“The English,” wrote Kenneth Tynan when reviewing Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, “hoard words like misers; the Irish spend them like sailors.” This is, however, exactly what Irish writers are afraid of. Much of modern Irish literature can be seen as a struggle to, in Seamus Heaney’s phrase, govern the tongue. Volubility, garrulousness, lushness, and lyricism are the clear and present dangers against which the writers have to arm themselves. What can they do with the drunken sailor of Irish speech, heady with elaborations, exaggerations, and evasions? They must lock it in the hold. They have to throw obstacles in the way of the natural flow that would otherwise carry them onto the rocks of rhetoric, sentimentality, or bombast. Their quest is not so much articulation as disarticulation, the wrenching of overly easy words into some kind of hard syntax.
We can trace this effort in the way Oscar Wilde learns to hide behind his apparently free-floating epigrams or the way W.B. Yeats ditches the soft beauty of his Celtic Twilight poems for the muscular plainness of his mature work. James Joyce quickly drowns out the elaborate music of his early poetry with the discord of a fracturing language. John Synge finds a new strategy by creating a strange hybrid, neither poetry nor prose, neither Irish nor English. Flann O’Brien erects endless façades of pastiche and parody, perfecting a comically pedantic narrative voice. Samuel Beckett goes to the last extreme of writing in French so that he can translate his own words back into English, making his native language a second tongue.
Contemporary Irish writers still grapple in their various ways with the spendthrift sailor of easy articulacy. John Banville chisels sentences one by one as if from a solid block of muteness. Colm Tóibín works always toward the stark simplicity of airtight sentences that refuse to leak out any hint of metaphor or rhetoric. Emma Donoghue, in Room, creates an elaborate baby talk. And so on: ambitious Irish writers work in the handcuffs they make for themselves to inhibit the “easy writing” that, as Richard Brinsley Sheridan put it, makes “curst hard reading.” But few in recent times have forged a pair quite so tight and painfully cutting as those Eimear McBride wears in her widely praised debut novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.
McBride’s book comes trailing a long tail of awards, including the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Irish Novel of the Year award, and the Goldsmiths Prize for “boldly original fiction.” It also comes with a classic modernist back-story of artistic persistence in the face of neglect and indifference. McBride was born in Liverpool in 1976 to Irish parents who were both nurses, grew up in Sligo, in the west of Ireland, and moved to London to study acting when she was seventeen. She finished A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing in 2004, when she was twenty-seven, and spent the next nine years trying to get it published. Most of the major British and Irish publishers sent what McBride has called “glowing refusals.” Eventually, Galley Beggar, a small start-up press connected to a bookshop in Norwich, took the book on as its second-ever title (the US publisher is Coffee House Press).
Before it is a modernist novel, however, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a feminist novel. McBride recently wrote an introduction to a new edition of Wedlock, a scandalous late Victorian novel by the Irish writer Mary Chavelita Dunne (who wrote under the pen name George Egerton). There, she praises Dunne’s writing for the way it “bridled and spat at that most holy and catastrophic of constructs ‘Female purity.’” She notes Dunne’s own statement that since men had already written everything, there was, for the female novelist, “only one small plot left to tell: the terra incognita of herself, as she knew herself to be, not as man had imagined her.” McBride also writes that “far from the outside world lies the inside of a woman,” and praises Wedlock in the same terms: “Here are the insides of women inching out into the world like no one could imagine at all.”
Up to a point, this is a good description of McBride’s own novel: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing draws out the insides of a woman with the unflinching determination of a medieval torturer. It spits forcefully in the face of “female purity.” But it is not quite the story of a woman “as she knew herself to be” because in this case the woman at the core of the book can scarcely imagine herself: “I don’t really know what I was up to.” She has no name; the “I” of the story remains a terra incognita. McBride’s achievement, indeed, lies in a refusal to achieve. Her character is, as the title declares, boldly half-formed. If the classic story of the creation of the male self is the bildungsroman, the novel of formation, McBride’s female narrator is not in the construction business. She cannot build a self because the foundations of her childhood have been undermined by sexual exploitation.
The central event is the rape of the narrator as a needy, rebellious thirteen-year-old by the uncle who takes advantage of her as-yet indistinct desires. It is an event she is compelled to repeat again and again in crude encounters with strangers and with the uncle who abused her. Through it all, the great absences that prevent her persona from taking shape are sexual pleasure and intimacy. She is left with drives that impel her backward into adolescence rather than forward into maturity. Against the bildungsroman’s narrative of a journey toward selfhood, McBride’s narrator states bluntly: “We are all the things we’ll ever be. Even when I go on after that.”
For all its experiments with form, the events of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing are easy for the reader to follow—McBride’s great skill is in communicating a clear story through a complicated use of language. The girl’s mother turns to religion after her husband abandons the family. Her fervently Roman Catholic grandfather visits their down-at-the-heels house and makes plain his contempt for the family’s failure. The legacy of a brain tumor in childhood makes her brother slow and awkward and a butt for the cruelty of other children. The girl’s aunt and uncle visit the house, dripping with smug pity, and the uncle takes advantage of the girl’s burgeoning sexuality and need for a father figure.
The girl goes to college in an unnamed city but is drawn back again and again into the messy life of her broken family, especially for the grandfather’s funeral—a set piece that could be clichéd but that McBride enlivens with sardonic wit and precise observation. The brother’s illness returns and he slowly dwindles toward death. And all the time, these family events are punctuated by the narrator’s repetition of her childhood rape. She seeks the self-abasement of random sexual encounters with boys in her school, with young men in her town, with strangers in the city or on trains, and with her uncle. The only counterpoint to her need to feel dirty is the lake to which she returns for its dangerous promise of a cleansing baptism that is also the lure of annihilation.
Had it not been written in 2004, one might be tempted to see A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing as a furious feminist response to the elevation of female masochism to the heights of sexual fashion by the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. Here, McBride is saying, is what masochism is actually like: not a designer drug for cheap sexual thrills but a poison in the blood, not a bodily entertainment but a desperate attempt to force the body to feel something, even if that something is pain. Her violation sunders the girl from her physical self, leaving her with a belief that “this wrong doubtful body should not have been mine.” Shame impels her to punish that body in the bleak hope that “horrible can be a good act of contrition.” The only power she can acquire over her uncle is to force him to replay the original rape:
So he hits til I fall over. Crushing under. Hits again. He hits til something’s click and the blood begins to run. Jesus he says. I feel sick. But I’m rush with feeling. Wide and. He thinks he’s bad when he fucks me now. And so he is. I’m better though. In fact I am almost best.
This is not a game of domination and submission; it is rage and degradation turned inward, violence occupying the place where erotic satisfaction should be. Being hurt may be, in her damaged mind, “the closest thing to love,” but we know it is far indeed. When, as the narrator puts it, “The answer to every single question is Fuck,” fucking answers nothing at all.
It is this hard feminist realism that pushes McBride toward the formal originality that makes A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing such a remarkable book. Dealing as she does with the consequences of abuse and shame, McBride has to work hard to avoid not just the usual temptations of loquacity, but the clichés of two threatening genres—the abuse survivor narrative and Irish misery lit. The elements of both are all here. There is the girl trying to make a life after rape in adolescence. And there is the familiarly doleful litany of so much twentieth-century Irish fiction and memoir: the feckless father, the embittered mother, the hypocritical gap between Catholic religiosity and perverse sexuality, the tension between the desire for freedom and the pull of home. There is the added pain of terminal illness: the only person to whom the narrator is close is the older brother who is the “you” to her “I.” (McBride’s older brother Donagh, to whom the novel is dedicated, died in 1999, when he was twenty-eight. As in the novel, he suffered a brain tumor in early childhood and its return in adulthood proved fatal.)
But McBride is not interested in telling a survivor story—her narrator’s loss is permanent and the psychological uplift of healing and closure is unavailable. Yeats’s “The Stolen Child,” which provides a title for the last of the book’s five sections, is one explicit point of literary reference: the narrator’s stolen childhood cannot be returned. And though A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing does have plenty of sly wit, McBride does not offer the usual Irish antidote to misery through rambunctious humor and wild satire. The only pleasure she has to work with is aesthetic. Her language is artfully deranged to make familiar experiences strange and new but in that derangement there is vitality, even joy. The desolation of the tale is held in a gripping tension with the richness of the telling.
The freshness of McBride’s prose lies in its relationship not just to the usual forms of written language but to the usual ways in which Irish modernists have disrupted that language. Whereas her predecessors have taken standard forms and broken them open, McBride gives us a language that has not yet reached the status of a standard form to begin with. The “half-formed” of her title may refer initially to the narrator but it is equally true of her sentences. McBride is not playing with form, she is playing with what has yet to be fully formed: language caught in its moment of transition between thought and articulation. Hers is the syntax of words that are struggling to come off the tongue. The brilliance of the book is that this linguistic strategy exactly parallels the struggle of the narrator, who is also trying to come into being. The result is a novel that, for all its experiments with language, is not especially difficult to follow. Its hard writing makes, if not quite for easy reading, then for an overall clarity that transcends any moments of obscurity.
The first question that confronts the reader on beginning A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is—who is this addressed to? In some respects, McBride stretches back beyond her obvious modernist antecedents to the eighteenth-century epistolary novel in which the conceit is that we are somehow reading letters that were never intended for us. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing opens with the repeated use of “you,” a word that suggests to us that we are being spoken to directly. But we quickly grasp that this “you” is not us, that we are somehow tuning in to thoughts that are not in fact being addressed to the reader:
For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed. I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
As the novel comes into focus, we understand that this “you” is not the reader but the narrator’s brother, three years older than she is, the tumor “all through his brain like the roots of trees.” The words we are reading are for him, not for us. And since we learn of his death in the course of the novel, the words are in fact addressed to a “you” that no longer exists. Hence the illusion the novel sustains so well—that it is not really written at all, that these thoughts are not in fact expressed. This is a bold strategy. To succeed it has to fail since the novel is of course for the reader and the thoughts must be sufficiently articulated to make sense. But McBride manages this contradiction with such skill that these disordered words feel like a kind of breakthrough or interference, coming accidentally and mysteriously into our heads.
As well as disrupting the basic relationship between writer and reader, McBride also plays with the fundamental idea of biographical narrative—that these things happened in the past and are being recalled and shaped in the present. She leaves out a great deal that might give the reader a foothold in apparent reality—names are withheld, indications of the passage of time are broad, and topographical detail is minimal. The place where most of the action is set, though obviously in the west of Ireland, is not named either. Time is almost as vague: we gather enough information to know that most of the story is indeed unfolding in the period of Star Wars, GI Joe, and Tiny Tears, of Monty Python (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition late Saturday afternoon”) and the Muppets (“And what about you Miss Piggy?”)—presumably the 1970s and 1980s. But McBride elides the difference between recollection and action, past and present. Her slippery, twisting syntax allows her to shift tenses within the same thought so that the reader can never comfortably distinguish between what is happening and what is being remembered:
I won’t cry so, though something’s happen in my head. I woke up. And stare at your brown hair. Soft boyish bob on your round face. Must be the washing brushing combing of it. Attentive loving mother. I remember. I have seen.
In this short passage alone, we move from future to present to past to present to present continuous to past tenses. The effect, surprisingly, is not confusing but it does induce a feeling of time suspended. There can be no forward development here because the narrator’s self cannot develop, so past, present, and future do not form a straight line.
This suspension of linear time is important because McBride’s interior monologue is not a stream of consciousness in the style of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. A stream flows—and there is nothing flowing about McBride’s style. If we need an aqueous metaphor, it is not a stream but a stagnant pool from whose dark bottom linguistic bubbles float up, bursting just as they hit the surface. Where the language of high modernism is associative, with one word leading to another, McBride’s is all fits and starts. Thought, in her recreation of it, is not a current of images and associations. It is a series of tiny fragments, emerging one by one from an unformed inarticulacy. Whereas in Joyce we have the idea that the thoughts we are being allowed to share are the real inner selves of the characters, in McBride there is a layer of darkness behind the thoughts. The shards of an inner self that emerge into words point us toward the larger self that remains unknown and without a voice, even an interior one.
The narrator’s vocabulary is limited to simple words in order to create the impression of thoughts that have not been second-guessed by reflection or shaped into any kind of eloquence. (We know from early references that she knows big words and proper grammar—that she is not using them suggests that she is not trying to express anything.) Since the “you” to whom they are addressed is dead, there is no point in speaking aloud, and therefore no need to shape thoughts into sentences, much less into polished articulations:
I love the. Something of it all. Feeling ruined. Fucking. Off. I’m ready. Ready ready. To be this other one. To fill out the corners of this person who doesn’t sit in photos on the mantel next to you.
The most important mark here is the full stop. Scarcely noticed in ordinary writing, the periods impress themselves on the reader’s consciousness here because of the way they are misplaced. While it is not quite true that, as some reviews have claimed, commas have been eliminated, there is no doubt that it is the hard punctuation of the full stop that breaks the backs of McBride’s sentences, keeping them as half-formed as the character who thinks them.
The originality of this method has been greatly overstated—a mark perhaps of how far the mainstream of fiction has drifted from the modernist aesthetic. While McBride is certainly not like Joyce or Woolf, she is, on the surface at least, rather like Beckett—or at least the Beckett of the short, late prose pieces. Here, for example, is Beckett’s Fizzle 5:
The lots still bright are square. Appear square. Just room for the average sized body. Stretched out diagonally. Bigger it has to curl up. Thus the width of the ditch is known. It would have been in any case. Sum the bright lots. The dark. Outnumbered the former by far.
And here is McBride:
So quiet here after the night. Birds. When you are sound a sound asleep. I won’t wake you up. Just yet. Let him I think be. Sit. Think for me of the rain when I went march off to school. A long and something time ago.
Not just the insistent pauses and sundered sentences but also the rhythmic succession of longer and shorter fragments is similar. This is not a complaint—it is long since time that someone took the baton from Beckett—but it is worth noting the degree to which McBride is self-consciously placing herself in the Irish modernist tradition.
While McBride’s originality should not be overstated, it should not be understated either. She does some things that are very much her own. In the Beckett passage just quoted, for example, removing some of the full stops would create quite conventional sentences with reasonably transparent meanings. In the McBride passage, however, this would not be true. There would still be gaps in articulation—“a long and something time ago.” And some phrases—“when I went march off”—would not resolve themselves into orthodox syntax. We know what she means, but we have to make an effort toward that awareness, filling in the absences we know are there, in this case the –ing that should be at the end of “march.” So McBride is pushing further even than Beckett did into what he called “the syntax of weakness.” Her very words have holes in them.
McBride’s gamble with the reader is that we will form meaning even when she does not quite give it to us. Her style is pointillist—all tiny dots that we ourselves shape into patterns. The narrator’s use of words is like that of a very bright foreigner who has picked up English on the run, with little grasp of grammar, a limited vocabulary, and a syntax that seems to obey the rules of some other language altogether.
She puts strange new words beside familiar old ones: “Mucus stogging up my nose”; “Pewled and scared.” She cuts not just sentences but sometimes words themselves into pieces: “Di. Sgust. Ing.” “My pet. Ition.” She sends expected words off on unexpected tangents: “Mud suckering round my toes”; “Scaldered to the spot”; “Globle it up eat that eat that.” She uses startling adjectives: “blistered breath,” “suffocated eye.” She reverses word orders: “Pump skull and brain around is what it felt.” “Blank my eyes the dazzle.” She makes nouns into adverbs: “Asking hushly how you do”; nouns into verbs: “hysterectomied,” “Toothing open bottles”; and verbs into nouns: “Thanks uncle for sage introduce.” Words fall apart altogether: “Kom shitting ut h mith fking kmg I’m fking cmin up you.”
And, just to keep the reader alert, she throws in perfectly ordinary banal sentences: “This country’s awful in the winter.”
These are not just stylistic games. The jumbled syntax and slightly off-target words are often deployed superbly to mimic the narrator’s confusion. When, after secretly reading entries on sex in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the pubescent girl feels an inchoate desire for her uncle, McBride evokes the moment thus: “I see him. Smile at me…. My own face. I flower a tinct of what I’ve read alone upstairs. It course me. Whipping blood.” The effort to reassemble these phrases into meaning is not that great, but it sucks the reader very deeply into the young woman’s desperate hope that “I might be a person. Beneath the.” We feel the darkness of that dangling, missing word but at the same time we are compelled to complete the phrase and to form for ourselves this unformed person. In doing so we may find an aesthetic pleasure that belies the pain of her story.