It’s said that the Irish novelist Eimear McBride wrote A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing with a quote from one of Joyce’s letters taped up above her desk: “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” McBride, more completely than any recent novelist I’m aware of, has translated this crucial truth into style.
In Girl, her debut novel, she’s invented a new way of telling: one that, while it resuscitates several key tropes of modernism (not least the resistance to easy pleasure), is something all its own, wisely trading James Joyce’s linguistic blarney for an ambitious vision a great deal slimmer. You’ll feel Joyce’s influence, certainly, as well as that of Samuel Beckett (and what Irish writer could really avoid these two?), and yet McBride’s novel feels weirdly outside of literature, despite having been hustled to the forefront of it, racking up a number of prizes in Europe. The prose, while seeming literarily anarchic, is actually quite focused, stripping sentences to their bare bones not as part of some stylistic exercise, but to convey immediate experience as lived. The effect can be, at times, less that of literature than of the video feed:
That house had up hill down dale. Steps and mud. Those wellies red. Umbrella. Wondrous being dry. See fat drops plop and run like a river down for flies. Spiders. That time it was always raining. Summer. Spring.
Although time seems collapsed here (“Summer. Spring.”) it is nonetheless written live.
The novel—published in the U.S. by Coffee House, a press with unfailingly excellent instincts of late—is a portrait of the disruptive force of sibling love, between the girl of the title and her terminally ill older brother, and its entanglements with sin. A shared childhood, beautifully rendered, progresses into the usual separations forced by school and a dawning awareness of sex, an early adulthood destabilized by change, and the progression of a final illness painted so crystal-clear it is almost impossible to read. (McBride has experienced this, as anyone who also has will see at once—here there be trigger warnings.) The near-total lack of names suggests that a kind of universalism is the point.
From the novel’s first lines, the speaker is not immediately clear:
For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
Soon though, it becomes clear that the narrator, who is not yet born, is recounting a scene between her (unnamed) mother and brother. The boy has a brain tumor and undergoes an operation that will leave him physically and mentally scarred. Dialogue—here the mother telling her son he can name the unborn narrator—is embedded in the sentence along with the twists and turns of internal contradiction; scenes collapse into each other, layering. “Mammy me?” seeks confirmation but, without the comma, is also a plea.
McBride’s path into this raw, unfiltered state of prelinguistic experience—a state, one might as well note, stereotypically gendered as feminine—leads through the (typically masculine) form of the short, percussive sentence, cutting the flow of thought into biting, often contradictory chunks. There are few commas (normal or inverted) and many, many full stops. These seem related, maybe, to Céline’s ellipses, chopping reality up into units without fragmenting it completely, suggesting, by their placement, something else intruding or occurring alongside what is perceived. The prose is syncopated but is propelled forward by this series of driving, stuttered blocks. Verb forms are twisted, prepositions dropped. Contradictory thoughts and emotions sit side by side, irresolute. McBride’s aim, it seems, is to capture experience almost prior to thought, dropping the reader into events at the very moment the narrator, too, encounters them.
Despite its complexity, McBride’s novel does not, as Joseph Collins wrote of Ulysses, require “a course of training or instruction.” I quickly grew used to the way in which scraps of dialogue are tossed around and peppered into sentences, and there is little that is abstract about McBride’s language itself. If it has been compared to poetry—the narrator is a poet of a kind—the comparison is accurate only in as much as it tends to flirt with rather than embrace conventional grammar, choosing rhythm and internal rhyme (“A right hook of a look in his eye all the time”) over straightforward exposition. But McBride, though she does indulge in the figurative, is never really lyrical; her words seek not admiration but transparency. And many of the ungrammatical, almost prelinguistic sentence fragments—“My thud cheeks up,” for example—are instantly understood. It’s a lesson in just how far the rules of the English language can be bent before comprehension falls away, as though McBride had discovered a pidgin of the reptilian brain. There are moments where she compromises this oblique style somewhat, throwing her reader a bone, whether in long passages of dialogue or at the beginning of chapters where it’s necessary to establish a scene: “We’re living in the country cold and wet with slugs going across the carpet every night. Now when you are seven eight. Me five.” There are moments where, for clarity, the uncle needs to be “Uncle” rather than “he,” or the mother “Mammy” rather than “she.”
Girl hews closely to what the feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva called the “dark revolt of being” that looms within abjection, “directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside.” For McBride’s narrator, the threat is personified by her brother’s tumor (“Cosy kernelled in your head…Nasty thing. Having a chew”), but there are other threats too: the absent father, certainly, and the overbearing force of the mother’s Catholic faith. Half-formed, the girl uses abjection to separate herself—herself and her brother both—from all these things. For her, abjection takes the familiar form of sexual promiscuity, beginning at 13 in an encounter with her uncle and developing through many partners into a blooming masochistic need. There is a great deal of ambiguity here—in the girl’s conflicted response to the initial incest-rape, in the moments of pleasure experienced between pain and fear, and in the way guilt over her actual or perceived complicity acts both as relief and an inducement to continue. In these guilty moments, scraps and passages of liturgy force their way into the text as through the narrator’s conscience, their phlegmatic Catholic weight providing, like all those full stops, both anchorage and (narrative, rhythmic, emotional) impedance. Before having sex with her uncle, she wades into the lake, a kind of baptism—the first of many—in which she humiliates herself before God prior to the more visible, literal abasement. Humility, repentance, anger, guilt, and abjection are all tangled up here in a specific, Catholic mess.
While she doesn’t understand her erotic adventures, necessarily, or exactly desire them, the narrator does, as Kristeva put it, “joy” in them:
I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead… I met a man who hit me a smack. I met a man who cracked my arm. I met a man who said what are you doing out so late at night. I met a man. I met a man. And wash my mouth out with soap. I wish I could. That I did then. I met a man. A stupid thing. I met a man. Should have turned on my heel. I thought. I didn’t know to think. I didn’t even know to speak. I met a man. I kept on walking. I met a man. I met a man. And I lay down.
As she sees it, sin is a way to separate herself from the spiritual world of her mother. Sin allows her body, her self, to be real, and there is a kind of beauty in this, along with a host of contradictory emotions. In one of the book’s very few moments freighted with symbolism, the narrator smashes a statuette of the Virgin, as though metaphorically joining her schism from her own mother’s faith with the confusion, guilt, and joyful relief that will attend the loss of her own virginity, at the hands of the uncle, in the next chapter. “I am happy,” she says after that event. “Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin.” Sin, like love, is freedom for her but also a form of revenge which keeps her from being free. It also, the novel is careful to note, makes her an object, the titular “thing”: “Me the thing but I. Think I know. Is that the reason for what’s happened? Me? The thing.” In her affectless, distant narration, the girl finds existence in alienation. So: A woman invites violence to be done to her, is (joyfully) made a thing of, and becomes a subject again through, of all things, a kind of guilt bound up in love. This form of redemption, if that is what it is, can be wearying.
And yet, attempts to reduce Girl to such simple, programmatic readings will be frustrated by the way events are narrated: The immediacy of the prose sets it outside of symbolism, and so sexual violence—in particular a gut-wrenching and, in its typographic transgressions, almost onomatopoetic scene towards the end—is not allowed to stand for much, isn’t recuperated by message or theme. It’s not so much sublimated by art as purified of it. The brother, too, easily a Christ-like innocent, dying for his sister’s sins, isn’t that, and so death is given the full and awful weight with which it presents. All of this is deeply uncomfortable, and McBride, to her credit, allows discomfort to stand, along with the rest of her novel’s difficult contradictions. What she does, even in the dense prose of her beautiful final scene, is give discomfort room to breathe:
The black I swim filled with light and things and clouds that were the sky. The coldest water. Deepest mirror of the past and in it I am. Drowned no fine…And we are very clean here like when we wash our hands. When we’re in the rain. I was. His fingers in my mouth my eyes my hair. Stop. You break the surface. Gasp. Air is. That’s what air is again.
Allowed to exist in the fullness of this ambiguous proximity to love, even abjection can be a form of beauty. There is no sublimation, no transformation of it or its horrors, just a recognition that it exists, in the thick of things, arm in arm with love, with joy, and all the rest.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. Coffee House Press.