#23: TWO CONTEMPORARY NOVELISTS. If you want to see someone at play in the fields of the English language, Roddy Doyle will supply. When I first began visiting Dublin, I saw and heard James Joyce everywhere; lately I hear Roddy Doyle. His first three novels, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van, are dialogue comedies about the North Dublin Rabbitte family that were clearly Doyle staking his claim—The Snapper is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. The next, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a boy surviving an unhappy family life, showed a new shading of comic powers and depth of feeling, and the fifth, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, is a tough, hopeful novel about a woman getting into and fighting her way out of an abusive marriage; his most recent, Paula Spencer, is a look-in on the heroine of Woman, later in her embattled going-on. In A Star Called Henry, Doyle introduces his little Dublin hellion, Henry Smart, who provides us with a mordant take on the 1916 Rebellion that manages to be both irreverent and romantic; in its sequel, Oh, Play That Thing, Henry skips Ireland, hits New York and Chicago, and becomes Louis Armstrong’s white boy. With these books, Doyle’s in full flight: his command of milieu (the immigrant’s New York), his historical sense (his sly observations on jazz music as it passed from Chicago to New York) and evocative skills (the scene in which Satchmo plays a trumpet elegy for his mother) are couched in prose that all but gets up and walks around by itself. There’s going to be a third volume of Henry’s adventures—I can’t wait.
(For another fictional revision of 1916, read Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys, in which the Rebellion is the backdrop for two Dublin boys who fall in love—one bookish shopkeeper’s son, one working rough.)
P.S. The Dead Republic, the third and last of the Henry Smart novels, came out in 2010. As it deals with Henry’s old age, the prose has less of the comic vitality, the plot less of the arrow-in-flight clarity of its predecessors; it’s darker, broader, more ambitious, and of course it’s Doyle getting his grand design nailed into place. It’s his touch on the myths of the Republic of Ireland, not to mention the dream world of Irish-America, and Henry figures as its brawling, tainted, rumbustious and tragicomic spirit. It’s a big broth of a book; the zigzagging second half especially groans under the weight of Doyle’s ideas and design, but there’s much in it that’s mordantly funny and much that’s harrowing and tragic, and Doyle’s sense of period is flawless. The Deportees, his collection of stories from the magazine Metro Eireann, is Doyle’s first serious literary peek at post- EEC Ireland, with its new immigrant communities. For all the difficulties of that world, it seems to have brought out in Doyle the ebullience and purely comic spirit of the early novels—the title story, indeed, is a sequel to The Commitments. There’s sympathy in them, humor, and the rollick and roll of Doyle’s wild-flying dialogue. “I went to bed in one country, and woke up in a different one,” Doyle writes, and you can tell he loves it.
Margaret Atwood’s style has a close-facing quality about it—a way of assuming you’re in on her daring, acerbic joke—that I know not everyone warms up to. But her work has shown an amazing variety, an almost intimidating intelligence, and she’s always onto her topics before anyone else—no other novelist has her eye so intently on tiny shifts of the geist. From her first novel, Surfacing—a satire that turns into an astonishingly successful literary handling of the theme of emotional rebirth—to her most recent, the harrowing post-apocalyptic trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Floom and Maddadam, it’s been impossible to guess what direction she’ll go off in; she’s the opposite of a genre novelist.
My favorites have been The Edible Woman, a comedy about a woman whose romantic life and digestive system run afoul of each other and which has a tone-perfect comic whopper of an ending; The Handmaids's Tale, a futuristic novel in which fertile women are pressed into service as surrogate childbearers for a sterile ruling class—one of those rare books genuinely not like anything else—and The Robber Bride, her po-faced black joke about a woman (“a full scale villainess,” Atwood calls her) who runs elaborate, self-serving roughshod over three friends’ lives, and their response. In all Atwood’s best work the ideas are so interesting, the themes so striking, the surprise is that in the end we remember people, voices—Atwood’s characters touch us and convince us as much as her invention delights us. There are also some terrific collections of stories—Wilderness Tips is the best—and literary criticism and poetry—True Stories is my favorite. And her recent work The Penelopiad, a female reimagining of the Odyssey, is rude and funny—the best example of playing dirty pool with the classics I’ve read in ages.