University of Trieste, Italy
The Thriller and Northern Ireland since 1969 by Aaron Kelly
(European Cultural Transition, Ashgate, 2005)
In the last 35 years, the Northern Irish Troubles have spawned over four hundred thrillers and a gathering list of critical studies. These studies have undergone phases of detraction and of appreciation (but mostly detraction). Aaron Kelly’s book adds to this list with a contribution that represents a moment of triumphant critical recuperation —or rather «redemptive transcription» to use his words— of the genre.
Although many theoretical muses are invoked, the main framework of reference is the Fredric Jameson aesthetic of cognitive mapping, which allows Kelly to hypothesize the existence of a dialectic between repressive and redemptive modalities (its ideological and utopian dimensions). The thriller, far from being mere propaganda at mass culture level or escapist entertainment, becomes a location of political promise and social orientation by virtue of its dual modality. In its capacity to expose the contradictions and conflicts of the various levels of society and to supply a cartography (understanding) of the social totality, it uncovers the Great Crime behind all crimes: the «vast inscrutable logic of the global conspiracy of global capitalism itself.»
Kelly performs his redemptive transcription in six chapters, two of which —the Introduction and the conclusion entitled «Towards a Political Aesthetics»— are essentially theoretical. The middle four deal with specific concerns of the form under examination. The book also offers full translations in English of two short essays by Brecht and Benjamin on crime fiction which have never been previously translated.
The first chapter is devoted to the figuring of Northern Ireland in the British Troubles Thrillers (i.e. those written by non-Irish authors) as a «representational void» which can contain a very comfortable and legible nightmare (the Troubles) in place of a bigger nightmare which cannot be consciously contemplated (English history and its social fracture). Problematics of home are focussed upon in the second chapter with a partial employment of Joep Leerssen’s auto-exoticism, which helps detect the «allochronic» tendency to depict Northern Ireland as a site of a de-historicized, essentialistic and immemorial trauma (the sectarian conflict), immune to and bypassed by History. This chapter also elucidates the way in which the form exposes the crisis in the filiative (Said’s term) ideologies of Irish Nationalism and Unionism, in other words their parallel promotion of the country and its traditional form of life as the only site for family, religion, kin and happiness.
Chapter three tackles a classic theme in Northern Irish criticism: the depiction of Belfast and urban space. In line with earlier interpretations, Kelly exposes the dehistoricising «infernalization» or Gothicization of Belfast. This is something readers of Northern Irish literature are all too familiar with, for it is perhaps the most obvious example of a repressive modality in the genre. The redemptive modality can be detected once it becomes clear that the city, thanks to its heterogeneity and multiple codes, becomes a «repository of transgressive narratives and histories» which stand in opposition to the nation. Thus the filiative ideologies of Nationalism and Unionism and their organic figurations of Belfast as a puzzle of tribal units (Belfast’s sectarian ghettoes) are thrown into disarray. The post-Marxist approach allows the author to add that, since the dominant symbol of darkness and bleakness is the shipyard, Belfast’s gothicization also betrays the terror of the form’s political unconscious: fear of the working class. Interestingly, Kelly rejects the many recent redemptive figurations/readings of Belfast as postmodern location of multiple possibilities. For Kelly, Belfast is a post-modern city which perpetuates the commodification and technologization of capitalism, whereby the urban contributes to the mortification and exclusion of the working class, forced to live in sectiarian ghettoes and excluded by the gentrification of the postmodern and pluralistic city centre.
Constructions of gender are analysed in chapter 4, where the main point is a critique of the conventionally held view of the thriller as a teleological and masculine re-affirmation of order. In the Troubles Thriller the assumption of the existence of a «homogeneous male gaze» is dismantled because «scopic violence» (male gaze) is not exclusively directed onto the feminine, but also on other forms of masculinity (here a greater number of textual examples would have made the argument easier to subscribe to). It is therefore possible to find a «stratification of masculinities» challenging the absolutism of feminist criticism which considers the thriller an expression of misogyny and conservatism. Even the macho figures which abound in the texts attest to the failure of masculinity operated by late capitalism, when the feminization of labour and the market (women working outside the house) and the consequent recodification of the family (men do change nappies nowadays) have dissolved traditional concepts of manhood. Two traditional arenas of male power and authority —workplace and family— are dissolved in late capitalist society. Kelly also focuses on the presence of the femme fatale (Lacan’ssinthome is employed here) and on the recurrent association of homosexuality with state corruption (of which perhaps more textual examples would have been welcome) to conclude with the possibilities that the Troubles thriller written by women can offer for the articulation of a new and challenging system of gender representation; this interesting aspect is left under-explored because, in spite of the author’s goodwill, Troubles Thrillers written by women are few and – from what one can gather – not terribly inspiring.
The final chapter leads us through a sort of trance-like trip of theorerical jouissance which begins with Nietszche and continues with Jameson, Berman, Foucault, Ahmad, Deleuze and Guatarri, Barthes, McCracken, Lacan, Žižek, Thompson, Althusser, Steve Neale, Lodge, Barthes, Peter Brooks, Jayne Steel, Daniel Gunn, Benjamin. The trip ends anticlimactically with a formal reflection (via Barthes and Mandel) on boredom, since, Kelly explains «for all the thrills and pleasure and the aesthetics I have attempted to elaborate, it is amazing how fundamentally boring many of these texts actually are». Such a statement, after 156 pages of sweated concentration, might discourage the reader, who nevertheless should not desist: not so much because, as we are told, boredom is actually «the formal site of utopian longing and impatience with the Big Other’s fantasy of ‘law and order’ and an anticipation of historical awakening» but because in the final pages Kelly makes interesting polemical statements about the state-controlled aspects of the Peace Process.
Kelly’s study first saw light as Ph.D. dissertation and to an extent the book here reviewed suffers from this dissertational origin: Kelly’s skill at negotiating his way through complicated theoretical frameworks is extremely impressive but the abundance of pages dedicated to the background information and pure theory (a dissertational prerequisite) at times forces the object of its analysis to play second fiddle, and this is a pity. A hostile syntax at times distracts from the stimulating argument of Kelly’s discourse, while the author’s fascination for unusual latinate words (actuation, attenuation, tessellation, exudation, constellation, suturation, sequestration, summation, imbrication, rumination, evisceration are but a few that come to mind) makes even an Italian or French mother-tongue reader yearn for some healthy Anglification. Nevertheless The Thriller and Northern Ireland since 1969 undoubtedly offers a rich and stimulating post-Marxist original reading of a by now well-explored literary form.