23 October 2013

Describe Away

I have forgotten every New Year’s Eve but two, I have forgotten what my dead brother looked like at the age of nine or ten or twelve, but I will never forget the three little facts the nice people in Brighton told me about the body that they pulled from the sea.  
The first is that Liam was wearing a short fluorescent yellow jacket when he died, like the ones railway workers and cyclists wear.  
The second is that he had stones in his pockets. 
The third is that he had no underpants on under his jeans, and no socks in his leather shoes. 
The tides in Brighton are fast and they range far. He wore the jacket so he would be seen going into the water, and his body would be easily found. Liam, who could not organise a box of matches, was, on this occasion, fully organised.  
The stones explain themselves. 
It is the lack of underpants that makes me cry. Liam was never together, but he was always clean, and though he lived in various pits, they always had running water, he always knew where the nearest launderette might be found. He used an old-fashioned pink soap, with an industrial smell—I have no idea what it was called. I remember standing in the supermarket sniffing all the bars through the paper, ending up with some odourless stuff which he would not use. He put Coal Tar shampoo on his hair, and Listerine on his gums. He sprinkled anti-fungal powder everywhere and made demands for wet wipes beside the toilet. He flossed. His anti-perspirant would strip paint. 
Liam took his underpants off because they were not clean. He took his socks off because they were not clean. He probably thought, as the cold water flooded his shoes, cleansing thoughts.  
I know, as I write about these three things: the jacket, the stones, and my brother’s nakedness underneath his clothes, that they require me to deal in facts. It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine.  

The Gathering is a wonderful novel. But it’s not my kind of wonderful novel—at least not right now. I mean to say that timing likely has a lot to do with taste. As literary agent Jonny Geller says, “You read some books at the wrong time in your life. It’s not their fault.”

It’s the wrong time in my life, so it’s not Anne Enright’s fault. I happened to start reading The Gathering just after I bought a copy of Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain’s debut novel. Naturally, I wanted to immediately read the Crain (have you read James Wood’s glowing review in the New Yorker?), and to not get involved in anything that would distract me from it. But I’d already begun the Enright, and I didn’t want to not finish it. Meanwhile, the new Donna Tartt came out, and Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, and Eleanor Catton, for her The Luminaries, won the Booker, an award that Enright herself took in 2007 for The Gathering. So there were three female authors I suddenly became more interested in reading than I was in reading Enright. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I probably didn’t give The Gathering the attention it deserves.

The wrong time: my father also got sick. The Gathering, which really is a story about the horrors and wonders of love (among members of a big Irish family, the Hegartys)—or, in A.L. Kennedy’s own words, of “love’s stupidity—an outpouring of energy towards people who are always destined to disappoint, to be disappointed and, above all, who are compelled to leave us in the most devastating way, by dying”—The Gathering became a book that I couldn’t bear to read in the hospital, no matter how lyrically the story is told. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t decide to labor over it anyway. (The word ‘labor’ is unfair; if there’s one thing I can learn from Enright and Munro, it’s the amazing carefulness with which they choose their words—a carefulness that makes the former’s voice as Irish as the latter’s is Canadian.) I’ll probably read it again, but not anytime soon—maybe when I reach a time or the age when I have much more patience. 

In any event, I won’t attempt a critique now. And I definitely won’t share some people’s opinion that Enright’s descriptions of the narrator’s husband’s flaccid penis were unnecessary—this is a genital novel, full of dark, sad entanglements of bodies, bones, skin, and sex. Describe away! 

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