November 2016

Noted

‘The Lesser Bohemians’ by Eimear McBride

By Helen Elliott
Cover of The Lesser Bohemians
Text Publishing; $29.99

Eily’s 18, Stephen’s 38. He’s a well-known actor in the West End and in film, she’s arrived in London fresh from Ireland to start a three-year theatre course. She’s a virgin, he certainly isn’t: “I was terrible around women I suppose – never met one I couldn’t find something to fancy about.” They meet in a pub when he almost burns her with his cigarette. He’s reading Dostoevsky’s The Devils, and is amused and impressed that she, an almost child, has read it. Later, in his mess of a room, she thinks, “So here’s how grown men kiss and this one knows how.”

Eimear McBride dazzled the literary world with her disturbing first novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (2013). Remarkably, for a second novel, The Lesser Bohemians sustains the promise of the first. Still, McBride is not for the faint-hearted. Believing that readers want more than an easy beach read, she’s taken James Joyce as her compass. And not early Joyce, but Ulysses. That has caused some to lazily assess her writing as stream of consciousness when it is something quite different. If Joyce was trying to pin down the evanescence of individual thought, McBride aims (merely) to compress the entire physical individual, including their thought, into language. Rhythms of poetry flow through her pages as naturally as blood flows through a body. A sort of poetic machine observes and records every incandescent but momentary physical fluctuation of human existence as a vital sign of life. The reader is hooked up to this miraculous machine from the rush of the opening pages.

This is the story of an unlikely love affair that is deep and true. Eily and Stephen have to find their way to love by an anti-romantic route: a one-night stand, the endless booze and cigarettes and dirt of ’90s London. They have immense sexual passion. Eventually they start to talk, and notice a mutual delight that is not just about the sex. But sex is the key. In the urgency, the practicality, the physicality and the humour, McBride taps the 17th-century poets and Shakespeare rather than any novelist. Like the poets, she sails towards glimpses of Arcadia to suggest something eternal rather than fleeting. There is, too, the underlying music of Edna O’Brien’s daring, original The Country Girls, which set the world on its heels in 1960 and changed the way we read novels by women. McBride has the same effect. Eily might be Caithleen updated. Whatever else McBride is doing, it is clear that she is shifting ideas of what a novel might be. The Lesser Bohemians is hard-going at times but who else uses language like this? A small revolution has occurred.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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