Kevin Barry, Irish fiction and short fiction

So my mum posted me a newspaper supplement from the Irish Independent from two weekends ago that was quite literature-heavy, and there was a review in there of Kevin Barry's first novel, City of Bohane, which is out this month and which I've reviewed for Bookmunch. My review's not up yet, but I rated the book highly - Barry's short fiction is excellent and the novel's really interesting, especially for its linguistic innovations. Anyway, John Boland's review in the Indo was pretty half-hearted, and I found myself getting very irritated at some of his criticisms - so much so that I think I started mumbling crossly to myself while reading it at a park bench the other day. Crazy pregnant lady ahoy, eh? I'm not going to go into a huge old rant here, but I would like throw out some topics for discussion. First up, he says:
Nor will those seeking a pertinent fable of a contemporary or future Ireland feel much rewarded [...] Indeed, there's no trace here of an Ireland with which any reader might be familiar -- the action might just as well be set in an imagined Scotland or Wales or wherever.
Call me a demented ex-pat, but I wasn't aware that the Irish writer had a particular responsibility to write such a 'pertinent fable'. Is there really this social obligation that you're bound to honour by virtue of Irish citizenship that doesn't apply to Scottish, Welsh, English, American or French writers, or artists in whatever medium from whatever country? Surely not every literary work, by virtue of its being set in a specific geopolitical or cultural zone, has to produce a sociological treatise on the past or current state of that, well, state? Bah, I say. That's such a limitation. I think there might possibly be a dearth of portraits of contemporary Ireland in current fiction - or maybe not a dearth, but a critical and promotional focus on works that deal with the past rather than the present, to the detriment of what's being produced at the moment about the present moment, but that's a different issue. To imply that Barry's fucked it up because he's writing a crazy speculative crime novel rather a grittily realistic portrait of, I don't know, gang life in Limerick in 2009 - well, isn't that the reviewer's hangup, not Barry's?

Okay, and second (and this is most of the final paragraph of the article, so it really leaves a bad taste in the mouth):
Barry has a remarkable talent, as is evident from his short stories, but a novel requires particular qualities -- a satisfying structure, a mastery of the long, developing narrative and complex characters of psychological and emotional depth -- that aren't essential, or sometimes even required, in the shorter form.
So the short story doesn't require a satisfying structure? It might utilize a different sort of structure than the novel, but you can hardly say that it doesn't need a satisfying one. And complex characters aren't essential or sometimes even required in the short story? Oh, shoot me now.

Well, so I have ranted quite a bit. But I'd love to hear your thoughts on either of these issues, whether you've read Barry's book or not.


dan powell said...

From what you say, that review certainly seems to be criticising the book for not being what he (the reviewer) wanted/expected. That last quote is galling to say the least. On the basis of the huge scope of misapprehension in that quote alone I would doubt the credibility of the reviewer.

On the up side, you've intrigued me enough to seek out Barry's short fiction.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

He (Barry) has a collection that came out in 2007; I haven't actually read it but I've read plenty of his anthologised stories and he's well worth checking out. That review really irked me! I've been mulling it over for a while, getting more irritated by the day.

John Self said...

Well I loved Barry's collection There Are Little Kingdoms but I didn't get far into City of Bohane before setting it aside. I may return to it, but essentially some of the concerns expressed in this review already were in my mind even in the early pages of the book. I do wonder if Barry can really 'do' long-form fiction, by which I mean fiction which needs to be long rather than fiction which just goes on for a long time.

Anyway, just to depress you more, here's another largely critical review, from a writer whose credibility nobody could challenge.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Hey John,

it's not that he didn't like the novel that gets me - and I can see where he's coming from with some of his criticisms, even if I didn't find that those issues bothered me. It's a pretty idiosyncratic style that Barry's got going in the novel, and I bet lots of people won't like it. It is a pretty drifting narrative, for instance, and that'll annoy people. I've read of various bloggers who, like you, gave up on it pretty fast. And fair enough - we've all got different tastes, I wouldn't have it any other way!

It's just those two points that I highlighted that got to me - the assumption that C of B really ought to have been reflecting modern Ireland in some way; why? And the glib way he deals with the novel versus the short story irritated the hell out of me. I thought it was really dismissive of short fiction - and considering he says he likes Barry's earlier work, I'm not sure why he wants to denegrate the form like that.

I quite like that Irish Times review - it's intelligent and considered, it deals with the book itself in more concrete detail, and it doesn't float off on some tangent that's got more to do with the reviewer's own hang-ups than Barry's work. Ridgeway's dealing with the book on its own merits or downfalls, which is what a review should do - Boland was off on his own hobby-horse. Or so it seems to me.

Minty Montague said...

I would agree on both points IF Barry's book wasn't aiming to be an Irish fable, eh.

As to the cultural issue, that irks me too. I've noticed that, with Ireland and Scotland in particular. People want to force them to have an immutable identity. If that identity, modern or otherwise, is ignored people get in a huff. I've noticed this especally if they are tenuously Irish-American. I'm very aware of the forced stereotypes that people try to imprint on the peoples (including myself) of those cultures. Annoying. Why can't they be all or, indeed, none?

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Hey Minty,

yes, it's so reductive, isn't it? I don't see that criticism leveled at novels coming out of England. I bet you could apply a solid post-colonial analysis to these expectations.

Have you read City of Bohane? I didn't think he was trying to write that kind of fable, but of course others might disagree. The reviews I've read point out a comic-book element to the text and it is pretty OTT in that way; I think he was having massive fun creating this extreme Gotham-type place, complete with villains and so on, rather than commenting on Ireland as it is/was.

Minty Montague said...

I haven't read it, no, and I can't say that comic book mayhem is my usual choice, but I'll certianly be be giving his short stuff a go after having my interest piqued.

Anonymous said...

Very much agree with you! I wonder is it the fate of any acclaimed short story writer who brings out a novel, though. The reviewer's attitude will inevitably be "yes yes he's good, but can he write long?"

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Eimear, yes! And vice versa - 'ooh, look at the novelist, daring to write short, the bloody tourist!'

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Really interesting post - hello. I haven't read the novel yet, but it is on the shelf, waiting.

KB is one of my favourite writers- 'Little Kingdoms' is a stunner. There is also a New Yorker story online here -

It must be v hard to get reviews that include such seeming irrelevancies. Such an imprecise science all this stuff.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Hey V,

thanks for the link - what a cracking story! The novel's well worth a read; I think I do prefer the shorts, but City of Bohnane's got the same brilliant linguistic acrobatics. What a talented bastard!