Structured around Eily’s first year at drama school, the novel charts nine months of insecurity, homesickness, friendship, drugs, sex, self-harm, sex, theater, sex, and, well, more sex. For although Eily leaves the Emerald Isle a virgin, her Catholic guilt just about intact, she soon undergoes an elaborate sexual liberation, discovering the countless pleasures (and pains) of the flesh London has to offer.
It is during this liberation that she encounters Stephen, a semi-famous actor 20 years her senior, with whom she sleeps after one pint too many in a dingy Camden pub. However, their awkward one-night stand soon evolves into something more: a messy, complex union that is ultimately as dangerous as it is beautiful to behold.
For better or for worse, it is impossible to discuss The Lesser Bohemians without reference to McBride’s exceptional debut A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. In addition to the plethora of international awards Girl so deservedly garnered, the novel triggered a complete revaluation of just how experimental contemporary “mainstream” fiction could (and should) in fact be. Anne Enright, the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction, deemed McBride “that old fashioned thing, a genius,” while aspiring authors have taken solace in the tale of Girl’s arduous, decade-long struggle to even find a publisher in the first place.
The Lesser Bohemians not only follows in Girl’s footsteps, but in many ways takes up where it left off. Questions of consent and familial abuse, of female promiscuity and sexual identity are yet again unflinchingly interrogated. Meanwhile, some lines (like, “[t]o the street where I was before I became what I’ve become — a form of thing”) feel almost like direct nods to the novel’s predecessor. Furthermore, where Girl was written in the second person, addressed to the narrator’s late brother, so here Eily spends much of her time articulating her thoughts and impressions to Stephen, particularly as the novel goes on and their volatile intimacy blooms.
The two novels also share a strong autobiographical element. Like the unnamed protagonist of Girl, McBride endured a conservative Irish upbringing and tragically lost her brother to a brain tumor. Meanwhile, like Eily, McBride’s father died of cancer when she was young, before she left Ireland to attend drama school in London.
McBride has spoken about how this training as an actor — not a writer — contributed to her irreverence toward language; her willingness to be rough with it; to dismantle it and put it back together again in new and unexpected ways. Listening to McBride read her work aloud, it is certainly clear that she has a performer’s talent and an actor’s ear. And indeed, throughout The Lesser Bohemians you can catch her strong, colloquial, yet wholly unique turn of phrase in such descriptions as two drunkards “enslithered by pints,” or a guilty Eily “lying by the sin of my teeth.”
It was precisely Girl’s linguistic innovation that had such a profound impact on readers and judging panels alike. Derek Attridge hailed McBride’s prose as a cross between Molly Bloom’s “ungrammatical thought process” and Leopold Bloom’s “fragmented interior monologue,” while Adam Mars-Jones admired her “starvation diet in terms of the comma.” Readers delighted and despaired at the form’s immense difficulty, while numerous academics endeavored to theorize precisely why McBride had chosen to embrace such an experimental style.
Some pointed to David James’s more general theories on the recent resurgence of modernist modes. Others, such as Paige Reynolds, deemed the form a direct product of the novel’s content; McBride’s prose, Reynolds argued, serves as a “buffer” from the book’s traumatic subject matter, a barrier which safely “keeps us at bay with its difficulty.”
Such readings, however, run counter to McBride’s own theories. She has discussed in interviews her attempt to write not so much a Joycean stream of consciousness, but more a “stream of subconsciousness”; that is, in her own words, “the moment just before language becomes formatted thought.” As for “keeping us at bay,” McBride admits that her aim was rather the opposite — that is, “to go in as close as the reader would reasonably permit.”
Of course, academic theories and authorial intent rarely — and rarely should — align. However, the debate did add a further layer of anticipation to the release of McBride’s second novel — to see what formal decisions were made here, and if they could likewise be deemed a product of the work’s troubling material.
As mentioned, there are countless traces of trauma to be found in The Lesser Bohemians — from parental death to psychological and physical abuse. However, unlike its predecessor, there is also plenty of joy, plenty of adventure and fun. Indeed, the novel begins with Eily’s arrival in London, the energy and excitement immediately palpable: “I move. Cars move. Stock, it bends light. City opening itself behind. Here’s to be for its life is the bite and would be start of mine.”
This energy renders it an immensely dynamic novel. There is a great deal of movement — a great deal of drinking and dancing and walking and fighting. There are also a great number of voices. Where Girl was largely internal and singular, here Eily engages in conversations and banter with a whole host of characters. Ultimately, this choreography — both of the physical and verbal variety — places an added strain on the form. Each new scene requires an elaborate linguistic effort just to get the characters from A to B; to have even the most trivial of dialogues:
Sure I’ll buy ye a drink. No, I say. She says Yes. So up on our trotters we go off again. Slithering through Chinatown. Glitter ducks and squids and all. There were I with. Lonely for him now. Up yet another street. In there. A bar. A new kind of glamorous for — under wigs I long to pull — are men in white dresses with blue satin sashes, and him saying I’ll get the cockstails in.
This remains McBride’s unique and brilliant voice. And yet, while its fragmentation feels entirely apt when articulating Eily’s inner thoughts and perceptions, when applied to her external machinations, it runs the risk of growing somewhat exhausting. Then again, such exhaustion may serve as the perfect encapsulation of the relentless stream of drug-fueled, debauched adventures across London’s underbelly, each one rendered in all its hysterical, repetitive, unintelligible glory: “Great night. Another night. One more dance? One more pill. And the night bus. Grand. Feeling any better these days? I am. I really love you man. I really love you back. And laugh into each other as London gallivants in its circus of lights.”
Furthermore, for the most part, the sex is very very good. There is sober sex and inebriated sex; there is tender sex and vicious sex; there is consensual sex and problematic sex and sex that treads a fine, blurred line. McBride’s skill in depicting each union and the underlying politics and machinations thereof is unparalleled, and for that alone, the novel can be deemed a triumph.
Halfway through the novel, however, everything changes. Having grown intimately acquainted with Eily’s perspective — her trepidation toward her emerging relationship, her progress at drama school, her gradual triumph over childhood agonies — we are suddenly offered Stephen’s perspective instead. Throughout their courtship, he has made allusions to his own damaged upbringing, his estranged daughter, and his years as a drug addict, but now — almost as a sign of the mutual trust they have finally achieved — he decides to go back to the beginning and tell Eily everything.
As she signals to us: “And the long night begins.”
For it is indeed long — 70 pages, to be exact, of pure, harrowing exposition. Eily interjects now and again — to offer wine or tea or to ask prompting questions: “And what about your father?” — but for the most part they are Stephen’s words we hear, recalling his life story, the prose now devoid of any experimentation whatsoever. On the one hand, this straightness may come as a welcome relief. And yet there is a formality to the voice, which ironically makes us long for Eily’s overwhelming unconventionality: “The well of self-pity opened its arms and I was ready to be done,” Stephen says, and later: “but that relationship still informed the internal dynamic between us on stage.” Of course, regardless of the voice, the reader remains captivated, given the utter devastation of Stephen’s saga. From broken home to celebrity status, he reveals the infinite ways childhood brutality can lead to a lifetime of self-sabotage and agony.
There will no doubt be a plethora of theories as to what precisely the split in McBride’s novel is trying to achieve. Essays will be written on the difference between the structure of the male and female psyche; on the formal differences between the articulated and the unarticulated trauma. Creative Writing professors will invite students to observe and unpack the alternative modes of showing versus telling a life. Even beyond the technical analysis, however, this divide has numerous implications for the reader, not least since it forces us to reconsider whose novel this really is, and where, therefore, our sympathies really lie. That said, the split — and the disjointedness it causes — also serves as a reminder that any relationship necessarily consists of the coming together of two very different, very complicated entities, which no amount of love — or sex — can ever truly smooth into one, coherent whole, one fully-formed thing.
The question of identity formation — both on the level of the couple and the individual — is complemented throughout by the thematic framework of Eily and Stephen’s theatrical exploits. Discussions of learning certain roles and developing scripts, of embodying certain characters and motivations, all invite deeper considerations on the performative nature of the self (and, indeed, of love). As Eily remarks: “And the much and much of delight, of make. Turning the body. Converting the self into flecks of form and re-form. Her. Into her. Into someone else. This one.” At drama school, Eily also partakes in an “emotion memory” exercise, which offers another means by which difficult fragments of the past may be rediscovered and embraced, regardless — or precisely because — of the pain they cause.
That said, the theatrical setting can sometimes feel a little strained, as when Eily is cast as Shakespeare’s Juliet and waxes lyrical on her and Stephen’s similarities to the star-crossed lovers, or when Shakespearean clichés creep into the otherwise dazzlingly fresh expression: “all the world’s an empty stage if he’s not standing in it. And even to sleep, no fucking perchance to dream. Just nightmares of hammers to come.”
Shakespeare is not the only literary figure to feature in McBride’s work. Since her arrival on the scene, comparisons with James Joyce have abounded, such that barely a review — or an interview — goes by without mention of the Irish giant. Here again in The Lesser Bohemians, many will argue that his specter looms large — from the relentless formal innovation, to the narrative’s reliance on urban perambulations. If the streets of Dublin were brought to life through the wanderings of Leopold Bloom, so here is London vividly captured through Eily and Stephen’s endless strolls. Of course, others will argue that such traits do not necessarily suggest a direct link between McBride and her literary forefather, lamenting also, justifiably, how much rarer it is for her to be compared to any female predecessor. However, McBride seems determined to acknowledge if not embrace the overlap by including a range of explicit Joycean nods throughout the book: “River run running to a northern sea.” A number of scenes also take place in Liverpool Street Station where Eily catches the train to and from Stansted Airport — the same station McBride has spoken at length about associating with her first experience of Ulysses, aged 25: “I started reading the book, got off at Liverpool Street, and just thought: that’s it. Everything I have written before is rubbish, and today is the beginning of something else.”
For many readers — and writers — A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was that “something else” — the beginning of a new phase in contemporary mainstream fiction; the beginning of a new major career. And now, The Lesser Bohemians marks the exciting next step in that career. Undoubtedly, it is a novel that will divide readers, that will provoke a plethora of tenuous academic theories, that will raise more questions than it can possibly answer. But for its sheer vitality and dazzling linguistic flair, it is another significant achievement. And for all its flaws, inconsistencies, and puzzling difficulties, it is, in many ways, a perfect portrait of love.
Ruth Gilligan is a best-selling novelist and journalist from Ireland, now living in the United Kingdom. Her fourth novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, was inspired by the history of the Jewish community in Ireland, and has just been published by Tin House Books.