BooksWeekend

Alan McMonagle’s “Psychotic Episodes”: “I’ve a feeling we’re not in [Old] Ireland anymore”

Alan McMonagle (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Alan McMonagle (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Being born in Scotland carries with it certain responsibilities.”

That observation, made by Derek Taylor, the Liverpool-born newspaperman who became the Beatles’ press officer, was irreverently included on the back cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s record album The Plastic One Band/Live Peace in Toronto 1969.

Adapted, slightly rephrased and flipped, it may be of use when considering the work of the Galway-based, Irish author Alan McMonagle: It isn’t easy being a contemporary writer from Ireland.

That is to say, many a contemporary poet, short story creator, or novelist in or from Ireland may well feel that he or she is working in the long, intimidating shadows of Irish literary masters. Plus, for an Irish writer today, at home or abroad, there is a heavy load of accumulated social, cultural, religious, and historical-political values, myths, stereotypes, and expectations about Ireland to be borne (or not, but even choosing to ignore them is a kind of acknowledgment of their enduring significance). Separately or together, these perspectives continue to provide filters through which many observers, especially foreigners, have tended to regard different aspects of Irish life.

McMonagle, an easygoing 43-year-old, was born in County Sligo (“Yeats Country”), in northwestern Ireland. He grew up in County Longford, in the north-central part of the Republic, before moving to Galway, on the west coast, to study writing and settle there. He represents a well-educated, informed-about-the-world generation of Irish literary artists who might have inherited — and, whether they like it or not, may be seen as the custodians of — a rich legacy. But that does not mean they willfully or necessarily traffic in familiar clichés, even if or when these writers’ themes are, well, unmistakably Irish. (Some others include Kevin Barry, Mike McCormack, Patrick McCabe, and Claire Kilroy.)

For example, in Psychotic Episodes, McMonagle’s new collection of stories (published by Arlen House, in Galway; distributed in the U.S. by Syracuse University Press), there are no Irish eyes smiling, Blarney Stones, capricious leprechauns, ruddy-faced village priests, or peat fires keeping cozy cottages warm.

About all that social-cultural-religious baggage: In her 1976 essay-memoir, Mother Ireland, Edna O’Brien observed that, when you say you’re Irish, you are instantly “allocated […] the tendencies to be wild, wanton, drunk, superstitious, unreliable, backward, toadying and prone to fits, whereas you know that in fact a whole entourage of ghosts resides in you, ghosts with whom the inner rapport is as frequent, as perplexing, as defiant as with any of the living.”

O’Brien added that, when you’re Irish, “you know both sides and you are curiously uneasy with both. Uneasy with the outsiders who expect their version of you to manifest” and “even more uneasy with the natives who want you or anyone to lift them corporally out of their mire and desperation and bring them straight to heaven in a chariot.”

PsychoticEpisodes-320-Instinctively, McMonagle has that old index of Irish verities neatly packed away in his writer’s kit. Unlike O’Brien’s rural homeland, though, his early-21st-century Ireland is urban and suburban, a place of self-serving, short-sighted, ineffective politicians; disaffected or oversexed teenagers; fortunetellers who sometimes lack the energy to offer any prognostications; and whole communities that feel dumbfounded by the devastating collapse of their nation’s economy on the heels of the global financial crisis of 2008. That dispiriting fall came after Ireland had been Europe’s booming “Celtic Tiger” since the mid-1990s.

Still, McMonagle’s Irish know whom to blame for the political-financial shenanigans and greedy real-estate speculation that left a rash of half-built “ghost estates” and high-rises dotting suburban landscapes and urban centers. (I saw some of these monuments to avarice, incompetence and bad timing myself this past summer in Ireland’s countryside and in Dublin). Those bankers, speculators, and clueless pols’ antics before and in the wake of the 2008 wallop also led to higher unemployment, economic recession, and, once again, waves of emigration. As boom turned to bust, residents of the Emerald Isle who could do so set off for the U.S., Australia, Canada, or other destinations.

Contemporary Ireland, McMonagle recognizes, has been deeply touched by the forces of globalization. The country he knows is one in which, one can imagine, old Irish myths are blarney, the leprechauns are stoned, and leaders of the Roman Catholic flock are often randy, frisky priests, and not, as in Graham Greene’s “Greeneland,” existentially challenged, relatively harmless whiskey priests. As in “The Storyteller and the Thief,” a piece in Psychotic Episodes about a stressed-out mother, whose husband has abandoned her and their shoplifting teenage son, in this Ireland the only fuel worth throwing on the fire is a homemaker’s deluge of unpaid bills. Her sticky-fingered boy used to enjoy hearing “Ma” spin a tale when she put him to bed, but now she feels too strung-out to entertain him. McMonagle writes: “‘I’m too tired to tell a story,’ she says. ‘Now go to sleep and dream that none of this is happening.’”

“Ma” speaks for herself and her little family’s predicament. She could easily be speaking for an entire country, too.

In McMonagle’s Ireland, the heroines of O’Brien’s banned, ground-breaking debut novel, The Country Girls (1960), who escaped rural strictures and stifling religiosity for Dublin and dared to think about and express their desires, ambitions, and sexuality, long ago grew up and had children and grandchildren. Their progeny are now worried about how to make regular grocery, car, and cell-phone payments; about what — or, more precisely, how and where — the priests and nuns of the Holy Mother Church are imparting its catechism to their offspring; and whether or not their and their children’s meds have kicked in.

In the story “Psychotic Episodes,” two Godot-like characters (“This is Godot land,” O’Brien wrote in Mother Ireland) are residents of and pals in a psychiatric hospital. There, they are made to watch Laurel and Hardy movies, therapeutically handcraft “ornamental mirrors” and share their personal ambitions in group-therapy sessions. All they really want, of course, is to be let go, but considering their obsessions with Elizabeth Taylor, American presidents and North Korean missiles, at least one of them seems to grasp that they might not be ready to return to so-called normal society.

“Crazy minds think alike,” one of the men tells the other, the story’s unnamed narrator, in a tone of solidarity and consolation. However, if one of McMonagle’s big themes seems to be that we’re all in this together — all of us (or them, that is) who inhabit this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Republic of Ireland, in 2013 — his stories also suggest that, when it comes to finding ways to cope with economic uncertainty or to shake off the malaise it has engendered, it might be a case of every man, woman, and child for himself or herself. In McMonagle’s Ireland, everyone is looking to the unknowable future, for the too-familiar present is exasperatingly unmanageable.

Where to turn for help or guidance is anybody’s guess. Forget about the bankers, economists, “financial professionals” and politicians who steered the country into its current mess in the first place. Forget about priests, who might be prone to feel someone up before helping her to feel optimistic. Forget about fortunetellers who do not know what to say. (By contrast, as in the story, “The Fortune Teller and the Rebel,” there are some who can’t stop talking. Of one little community, McMonagle’s eleven-year-old male narrator says, “In our town fortune-telling was quickly becoming a clever career move. Just about everybody on our road, for instance, was curious about the future. They had to know what was going to happen. […] No question was too outrageous.”)

So who’s left to provide leadership, insight, wisdom, or even a little peace of mind? Lawyers, jesters, shrinks? TV talk-show hosts? Globetrotting, do-good rock stars? In the psychiatric hospital, the unnamed narrator-protagonist of “Psychotic Episodes” states: “A doctor once listened to my story and concluded I didn’t like myself very much. The following week the same doctor was found in his bedroom, dangling from a rope.”

Other characters in McMonagle’s stories more or less accept the ongoing mishigas around them and do their best to adapt to it. Take, for example, Kitty Clog, the narrator of “The Good Crank,” who notes: “These days I live on Single Street, the oldest street in our town. […] It’s where we move to when our men run away or meet with an unfortunate end. When he had his chance my man chose to run.” Among the “lifelong bachelors” who occupy other houses along Kitty’s “brittle road,” she observes, there are the deaf, who “describe what they see,” and the blind, who “record all the gossip.” Kitty concludes: “It’s a very effective system. On a good day, any combination of them could run the country.”

If the taste in his compatriots’ mouths in the face of daunting economic and social conditions is one of stale Guinness, for McMonagle, the ongoing crisis (which lately has been lifting for those in the digital-tech sector, at least) is one that presents writers with a wealth of subject matter to examine.

Now in the U.S. on a short tour to promote Psychotic Episodes, McMonagle already has presented readings in New York and Philadelphia. (On Sunday, October 27, at 3:00 p.m., his final reading will take place at the Fels Student Center at Nichols College, in Dudley, Massachusetts.)

This past summer, in Galway, and again a few days ago, in New York, I met up with McMonagle and asked him about the raw material of his writing. “This seems to me to be an especially fertile moment for writing in Ireland,” he said. “We’re a nation of storytellers, and right now there are so many stories to tell about how people are trying to cope with hardships or with changes brought about by globalization, technology, immigration, our relationship with Europe. I believe it’s going to be several years before we’ll be able to look back on this period — by then, hopefully, the overall situation will have changed for the better for many — and see what sense our writers made of it, and also what this time meant for the Irish.”

I noted that, in his stories, there is humor and also compassion for his characters, but that, at the same time, given the roles financial speculators and politicians played in laying the groundwork for Ireland’s economic fall a few years ago and its ensuing woes, there is little cynicism. For example, McMonagle does not pointedly express the sense of betrayal of the Irish by their leaders, and of themselves by themselves, which had so unnerved and angered James Joyce. (One can only imagine what Joyce’s reaction might have been had he lived to witness recent events, including, especially, the Roman Catholic Church’s child-abuse scandal and the astonishing public condemnation of its criminality by Enda Kenny, the nation’s Taoiseach, or prime minister, before Ireland’s parliament in July 2011.)

“No, I’m not explicitly cynical in my writing,” McMonagle explained, “because, in a way, I don’t have to be. You see, everybody in Ireland knows that we’ve been screwed by irresponsible speculators and politicians. We all know that the people we wanted to be able to trust have let us down. So now, for me, as an Irishman and a writer, what interests me is the dynamics of this relationship, and the hurt, suspicion, fear, confusion, mistrust, and other emotions and uncertainty that have emerged as a result of the economic downturn.”

LiarLiarMcMonagle’s first collection of stories, Liar, Liar, was issued in 2008 by Wordsonthestreet, a Galway-based publisher. Earlier this year, in a chat with the Irish author Nuala Ní Chonchúir, which appeared on her books-themed blog, McMonagle referred to his use of irony — though not from the self-conscious, postmodernist pose that has become so tiresome and so easy — in his earlier volume and in Psychotic Episodes: “I try to use humor to bring something unfunny into relief. I don’t always succeed but when I do, it is very satisfying. Woody Allen says comedy equals tragedy plus time. I think humor and tragedy run together, [they] coexist.”

McMonagle whips up many funny-sad cocktails in Psychotic Episodes, in whose stories the humor can be somewhat dark but always humane. It’s never sarcastic. Meanwhile, the tragedy can be trenchant in its details but, in a big-picture context, with that old punching bag, the human condition, more generally in mind, somehow reassuring, too. McMonagle’s characters find refuge from the external world by turning inward. With these new stories, he offers a memo to the confused, the distraught, the impatient, the wounded, or the downright cranky, like Cassie, a restless teenager holed up in a no-action town in “The Fortune Teller and the Rebel.” The author’s message: That no priests, bankers, lawyers, politicians, spirits of the past, or even our own parents or families can save us; instead, each of us may well be his or her own best redeemer. The challenge for everyone is to figure out how to make a move, how to keep one step ahead and out of the way of fate’s next curveball — and to understand that, when the going gets tough, deliverance does not lie at the end of a rainbow arcing above the shamrock fields. Where it lies is somewhere in the depths of each seeker’s own weary soul.

So it is that the light and the dark come together as self-consciously single Kitty Clog admits: “Sometimes I invite the developer inside for a cup of tea, a slice of currant cake.” She is referring to the representative of one of those troublemaking property-development companies whose speculative construction of a forest of new houses around hers, many of which could very well end up unsold and unoccupied, is destroying her neighborhood and further fueling the economic havoc.

Kitty writes: “Before discovering property, he tells me he was a yoga master. ‘Finally I saw the light,’ he says, then mentions his plans to buy a peninsula in west Cork, build a submarine, the country’s first indoor golf course and the largest nursing home there’s ever been.” Nevertheless, Kitty tells this sociable charmer-destroyer that, when it opens, she will be his nursing home’s first customer.

Or there’s the chitchat of The Slug Doyle, an older male who tells the young narrator of “The Fortune Teller and the Rebel,” ominously: “People are disappearing all the time. All you have to do is turn on the nine o’clock news. First thing they tell you is someone has disappeared. Last night I turned it on. And guess what? Two had disappeared. […] Another night some poor bastard went to post a letter. Vanished into thin air.”

Many of McMonagle’s best passages flow like that, in short, crisp sentences. Then comes the punch line, as The Slug adds, relieved: “Mind you, they found the letter.”

When I met McMonagle, I asked him this double-barreled question: Does he regard himself as an Irish writer or, as Joyce had aspired to be and certainly became, a European writer, an artist whose voice and vista are not nation- or culture-specific; I also asked him: If he does identify himself as an Irish writer, does such a role imply any particular artistic (but not necessarily political) obligations or responsibilities with regard to his subject matter? That is, insofar as he writes about the society and culture of his homeland, and given the considerable literacy legacy he and his peers contend with or tap into, does he feel any pressure to approach his subject matter in a particular way?

“In fact,” McMonagle replied, “I don’t really see myself as an Irish or a European writer, per se, but rather as a writer who is from and who is based in Ireland, who writes in English. It’s the Hiberno-English of Ireland that is my native language in which I write, a language rich in special words, rhythms, and points of view about the use and expressiveness of the language itself to which, if anything, I might feel a sense of ‘responsibility,’ but maybe that’s not the right word. What I feel instead is a sense of rootedness in this language, and it’s certainly a key part of my writing and that of other contemporary Irish writers. Listen to them read their works, to how they — we — tend to describe people, places or events, and hear how this language sings. I hear it around me all the time. If anything, maybe it’s this language to which I want to be true.”

What McMonagle did not say, perhaps out of modesty or because he feels it is a reader’s prerogative — and delight — to discover it on his or her own, is that there is something about his storytelling that does distinguish his approach to his subjects. Whether or not it somehow emerges from the flavor and character of the distinctive English of his country is a topic psycholinguists and comp-lit experts might someday wish to investigate (after they’ve laughed and wept their way through Liar, Liar and Psychotic Episodes).

For me, that special element of McMonagle’s writing is a discernible, deep current of empathy that percolates beneath the surface of even his most unusual or desperate-sounding scenarios. In his new book, when the narrator of “Women Drivers on Taylor’s Hill” is knocked off his bicycle by an attractive woman behind the wheel of a sleek Audi, prompting her to sob as she apologizes for the harm she has caused, she dismisses herself as “horrible” and “useless.”

“You’re not useless,” the young man, sitting injured in the road, responds as he embraces and consoles the weeping driver, and they wait for an ambulance to arrive for him. He tells her: “You’re a beautiful person. You’re beautiful and you’re saving my life.”

That kind of ugly-pretty, unlikely-ordinary scene is typical of the memorable blend of humor and sadness, and of hope and exasperation, that McMonagle’s fiction purveys. For me, it’s an unmistakably flavorful Irish mix.

Alan McMonagle’s Psychotic Episodes is available from Syracuse University Press and other online booksellers.

McMonagle will read at the Fels Student Center at Nichols College (124 Center Road, Dudley, Massachusetts) on Sunday, October 27, at 3 pm.

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