Book Review: The Lesser Bohemians

Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians is her second novel after A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, and best read as a counterpart to that award-winning modernist tome.

Odd, really, that it’s the open imagination of the novelist that we often so readily trust to deliver the evidence of what goes on in the dim caverns between embodied experience and language.

Sometimes fictions so convince us that they are possessed with unassailable truths about the human condition that we feel awed by them. So it was in 2013 when Eimear McBride’s famously long–languishing manuscript for A Girl Is a Half–formed Thing was published by the tiny UK publisher Galley Beggar Press and came to be hailed as a work of genius. McBride’s marriage of upturned and deconstructed syntax, and story about the narrator’s loss of a sibling to a brain tumor and the hammer fall of sexual abuse were read as a daring reconquest of the moribund high ground of literary fiction.

It was hard not to utter together with McBride, the names of James Joyce and Djuna Barnes. Thank the muses, modernism was back. McBride’s second outing, The Lesser Bohemians, emerges from out of the same literary portal. Her at-first unnamed narrator, an Irish woman in her late teens in 1994, falls into the immense novelty of London and her own skint independence to attend drama school.

In the social circuit between college and pub and in rebellion against the tight–moralled oversight of her Irish landlady, she negotiates the shame of her own naivety, her self–conscious embodiment and the contemplation of her first sexual experiences. She manoeuvres, drunkenly and not untypically for an 18– year–old, toward the loss of inhibition. Her first sexual explorations are with a late rising–star actor 20 years her senior whose incontinent sexuality masks a childhood of sexual and emotional trauma.

It’s the tumultuous negotiation in the relationship between the narrator and the actor around this trauma, sometimes disastrous, sometimes vital, and the centrality to it of emotional and sexual risk that emerges as the novel’s primary narrative territory.

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As in Girl, McBride’s language occupies the experience of being embodied. It verges un–pejoratively on the performance of an unedited diary about the sensations of living as they are felt in the brain–gut, in the chiasmus of language and experience. It’s this sensation–experience world, the performed authenticity of the chaos of cognition in language, as much as the plot elements of who does what with whom, that is foregrounded, particularly in the books’ first half.

While this risks obscuring vital plot detail, it’s a mark of McBride’s magic – her genius if you like – that she trusts that readers are perfectly able to knit a coherent sensibility out the non–linearity of thought. Nevertheless, as these two shells of people unfurl into full human beings – the actor emerging shattered and needing reconstitution, and the narrator uneasily shucking off her immaturity – the realist conventions of speech–syntax and plot wrest control of the telling.

The names of the two principals emerge deliberately, but gently. And even though there is never any real let–up from the ongoing present tense, the hint emerges as well that the telling has a reflexive edge to it, that it’s being told from a fingertip ledge of retrospect. This retrospection isn’t strong enough though to mask some of the novel’s less–convincing aspects particularly in the latter plot–foregrounded episodes.

The actor’s account to the narrator of his action–packed reunion with his former partner – the mother of his estranged daughter – rankles especially as it relies on a too–teleological truth–will–out logic. In a retrospective narrative, this amazing–thing–happened–so–that’s–why–I’m–telling–it story might be more convincing, but in a story that expressly inhabits the immersive logic of experience in the moment, the kismetology is a bit strong. It’s all in service though of something like a symphonic movement, that ought to be read as a counterpart to Girl.

In the wake of the damage wrought by sexual abuse, sex itself is deployed as the sometimes roughly–driven vehicle that traverses exposure, pleasure and the consequential–inconsequentiality of physical surrender, all the while teetering on the cliff–edge between despair and love on the blind journey toward coherence.

Author: Eimear McBride Publisher: Text Publishing

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