Why It’s New York: Irish debut novelist, Belinda McKeon lives in Brooklyn and launched her new novel last week at Glucksman Ireland House.
Why It’s Irish: Belinda McKeon was born and grew up in Ireland and is a well-known young Irish playwright and writer; she’s the Literary Curator for Imagine Ireland, a year of Irish Arts in America, an initiative of Culture Ireland.

Michelle Woods finds her loyalties divided in Belinda McKeon’s debut novel, Solace.

Fathers and Sons
When I was a twenty-year old student, Bazarov, the nihilist hero of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, was a favorite of mine. I haven’t re-read the novel since then, but I suspect that now my sympathies might be drawn to his poor, long-suffering parents instead. 
Fathers and Sons was a state-of-the-nation novel, published around the time serfdom was abolished. Russian writers were using fiction to figure out, to paraphrase Chernyshevsky, “what was to be done.” Turgenev and Tolstoy nearly fought a duel over social issues; Dostoyevsky was blindfolded in a mock execution by the Tsar’s regime. Fiction, social and realist, mattered. 
Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is in the background of Belinda McKeon’s debut novel, Solace, just published by Picador. Here, too, a young man arrives back from university and the city to the old rural world of his father and, needless to say, trouble ensues. Mark is a PhD student at Trinity College, writing his dissertation on the Anglo-Irish 19th century novelist Maria Edgeworth, but his parents pressurize him to come home frequently to work on the family farm in County Longford. While not at the level of Bazarov’s nihilism, Mark is somewhat lost, unable to fully disregard his farming heritage but also not prospering in the path he’s chosen and in denial about his intellectual work. 

As the novel opens, he’s in the bacchic embrace of boom-time Dublin, the urban hedonism (coke rooms! Sex! Lesbians!) that blocks out his responsibilities both to himself as a putative academic and to his family back home in the country. This is partially a love story – at one of these parties, he meets the green-eyed (nod to Edna O’Brien) Joanne Lynch, who happens to be the daughter of his father’s nemesis back in the country, a corrupt, money-grubbing lawyer. But the tragic resolution of their love affair actually opens the way for the real love affair in the novel – one blended with hatred – between father and son. 
It is, partially, also a state-of-the-nation, realist novel, hovering chronologically between boom and bust Ireland and parceling the guilt on all shoulders – not just the cartoonish restauranteur, Rupert Lefroy or his Louboutin-toting lawyer lover, or the corrupt Frank Lynch – but also to those in denial about their past and present, in love with the soap operas, the rugby, the coke.
I loved the opening of Chapter One:

“Everything was plastic in the beer garden. Plastic chairs. Plastic tables. Plastic pint glasses.”

Escaping the small-mindedness of the country, where locals are “hungry for complaint”, the young, new urbanites have entered the land of the lotus-eaters. 
Mark’s intellectual disengagement suggests also a nihilism about thought – he’s more interested in the “obvious claims to fame in Edgeworth’s biography” – including her influence on Turgenev – than in the question (central to his dissertation) of whether she was a realist novelist or not:

“It was as though he were writing some kind of nineteenth-century version of a celebrity magazine as his thesis”.

Akin to his lover, Joanne, grazing the internet for celebrity gossip instead of lawyering, Mark is a child of the information, and not the knowledge, age.

Who cares whether Edgeworth was a realist novelist or not? There’s hay to be baled, money to be made, and lawsuits to win. What is to be done? Mark’s father’s disdain and total lack of comprehension of the academic pursuit is not only indicative of the distrusting old world but integral to the new.
Mark’s daring argument – shot down by his supervisor – that Edgeworth was not entirely a realist novelist is something of a no-brainer to anyone who has read her wonderfully gothic classic about the crumbling Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and the rise of the tricky Irish middle-class, Castle Rackrent.
McKeon’s decision to make realism the subject of Mark’s thesis made me want to see that very question seep more into McKeon’s structure, which touches on the complications of social mobility and satire, intrinsic to Edgeworth’s novel, but doesn’t tread onto the same, dangerous, slippery narrative terrain.
There are Edgeworthian characters, like the Anglo-Irish mother and son, the Lefroys, in litigation against each other over their big Dublin townhouse, or the gossipy Keoghs back in Longford, or the philosopher, Clive Robinson.
But the real grotesquerie of Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent comes in the disparity between the fawning narrator, Thady Quirk, and the subjects of his narration – the reader is never sure whether he deliberately exposes the awfulness of his Anglo-Irish masters or whether he admires them. The uncanniness of the ensuent horror show, in its very form, is a devastating portrait of colonial Ireland.
Solace is more earnest in its satire; a lot of effort goes into making the chronological plot happen, with honest portrayals of current Irish life and characters explicating their psychological demons rather than playing them out, or getting us to guess them.

I admired McKeon’s sincere attempt to look at the metaphysical and intellectual underpinnings of the past/present, country/city divides of contemporary Ireland and the question, as she says in her promo video, of responsibility. She is of the Anne Enright school here: open novels with large questions about the state of the State. 
There is some lovely, poignant writing– a moment when Mark’s mother, Maura, picks him up at the station rings true for anyone who has endured the arrested development of the PhD track (though I’m still waiting for the happy PhD novel!)*:
“He was waiting at the station when she got there, sitting on a window ledge with his bag at his feet. He had cut his hair since last she saw him; it made him look like a boy again. He would soon be thirty, her only boy, and still she was driving to the station to meet him.”
But, I can’t help thinking – with McKeon and Enright – that the novelistic stakes in the twitter-first century are not high enough and that maybe the nihilistic Mark is right to be so – is there still a readership who cares about reading about what is to be done in a 19th century form? No one’s going to censure either of them for their social critiques. 
The collegial blurbs from the usual suspects: Enright, Colm Toibin and Colm McCann on the back cover of Solace – some of them rightly earned – made me hanker for when it did matter: for Turgenev and Tolstoy and pistols at dawn. 
*Editor’s Note:  that’s gonna be a long wait, Michelle.
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One Comment

  1. Avatar
    Anonymous / August 2, 2011 at 10:48 am

    “… a lot of effort goes into making the chronological plot happen …”

    I just heard an interview with the author. She tends to plot as she writes a novel. The characters lead her in the right direction.

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