Archive for the ‘Ryan, Donal (2)’ Category

The Thing About December, by Donal Ryan

March 19, 2014

Purchase at the Book Depository

Purchase at the Book Depository

Irish author Donal Ryan made a fair splash last summer with his debut novel, The Spinning Heart. It made the Booker longlist and would have been my personal second choice, after Jim Crace’s Harvest.

I read at the time that Ryan had been working on another novel simultaneously with the writing of The Spinning Heart and was looking forward to it — a debut is one thing, and two-book contracts are common, but a double debut is almost unheard of. The Thing About December was published in Ireland last year at virtually the same time as The Spinning Heart — it was released in the UK earlier this year. Now that I have read The Thing About December I am even more impressed with Ryan’s achievement.

I apologize for referencing both the books here, but I am afraid that is an inevitable product of my reading experience. They feature no common characters and certainly stand independently — but for this reader, the collective experience of the two really is greater than the sum of the very worthy individual parts.

The Spinning Heart features a unique structure — in a slim 156 pages, the reader hears from 21 different individuals in a rural Irish community following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, each of whom gets his or her own short chapter. The community is home to one of Ireland’s “ghost estates” and the common thread of the 21 stories is how that collapse has affected (and torn apart) the community and its residents.

The Thing About December also features an unconventional structure, although not quite as uncommon as Ryan’s first book. The 12 chapters in this shortish novel (205 pages) tell the story of a year in the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, broken month-by-month from January to December. If The Spinning Heart presents a contemporary Irish community from 21 perspectives, this novel approaches the same challenge from a single one.

And part of the conceit is that it is a seriously incomplete one. Johnsey is not quite all there, a “gom”, an “eejit”, a “retard” (yes, that politically incorrect label actually appears). Here’s how Ryan sets that up for the reader in the opening pages of the book:

He heard Daddy one time saying he was a grand quiet boy to Mother when he thought Johnsey couldn’t hear them talking. Mother must have been giving out about him being a gom and Daddy was defending him. He heard the fondness in Daddy’s voice. But you’d have fondness for an auld eejit of a crossbred pup that should have been drowned at birth. He’d be no use for anything only eating and shiteing and he’d be an awful nuisance, but still and all you’d give him the odd rub and a treat, and you’d nearly always be kind to him because it wasn’t his fault he was a drooling fool of a yoke. You wouldn’t be going around showing him off to people, that’s for sure.

Using a central narrator who is a few bricks shy of a load is a risky device and it has to be said that Ryan demands some licence from the reader: in accepting Johnsey’s incompleteness in some areas, we also have to accept the author’s need to have him be a very complete individual in other aspects. I had no trouble doing this — indeed, I came to like Johnsey more and more as the novel proceeded.

Just as The Spinning Heart slowly put together a community from 21 viewpoints, this novel is as much about the people in the village where Johnsey lives as it is the narrator’s life. By way of example, here is Packie Collins, the owner of the co-op where Johnsey works. Daddy has died a few months before the novel opens and Johnsey’s job is the centre of his limited life: “[Packie] told Johnsey every day that he was only allowing him work in the co-op out of respect for his father, Lord have mercy on him. He was a liability“:

Packie was forever going on about the wages he was forced to pay Johnsey and the terrible injustice that was being perpetrated on the small business with this minimum wage malarkey. Well if it came in he could sing for it, Packie said. There was a thing in there in that law that said lads without their full faculties weren’t entitled to it, anyway.

Johnsey wasn’t exactly sure what faculties were but he knew there were no bits missing off of him on the outside, so it must be something inside him that Packie thinks is not right and stops him from getting the minimum wage. Johnsey knew what minimum meant: a point, below which you could not go. There weren’t as many flies on Johnsey as Packie made out. He knew all about the new law coming in. But what about it, Packie knew no law only his own, and points below which you may not go would not apply to Johnsey.

Those observations about Packie feature both an incompleteness and depth of perception in Johnsey’s narration that occur frequently in the novel; it sometimes grates, but works more often than not. And Ryan uses the device to introduce many other members of the community. To cite just a few examples: the Unthinks who are long-time friends of Johnsey’s family and feed him lunch daily at their bakery; the caddish Dermot McDermot, who leases land from the Cunliffes (Daddy’s economic lot was declining long before his death); and Eugene Penrose and the dole boys who taunt Johnsey every day on his way home from work.

The author finds ways to give us sketches of that cast in the first three “months” of the book; the story picks up steam when Mother dies in March and Johnsey is left alone.

That’s when the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger comes into play. This novel is set pre-collapse — indeed, the local village has the chance to become home to one of those developments that feature in The Spinning Heart. Trouble is, the development cannot proceed without the land that Johnsey now owns outright. And his completeness/incompleteness comes fully into play in this part of the story — instead of being the village oddity, he is central to its future, even if he himself does not realize it.

The best Irish fiction involves characters who are prisoners of external circumstance and, in both these debut novels, Ryan provides a contemporary version of that narrative. They certainly worked for me although I can see where other readers might find that the author is pushing just too hard to make his point. They represent two quite different ways of portraying a community of ordinary people — as different as the narrative structures are, it is that sense of community that makes both novels a success. They are not perfect books (and the characters in them are anything but perfect), but they are rewarding ones.

And, as I said earlier, the impact of the two is greater than merely the sum of the parts. Donal Ryan’s writing career is off to a very good start.

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The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan

September 6, 2013

Purchased from the Book Depository

Purchased from the Book Depository

The 2013 Booker longlist contains a number of examples of what seems to be a new favorite structure for contemporary authors: independent narrative streams telling the stories of different central characters which are eventually braided together. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann features three historical tales set 150 years apart — the unifying feature turns out to be a four-generation story involving characters who appear secondarily in each of the streams. Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw takes place entirely in present-day Shanghai but involves five different Malaysian fortune-seekers whose stories are developed independently but eventually overlap (not entirely convincingly, it must be said). The device is certainly not unknown in fiction but it seems to be becoming more common — or perhaps it is just that it appeals to this year’s jury.

In one sense, Donal Ryan’s debut novel, The Spinning Heart, represents an extreme use of the approach: the tightly-written 156-page novel consists of first-person vignettes from 21 different characters, many of them only four or five pages long. They all live in the same Irish village and are all involved (in varying degrees) with the over-arching events of the narrative, but each has a unique experience with them.

booker logoIn another sense, however, Ryan uses the device quite differently. Where McCann and Aw end up braiding the streams together, Ryan treats his 21 “chapters” like tiles of a mosaic — he lays them all out but leaves it to the reader to put the overall arrangement together.

It needs to be said that the novel is not as random as that description suggests. The opening chapter (“Bobby”) is the narrative of the closest thing the book has to a central character — Ryan is also wise enough to use it to introduce one man’s version of those over-arching events that affect the entire cast.

The most pervasive of these is the demise of Pokey Burke’s house construction “business” (where Bobby is the foreman), a product both of the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger and Pokey’s criminality. We see its impact initially through Bobby describing fellow worker Mickey Briar’s response to losing his job:

He went over and started to beat the prefab door until Pokey opened it a crack and threw an envelope at him and slammed the door again, just as Mickey put his head down and went to ram him like an old billy goat. Mickey’s hard old skull splintered that door and very nearly gave way. Pokey must have shat himself inside. I want my fuckin pension you little prick, Mickey roared and roared. I want my fuckin pension and the rest of my stamps. Come out you bollocks till I kill you. For a finish he went on a rampage around the place, turning over barrows and pulling formwork apart and when he picked up a shovel and started swinging, we all ran for cover. Except poor innocent Timmy Hanrahan: he only stood grinning back to his two ears like the gom that he is.

And Mickey Briars lamped Timmy Hanrahan twice across both sides of his innocent young head before we subdued him.

Pokey hasn’t been keeping his accounts with the government square — as far as the authorities are concerned, the laid-off workers have never existed. Ryan may be using a contemporary setting but he preserves a frequent theme of Irish fiction: the powerful always punish the powerless (and the powerless tend to take their resulting anger out on each other).

Generational conflict is another constant in Ryan’s anonymous village. The author opens the book by introducing Bobby’s version of it:

My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down. He smiles at me; that terrible smile. He knows I’m coming to check is he dead. He knows I know he knows. He laughs his crooked laugh. I ask is he okay for everything and he only laughs.

Bobby’s description of his generational conflict may be a bit extreme but many of the 21 characters have their own version. The novel suggests that it is an inevitable by-product of a community where there is not much opportunity and not much changes.

And finally (for review purposes because other themes do get introduced), there is the tension between the sexes that also comes from being part of what is essentially a closed community. Here’s how Bobby describes meeting his wife, Triona:

I always knew Pokey Burke was a bit afraid of me. Triona say I exuded menace when she met me first. She has a lovely way of putting things. There was no one stopping her doing honors English. She says I stood against the bar inside in the disco in town and stared at her. Her friend said what the fuck is that freak looking at, but Triona knew the friend was only raging I wasn’t staring at her. Oh, don’t look back, for Christ’s sake, the friend said, he’s from an awful family, they live in a hovel, the father is a weirdo and the mother never speaks — but Triona looked back all the same and when I scowled at her she knew I was trying to smile, and when I hardly spoke to her on the way home she knew deep down that I was terrified of the lightness and loveliness of her, and when she said are we going to shift so or what, I thought I’d never again regain the power of movement.

I’ll admit that Bobby’s story had me engaged with this novel from the start — the sketches of those themes outlined above (and the others I have not mentioned) were ample enough structure for me. And in the next few chapters, Ryan broadens it aptly. We next hear the story of Pokey’s father which enhances the economic disaster background. And then comes Lily’s story of sleeping around. It is followed by that of Vasya, one of the immigrant workers dragged into Pokey’s economic web. The portrait of the village inhabitants begins to acquire depth.

My enthusiasm continued throughout the first two-thirds of the book, heightened as we are given the views of characters we have met in previous chapters.

Unfortunately, at about that point the challenges of Ryan’s dramatic structure start to exceed the author’s ability to deal with them. We have already heard from most of the central characters in the village story, so he needs to rely on increasingly peripheral ones. He also resorts to introducing a new plot line to keep his story going — it was not convincing to me and has drawn negative comment from others who have read the novel.

When it comes time to bring the book to a close (he has saved the stories of a few key characters), I was only too aware of the biggest drawback of the narrative approach. It simply does not allow for a robust enough development of characters (because this is a novel about people who are trapped in situations they do not control) for its conclusion to have the impact it deserves.

I would give Ryan an A for ambition in the way he has chosen to tell his story — I think anyone who reads much fiction would have the same reaction and the book is worth reading for that alone. Alas, the marks for execution are much lower. I did read the book twice because I wanted him to succeed — I’m afraid the second reading produced the same concerns that resulted from the first one. Is that an inevitable result of the structure or simply the author’s inability to deliver on it? I’m inclined to think the former.

The Spinning Heart deserved its Booker longlisting and I would be happy to see it on the shortlist — readers need to be introduced to authors who are willing to take chances. Alas, I would be disappointed if the jury is so enthusiastic about the effort that they choose to reward it with the 2013 Prize itself.


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