“Moving is easy,” begins Nick Laird’s first novel, Utterly Monkey (2005). “But actually leaving somewhere is difficult.” It’s a lesson that the main character, Danny Williams, soon learns. When the book opens, he seems to have long escaped his background in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, where he grew up Protestant in the fictional town of Ballyglass: famous—at least in Ballyglass—for having the widest main street in all of Ireland. After studying at Cambridge, he’s worked at one of Britain’s leading legal firms for nearly five years, in the process turning himself into “a first-class Londoner.”
But then the past reappears, ringing his doorbell in the unannounced shape of his feckless, drug-dealing old schoolfriend Geordie—ordered to leave Northern Ireland by the Protestant paramilitaries who enforce law and order in his local area. (In their defense, they’d already given him an official warning—by shooting him in both calves.) Danny initially regards Geordie’s arrival as “disproportionate and cruel punishment.” A few pints of Guinness later, he is—to his surprise—almost gratified to be feeling “made in Ulster.”*
Before long, though, Danny is also remembering—or maybe realizing—how irreducibly strange his background had been:
For every Protestant business…there was the Roman Catholic equivalent, sometimes right next door. It was an instance of the parallel universe becoming visible, as if two separate towns existed and somehow inhabited the very same space.
And of course, as coexistences go, this one couldn’t be called peaceful. When Danny hears an international terrorism expert talking on television, he feels “an unkind thought rise in him like bile: now everyone else would know what it felt like—to live with the backdrop of bombings and guns.”
In the traditional first-novel way, Utterly Monkey incorporated plenty of autobiographical elements. Laird himself is from County Tyrone, where he grew up Protestant in Cookstown: famous—at least in Cookstown—for having the widest main street in all of Ireland. After studying at Cambridge, he worked in one of London’s leading legal firms. Yet what he doesn’t appear to have in common with Danny is any desire to escape his roots. These days, Laird’s rather glamorous literary life—some of it, as he admits with varying degrees of ruefulness, derived from his marriage to Zadie Smith—means he has a Greenwich Village apartment as well as a London house. Nevertheless, when asked where he considers home, Laird’s answer is Tyrone; and in New York, his Internet alarm clock wakes him with Radio Ulster.
His inevitably conflicting feelings about Northern Ireland are also a dominant theme in his work, both as a novelist and as a poet. His last poetry collection, Go Giants (2013), ended with “Progress,” which examined these feelings in no fewer than 168 dense three-line stanzas. And in his new novel, Modern Gods, he examines them some more.
Laird is uncomfortably aware that Ulster Protestants are badly misunderstood by the rest of the world—if, that is, the rest of the world gives them enough thought to achieve misunderstanding. In Robert McLiam Wilson’s blistering Northern Ireland novel Eureka Street (1996), for example, an Irish Republican leader goes on a triumphant publicity tour of America—a triumph made easier by the fact that “America didn’t know [Northern Irish] Protestants even existed…. It wasn’t so much that real history was rewritten. Real history was deleted.” (Wilson, incidentally, is Catholic.)
In Britain, meanwhile, the loyalty of the Loyalists hasn’t always been reciprocated either, and in Utterly Monkey Laird treated their endless, beleaguered self-mythologizing with a sort of exasperated sympathy. “The British government,” he writes,
only ever treated the Ulster Unionists as conditionally British. Useful enough when there was a war to be fought or an Olympics to compete in but otherwise fit only for caricature and ridicule—the bigot braying on the telly, marching sternly past the camera in his archaic bowler hat and ludicrous sash.
In Modern Gods, both the exasperation and the sympathy are still there—but this time, Protestant self-mythologizing is placed in a wider setting, as part of an exploration of myths in general, and of the apparent human addiction to them. “Poetry is my first love,” Laird has said—and until now it’s true that his fiction has been fairly lightweight in comparison. Despite its moments of seriousness and the quality of its prose, Utterly Monkey was clearly influenced by what was then known in Britain as “lad-lit,” and in its final sections turned into an overblown cinematic thriller. His second—and Ulster-free—novel, Glover’s Mistake (2009), combined entertaining depictions of twentysomething London life with a less convincing lurch into psychological and physical violence. Now, with Modern Gods, he’s gone for something far more weighty and ambitious—albeit not completely successfully.
Even so, the opening pages employ a technique much favored by commercial fiction: a dramatic and, for a while, unexplained prologue, here based on a real-life incident in October 1993. The location is a Catholic bar where in chillingly deadpan Irish slang Laird describes “two eejits in plastic Halloween masks” bursting in, shouting “Trick or treat!” and shooting the people sitting at their “wee round tables.”
From there, the novel moves to the present—and to what initially seems a conventional family tale. In Chapter One, Kenneth Donnelly is pottering around his Ballyglass kitchen when his wife Judith comes home with the news that her cancer is more advanced than they thought. Chapter Two cuts to New York where their thirty-four-year-old daughter Liz returns to her apartment from her college teaching job to find her boyfriend Joel with a male lover. Pausing only to split up with him, she then flies back to Ballyglass for the wedding of her sister Alison.
At this stage, it looks as if the modern gods of the title might refer only to the more recent of our consoling myths. Frightened by his wife’s illness, Kenneth tries but fails to achieve “the mindfulness” recommended by their counselor. When they first met, Joel’s bisexuality had allowed Liz to enjoy “the fond glow of her progressive nature.” Sadly, faced with a man in purple underpants in her kitchenette, this glow is extinguished. “Bring back standards,” she finds herself thinking, “family values and monogamy and chaperones.”
But once Liz arrives in Northern Ireland, the novel’s wider scope begins to reveal itself. She’s picked up at the airport by Alison’s fiancé Stephen, whose complaints about the political power wielded by former IRA terrorists—together with the political and religious slogans they drive past—cause her to reflect on the many myths that now surround her. And as luck would have it, Liz is well placed for such reflections, because the subject she teaches is anthropology. Stepping quickly into her role as the novel’s explicator-in-chief, she whiles away the car journey quoting relevant Lévi-Strauss passages to herself—including one that obligingly lays out what seems to be Laird’s main purpose in the book: “I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact.”
As long as Liz is in Ulster, this double perspective remains. Laird continues to serve up a sharp, entirely recognizable, and sometimes funny account of the tensions and pleasures of a family reunion. (Seeing her whole family gathered together, Judith’s “eyes took on an instant sheen of maternal insanity.”) But with Liz’s help, he also continues to draw our attention to those unnoticed myths—both political and personal. In particular, Alison is someone with “a gift for presenting things not as they are, but as they really should be.” Stephen keeps trying to tell her about some dark secret in his past, but she refuses to listen, sticking instead to her preferred narrative that after a disastrous first marriage, her life is about to be redeemed.
At the wedding itself, Liz takes the somewhat less romantic line that her sister’s second marriage is “textbook endogamy; she was marrying within the tribe.” She further notes how the church is dedicated to “the lost tribe of Ulster Protestants,” with its “plaques for the war dead—the Great War, the Second World War, policemen and soldiers murdered in the Troubles.” “Right from birth,” she concludes, “the Ulster Protestant was steeped in metaphors of hardship and reward.”
But the Donnellys’ story has also been interspersed with little pen portraits of the people who died in that bar in the prologue—and in the chapter after the wedding, we finally find out why, when the following morning a local newspaper fulminates about a “ruthless gunman” enjoying “a lavish wedding ceremony,” despite having killed five people in the Trick or Treat massacre of 1993. The gunman was, of course, Stephen (then called Andrew), who, like those Republican terrorists he so resents, was released from prison as part of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement. Liz spots the paper at the airport, because, as it turns out, her explicatory duties are not done yet. Her Ballyglass visit is to be followed by a journey to Melanesia to make a BBC documentary about a new cargo cult opposed to the Christian missionaries there.
The choice of Liz’s destination may remind some readers of Pat Barker’s Booker Prize–winning The Ghost Road (1995), in which William Rivers’s experiences of treating shell-shocked World War I soldiers were interwoven with memories of an anthropological trip to Melanesia. The central irony was that the British government, now sanctioning the slaughter of millions, had banned intertribal headhunting. A more unexpected one was that the ban created a listless people “perishing from the absence of war.” Yet arresting though these ironies were, they perhaps proved insufficient recompense for slogging through the scrupulous accounts of nineteenth-century Melanesian life that took up nearly a quarter of the novel.
A similar reaction is provoked by the Melanesian sections in Modern Gods—and here they occupy even more of the book. Like Barker, Laird never really solves the problem that if the parallels to the main story are too neat, they’re liable to feel pat, but if they’re not, you might wonder why we’re being offered all this Melanesian information anyway.
Initially, it seems that Laird is more likely to fall into the first of these traps—not least because the fictional island Liz visits is called New Ulster. Back in Ballyglass, she’d “thought sometimes of writing something on the tribal aspects of life in Northern Ireland—how it resembled, like all cultures infected by violence, an older, atavistic way of life.” Once she’s away, New Ulster begins doing much of the job for her. Belef, the cult’s female leader, has a set of beliefs, known as “the Story,” which, among other things, make religion and politics indistinguishable, give an honored place to dead ancestors, and draw heavily on metaphors of hardship and reward. And just in case we miss the comparisons, Liz is on hand to spell them out in her notebook:
The Story—in fact any story—acts as an excursion to the hyper real. The dailiness we inhabit is replaced by a copy of the world, one where we find closure. Belef fictionalizes the world after the fact to justify where she finds herself, where her people find themselves.
At the same time, Belef’s fictions are laid out in extensive detail, which is where the second trap comes in. Her punishingly complicated cosmology involves Dodo, the creator, who sends his son Manup to Australia where he builds the city of Sydney. Manup had planned to go to New Ulster, but before he can, he dies, becomes a ghost, enters Mary and is reborn as Jesus. And that’s by no means all. We also learn, for instance, about Amulmul, the snake God, who’s the father of both Dodo and Manup; the birth of spirit children from menstrual blood; and Liz being an incarnation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Presumably Laird is suggesting that such myths aren’t any more irrational than those of Christians, who, as the ever-helpful Liz points out, “have been waiting for two thousand years for their own cargo.” Nonetheless, even those readers who agree may think the point could have been made without describing the Story’s theology so exhaustively.
Maybe none of this would matter as much if Belef didn’t seem more like a literary device than a literary character. But as things stand—and despite Laird’s sporadic attempts to humanize her—she never makes the transition from exemplum to person. Likewise, and partly for that reason, the New Ulster sections too often read like dutiful pieces of straight anthropology: well written, certainly; fully realized, probably; fully felt, not so much. Earlier in her career Liz had struggled to write a book on Margaret Mead, as “she got more and more and also less and less interested” in the subject. Something similar, you can’t help thinking, might well have happened with Nick Laird and cargo cults.
As a result, I suspect most readers will be delighted that the novel regularly returns to the other Donnellys (just as most readers of The Ghost Road were delighted to return to the horrors of the Western Front). And even though the family’s story now feels a bit squeezed into the gaps between descriptions of the Story, it always lifts the book considerably. In one short chapter, Ian—the husband of a woman with whom Spencer, the youngest Donnelly, has been having an affair—discovers what his wife has been up to from a text that pops up on the screen of their shared iPad while he’s masturbating to porn and thinking about his lover, an eighteen-year-old receptionist. At first, “the text had the strange inverse effect of making him feel guilty” about his own misdeeds. Fortunately, he’s then able to “transfer all the guilt, lock and stock, onto her,” and so enjoy the far easier emotion of “righteous fury.” In less than two pages, I’d suggest, this unforced allegory says more about Protestant–Catholic relations in Northern Ireland than any number of sections on Amulmul the snake God.
Even better is the chapter in which Laird finally confronts those relations head-on. An academic researching the Troubles persuades Stephen to give him an interview. What follows examines tribalism and the abiding power of myth in a way that feels embodied in the characters rather than externally imposed. It also observes the Philip Roth rule of giving the other guy the best lines, with Stephen allowed to make a disconcertingly strong case. His grandmother, he says, was one of the 20,000 Protestants (a possibly mythical figure) whom the IRA drove from their homes in Londonderry in the early 1970s. When he was thirteen, his army reservist father, who “always thought the Catholics had a just argument,” was killed by Republican gunmen. Stephen turned to terrorism because of
what was going on then…. We were being killed left, right, and center…. There was the Shank-hill bombing. You remember. They killed nine Protestants in the fish shop. And [Gerry] Adams carried the bomber’s coffin.
Alison’s characteristic hope was that Stephen would “have a story…that explained—thus excused—why he’d done what he’d done.” By the time he’s had his say, the explanation may be there, but the difficulty of excusing is laid uncompromisingly bare when the interviewer reveals himself to be the husband of one of the women Stephen murdered—a woman pregnant with their second child. “Sure, you took my whole world from me,” the man murmurs through his tears.
Because the Melanesian section ends in murderous violence too, the book ends with Liz and Alison back at their parents’ house, taking refuge in what Alison had called the “cult” of the family. But it also seems as if, after all the troubling questions he’s raised, Laird is taking refuge there as well. Throughout the book, the sisters have each remembered a childhood incident when Judith left Kenneth for a night, taking Liz with her. For Liz, this has been lifelong proof that Alison was always her mother’s favorite—the daughter trusted to look after Spencer and not fight with Kenneth. For Alison, it’s been lifelong proof that Liz was always her mother’s favorite—the daughter she’d chosen to take. But in the closing scene, they discover from Judith that only Liz had wanted to go. Equipped with this knowledge, the two women instantly escape the myths that have bound them for decades and Liz senses “some hardness that she hadn’t even been aware of in her crumble.”
By finishing this way, Laird is perhaps implying that personal myths are easier to correct than political ones. Yet even if that’s true (and little else in the novel has led us to believe it), such an oddly happy ending seems distinctly inadequate as a response to all that’s gone before.
Nevertheless, the primary problem with Modern Gods is still that, for all his efforts, Laird never properly convinces us that we can learn much about Ulster Protestants by studying a Melanesian cargo cult. Ironically, this leaves the novel feeling like an instance of the parallel universe becoming visible—as if two separate books existed and somehow inhabited the very same space.
There’s a useful guide to Northern Ireland’s tortuously politicized nomenclature in Colin Bateman’s novel Divorcing Jack (1995): when a local journalist briefs a visiting American he says, “Stick to calling it Northern Ireland, although you’ll hear variations. If you’re a Loyalist you’ll call it Ulster, if you’re a Nationalist you call it the North of Ireland or the Six Counties, if you’re the British Government you call it the Province.” ↩