Rob Doyle’s collection of extracts and short stories celebrates some of our literary envelope-pushers.
The familiar world becomes alien within a single lifespan, as Rob Doyle puts it in his introduction to this new anthology. Innovation in the arts, the pursuit of stamping out your own aesthetic and pushing into new territories might seem a given these days, but it is a relatively new concept that would have seemed perverse in ancient times when art and expression had more functional duties.
But what Doyle – who edits this “sampler” of Ireland’s contribution to envelope-pushing in the written word – wisely notices of those who strike us as being wholly original is that they don’t really set out with a dogged urge to experiment in mind. They are simply being themselves. “The best writers don’t try to be original: the just figure out how to become what they are, and they are original.”
Leafing through this mind-broadening collection, especially those sections dealing with singular heavyweights of household-name status, it is hard to argue. Compiled chronologically, Doyle begins, naturally, with Jonathan Swift and his unnerving 1729 satirical short A Modest Proposal…. His final anthologised text is June Caldwell’s Leitrim Flip, a riotous hurtle through an S&M power struggle. Drawing a line twixt the two may seem a thankless task but Doyle is resolute in his enthusiasm to place the “colossal” names – your Joyces, Becketts, Flanns, etc – next to more obscure exponents who contribute to his argument that experimentalism is a fundamental of the Irish literary gestalt. A brief introduction is always provided, and these flowering previews can be a relief when juxtaposed beside certain impenetrable texts. I’d never come across James Clarence Mangan, the eccentric mid-19th century scribe beloved of Yeats and Joyce, but it’s now unlikely I’ll ever forget the name. Besides being a chronic opium addict – included here is a dotty, fragmented voyage into the wee hours entitled A Sixty-Drop Dose of Laudanum – Mangan walked Dublin in a blond wig, cloak and green specs, and wrote an autobiography that ends mid-sentence.
Then there’s George Egerton, the byline of Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright. She was a pioneer of feminist writing who was influenced by her one-time lover, the Norwegian powerhouse Knut Hamsun. Included here is The Spell of the White Elf, taken from her landmark 1893 short-story collection Keynotes. Themes of female desire and maternal politics bubble up in prose that is cuttingly modern for its era.
More recently, Dave Lordan’s prescient dystopian manifesto Becoming Polis features, like all good satire, a chilling underscore. This is one of many examples of a bold contemporary voice many readers may not have encountered but will leave with an indelible sense of. Particularly fascinating are individuals such as Jennifer Walsh and Killian Turner, stylistic auteurs of modest fanfare. The former is in fact a composer but merits inclusion by virtue of an excellent fictitious history of Irish outsider musicians, complete with ‘Guinness Dadaists’, Roscommon subliminal conductors and Limerick free-jazz duos. The latter, meanwhile, offers a very different colour scheme. Turner, the Dublin writer who vanished mysteriously in 1985 in Berlin, is all twisting, writhing blackness, a trait Doyle feels makes him a member of “a European anti-canon of troubled visionary authors that includes Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade”.
Walsh is evidence that what lies outside the boundaries of thematic and formal literary conventions can be expansive and playful. Turner’s veiled prose suicide note (An Investigation into My Own Disappearance), however, hints at an unquiet mind revealing symptoms via scattered logic and the smashing of established worlds.
More familiar names glitter here, as well. Flann O’Brien’s unhinged control in Scenes in a Novel leaves you tickled, as if you’ve just caught up with an old friend after many years. You mightn’t say the same about Clonmel-born Laurence Sterne’s The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the legendary mid-18th century labyrinth once described as like being “cornered by some brilliant Irish drunk”. Many have tried Sterne’s unspooling, clause-addled, tangent-humping saga, only to throw down the thing in a huff. With the daunting distance of the back cover absent, Doyle’s extracted taster is a little more digestible.
Even without Kevin Barry or Sean O’Reilly, the rude health of this heritage today is robustly argued. Mike McCormack is in stunning form with his helixing neo-biblical multi-choice The Occupation: A Guide For Tourists. Emer Martin’s hobo epic Breakfast in Babylon is conventionally shaped but dazzlingly authentic in the internal registers she finds.
We need not be afraid, Doyle argues as he offers us a space to chew over Irish literature’s tougher cuts without fear. Take Ulysses. Here, we get the penultimate ‘Ithaca’ section where a call-and-response cascade of ideas monitors a stroll by Bloom and Stephen. Doyle’s introduction sees him happily elaborate how Bloomsday marks the date a young Joyce first received “a handjob” from Nora Barnacle. This leavening of reverence with a taste for the arch is a hearty chunk of this anthology’s appeal, and the reason it performs its task so effectively.