OCTOBER 7, 2014
TO READ THE OPENING paragraph of Eimear McBride’s novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is to be radically disoriented. Sentence fragments pile up, and the familiar skeleton of the English sentence gets fractured, splintered into microscopic units (“You’ll soon.” “Bile for.”) that truncate without pointing in any obvious direction. The novel is many things: an elegy, a fever dream, a document of abuse, a distorted transposition of one consciousness into language. It is not clear; it is not easy. It takes effort to decode.
The publication history of McBride’s debut, narrated from the perspective of a young girl as her brother suffers from cancer, seems to signify something about the literary environment that has materialized over the past few decades. While training to become an actress, McBride completed the novel in the wake of her own brother’s death and spent nine years trying fruitlessly to have it published. The text seemed too strange, too experimental, too risky of a bet to place in a publishing market that rarely affords profit to “literary” fiction. Having been serendipitously placed in the hands of Henry Layte, a publisher at Galley Beggar Press, the enigmatic manuscript finally saw the light of day and proceeded to tear through a series of major Irish and UK literary prizes: the Goldsmiths Prize, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, and the Baileys (formerly the Orange) Women’s Prize for Fiction, among others. In the running for the latter award, McBride beat out such recognizable names as Jhumpa Lahiri and Donna Tartt, a noteworthy feat for a first-time novelist. Lahiri and Tartt write books that appeal to wide demographics of serious readers — book club members, former English majors, academics — but both write paragraphs that make sense within the conventions of English prose. In Girl, McBride flies in the face of those conventions boldly, at times aggressively and even painfully, and thus it is not surprising that finding a publisher was no easy task. The published novel’s success, therefore, hints at a willingness among readers to take on difficulty when the text seems astonishing enough to reward the effort.
The dedication page of the novel points to its grounding in personal history, for the dedicatee Donagh McBride was the author’s brother who, like the character referred to as “you” in the novel, endured a brain tumor that emerged during his early childhood. In this sense, the book is at once an elegy for a real person and a fiction that conjures a strange, almost phantasmagoric brother-sister relationship out of the basic materials of McBride’s own life. Girl treats bodily decay and the extreme stress it places on a family without the triumphalism of many survivor memoirs or the idealized romance of John Green’s far more marketable novel The Fault in Our Stars, another text that approaches cancer from a young woman’s point of view. Instead, Girl’s narrator processes her brother’s illness by shaping the forceful reactions that she experiences in her mind and body into fragmented shards of language that mirror the extremity of her pain. In the opening chapter, it slowly becomes clear that the girl is narrating from inside her mother’s womb, during the early days of her brother’s diagnosis when the family would spend stretches of time in hospitals: “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.” It takes a page or two to discern that these thoughts are, in fact, being formed inside another person’s body, yet this positioning becomes clearer as the narrator describes her first physical contact with her brother: “Poke belly of baby that’s kicking is me. Full in myself. Bustling hatchery. And I loved swimming to your touch. Lay on the lining for your strokes for you secret pressed hello’s.” In this opening section, McBride mobilizes the dynamic that largely shapes the novel, a sibling relationship that is as physically intimate as it is emotionally convoluted. Just as the narrator swims toward and then away from her brother’s touch, the relationship between “I” and “you” wavers throughout the narrative between close contact and self-protective distance.
Like the High Modernist experiments of Joyce and Woolf, Girl achieves a particular form of clarity by attempting to replicate in language the vicissitudes of an individual consciousness, which variously finds itself processing the minutiae of daily life, the shock of psychological trauma, and the whole spectrum of observations and reactions that hover between those two extremes. If the “Penelope” section of Ulysses, with its pages-long sentences and its dearth of punctuation, stands as the great exemplar of stream-of-consciousness prose, then Girl takes a different tack in its project of transcribing an inner life onto the page. Where Joyce’s text sprawls and rambles, McBride’s contracts, so that bedtime reveries unfurl in fits and starts: “I hear nothing. I. The all the night because the sky falls down where my bones should break. Nail me right inside the blackness. That’s a good night’s sleep for me.” The closest progenitor of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing seems to be Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which similarly begins in babyhood and charts the maturation of a young mind as it strays from a stifling childhood home toward the more promising horizons of university and urban life. In many ways, Girl is a bildungsroman in the Portrait vein, for against all odds the narrator manages to cleave from a needy, repressive family and thus to achieve agency outside of a community that vastly underestimated her capabilities.
Girl departs from Portrait, however, in a few notable ways: for one thing, the oppressive and frankly abusive home in which the narrator comes of age is so damaging that her quest for autonomy takes far darker turns than Stephen Dedalus’s ever does. Sexual misadventure largely defines this quest, yet her encounters with incest, rape, and consensual intercourse so rough that it might as well be called rape read far more disturbingly than Stephen’s much-fretted-over flirtations with masturbation. Additionally, while Stephen Dedalus leaves home with grand plans to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” Girl’s narrator leaves home out of a basic instinct to survive: “I can do. Puke the whole lot up. Wash my body on or off and think I’ll be some new a disgrace. Slap in this alley with no doubt rats I am leaving. Epiphany. I am leaving home.” To stay is to succumb to mental stagnancy, material squalor, and emotional abuse; to leave is to claim the freedom to do absolutely anything else.
Leaving is never easy, however, and the constant pull that the narrator’s family exerts on her manifests not only through the novel’s plot but through its grammar as well. If Joyce’s protagonist leaves home armed with clearly articulated arguments about Aquinas and aesthetic theory, McBride’s often seems stuck in a kind of syntactical no-man’s land, in patches of quicksand that hinder her sentences’ capacity to move forward. During one particularly arduous visit home from university, the narrator finds her thoughts mired in chiasmatic structures that both reflect and push against the stasis that her brother’s illness induces: “I want to. Yes I’ll. Here and now. I’m going to. I will. I will yes here with you. Must. And want to. Going to going to going to. Stay. Her. Here. Her. Not her here. Me.” With these verbal breakdowns, McBride achieves a particular form of psychological mimesis that feels appropriate given her narrator’s state of mind. As the narrative moves forward, however, one gradually acclimates to these glitches and interruptions, almost as though McBride were teaching her readers how to decode a new dialect of her own invention.
Unlike the memoirs and the various iterations of “women’s fiction” that currently flood the book market, Girl circumvents the sort of teleological narrative arc that ends with a female protagonist having achieved some indisputable signifier of self-actualization, empowerment, healing, or whatever term for victory is currently in vogue. Rather, like so many actual humans, McBride’s narrator evolves within yet never fully escapes the murk that clouds the complex business of interpersonal relationships. What is fascinating here, and what should induct the novel into a more enduring canon of women’s writing, is that McBride never self-censors when engaging with the pain, the abjection, and the desperation generated out of situations in which a woman is granted little more than her body and her words to use as weapons within imbalanced power structures. At various points, McBride’s prose riffs on the stymied rage of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy,” referencing that text in lines about her own absentee father: “Fell from the earth face at the moment you were. Wanted. Most. Despic. I know. I’d kill you. If you were here. If you. I’d turn you in your grave. Oh Daddy Daddy. What have you done?” It is a testament to McBride’s erudite yet brazen originality that the novel can thoughtfully speak back to some of the great texts of Western literature, while at the same time reading as though it were created entirely out of thin air.