad is explored as a form of resistance in appalling circumstances. Psychological resilience protects Jack and his mother in their survival to captivity, and yet their return to ordinary life is unsettling for the protagonists used to the room/prison which is also a home; it is also disturbing for a society unable “to face (the) difference and imperfection” (89) that marks mother and son in their return to normality.
Imperfection enters the world of religion and the Catholic Church in Auxiliadora Pérez-Vides’s study of Mary Rose Callaghan’s A Bit of Scandal. The Author focuses in particular on the stereotype of the “fallen sex” in the twenty-first century to provide an insight into the contradictions of double standards and the contrast between clerical credibility and female integrity (100). What is imperfect here is “the social ethos that targets and victimizes women” (101), as the story of Louise and her relation with the clerical figure of Peter provides a strong emphasis on gender and on the myth of the fallen woman that survives in the present.
In the four essays of Part Four – “Ex-Centric Bodies and Disquieting Spaces” – attention shifts to the imperfection of disease and deformity in body, but also in space. Rui Carvalho Homem’s sharp and sensitive study of pathology and poetics in Paul Muldoon’s poetry juxtaposes the private grief of fatal disease and medical analysis to textual close reading. Muldoon’s Horse Latidude of 2006 and Maggot of 2010 indulge on deformity and disease in the battle with cancer, and Carvalho Homem sees the biological growth or excess of life that characterizes cancer as a parallelism with Muldoon’s textuality “proliferating on itself” (118).
Hedwig Schwall returns to Anne Enright in her psychoanalytical reading of Enright’s fiction from the perspective of Bracha Ettinger’s concept of matrixial borderspace. This perspective underlies Schwall’s comprehensive analysis of Enright’s work from her first short story collection The Portable Virgin to The Forgotten Waltz. Her attention to subjectivity highlights the strong presence of the issue of incompleteness and discrepancy in the “so-called phallic order” (131) in Enright’s fiction, which provides a remarkable reading key in her extensive production.
Aida Rosende Pérez takes into account Emer Martin’s Baby Zero, a novel on the imperfection of politics and confusion of immigration and unstable governments. Following Rosi Braidotti’s conception of the monstrous as difference in the female body, Rosende Pérez draws attention to the imperfect in the female body, especially the pregnant body of immigrant women. The social contextualization of immigration intertwines with the character of the protagonist, Farah, who once in Ireland is a “migrant m/Other” (156), a sign of non-conformity in a country that has found itself a country of immigration rather than emigration.
Lucy Collin’s attention moves from fiction to poetry and her essay “Changing Places: The Imperfect City in Contemporary Irish Poetry” provides a comprehensive overview and a deep analysis of the topic. Collins first considers the transformations in the Celtic Tiger years and the subsequent crisis to focus on role of the city and the urban space in poetry. The city is seen as both subject and object, and quoting Rebecca Solnit, Collins juxtaposes the city to a form of language which is running the risk of dying (167). She sensitively takes into account poems by Macdara Woods in his concern with the changing urban landscape, and by Thomas Kinsella in his attack to corruption in city planning. The instability embedded in the cityscape follows with the close reading of David Wheatley, Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland and Peter Sirr.
With Part Four, “Stereotypes and the Distortion of Irishness”, attention moves to other aspects of identity and imperfection, as flaw and incompleteness are considered in the performing arts. Rosa González-Casademont takes into account a trope that combines identity and imperfection, considering the stereotype of the Irish drunkard not from a sociological but from an imagological perspective. After a survey of drinking culture as a conventional representation of identity, the author moves to drunken characters in Hollywood films over the decades. González-Casademont then concentrates on Irish/British productions, mentioning a wide range of titles and providing a perceptive insight that could attract the attention of the specialist and of the general reader.
Underlining the great success of Irish drama in the past twenty years or so, Shane Walshe draws attention to the possible problems in performance in terms of the Irish accent. After an overview of a variety of handbooks helpful for non-Irish actors to acquire the correct pronunciation in performance, he points out the potential confusion this implies.
Luz Mar González-Arias’s volume concludes with her interview to Lia Mills, which in a way provides a sort of round-up for the collection. Its title, “Absolutely Imperfect” emphasises the purpose of the book and the interview interestingly combines a reflection of the imperfect and the incomplete in Irish history and society as “causes for shame” (223) linked to a “culture of silence” (224), with a very personal and intimate consideration of the serious illness that affected Mills a few years ago, leaving her physically “imperfect”. Mills points out the role of fiction in the exploration of problematic issues as well as the gradual development of the genre of memoir in Ireland in the past few years, as it is the role of the artist to shed light in social or personal “dark corners” (225).
National Identities and Imperfections is an original work that proposes interesting readings of a variety of genres, often opening new ground and providing innovative suggestions and intepretations in the combination between literary and social studies. The issues discussed remain fresh in their multidisciplinary approach, which makes the volume a stimulating and significant contribution.