Stream of Pre-Consciousness
By Susan McCallum-SmithOctober 18, 2014
“Please tell me you love me. You sleep. You sleeping. When I know. I think your face the very best. When we were we were we were young. When you were little and I was girl. Once upon a time.” (A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.)
IN A LETTER about Finnegans Wake to his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver in 1926, James Joyce wrote: “One great part of human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar, and goahead plot.” Around 76 years later Eimear McBride read Joyce’s Ulysses on the train on her way to work as an office temp in London and knew she had found the touchstone she needed to write A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. She began it in the autumn of 2003, completed it in six months, and spent the next nine years trying to find a publisher.
Eimear McBride was born in Liverpool in 1976 and raised in Counties Sligo and Mayo in the Republic of Ireland. At age 17 she moved to London to study at the Drama Centre, where she became interested in the Method, a form of the craft developed by Constantin Stanislavski in which actors build characters by drawing on their own emotional memories. While McBride was living in London, her older brother died of a brain tumor at the same time as the radical playwright Sarah Kane committed suicide. McBride cites the work of Kane, whom she admires for “the purity of her intent and the ferocity of her approach,” as profoundly important to her own creative development, and McBride shares with Kane an unwillingness to play, what she terms, those linguistic games that are forced on female writers. Her brother’s death, together with Kane’s uncompromising approach to art, informs McBride’s novel, which is written from the point of view of a girl with an abiding love for her ill brother — to whom she refers throughout as “you” — and using a (mostly) simple vocabulary that derives its flexibility through the manipulation of sentence structure and basic punctuation. English needs to be made to pick up its feet and move, McBride believes, and, when interviewed by The Guardian, she said, “If you are not uncomfortable as a writer, then you are not doing your job.”
Galley Beggar Press of Norwich, England, where McBride now lives, finally published A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing in 2013. It went on to be a finalist in the Folio Prize, and win the Goldsmiths Prize, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, the Desmond Elliott Prize, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, beating odds-on favorite The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Coffee House Press has just released A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing in the United States, where it has polarized critics. Reviews have ranged from the laudatory to the skeptical; James Wood in The New Yorker described McBride’s prose as a “visceral throb” with results that “are thrilling, and also thrillingly efficient,” while Ron Charles in The Washington Post wrote that the novel represents “a complete disconnect” between “the seamless confluence of critical and popular tastes,” and warned that some readers may find it “a migraine in print.”
McBride and I met on a sunny September Sunday at the Clarence Hotel in Dublin. The night before we had both attended the premier of a one-woman play based on her novel, produced by the Corn Exchange Theatre Company, adapted by Annie Ryan and performed by Aoife Duffin. After leaving Dublin, McBride was heading to a book event in Indonesia and will then be on a book tour of the United States and Canada from October 19 through November first.
SUSAN MCCALLUM-SMITH: Thank you, Eimear. I’d like to start by talking about form because that is the most distinctive aspect of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. I loved the title because it refers not only to its feminist overtones — that half-formed girl — but also because the book comes to the reader, in a sense, half-formed. It is very participatory: a joint enterprise between you, the writer, and me, the reader. How did this form come about?
EIMEAR MCBRIDE: My beginning was James Joyce, of course, and his quote about how “wideawake language” and “cutanddry grammar” is insufficient to cover all aspects of human existence, that there was a part of life that wasn’t being expressed through straightforward language. The development was very organic; I did not approach it in any way academically or critically.
When I first sat down to write, I sat down with a very different idea, and for about three weeks I bashed away and nothing came of it. Then one day I just hit on the first words, and knew straight away that what I had been working on before was done. I didn’t have any kind of plot or narrative in mind, I tried to listen to the voice, followed where it was taking me. And there are parts of the book where I can see that crunch very clearly. For instance, in the moment before the uncle rapes the girl when she’s 13, she says, “He didn’t get me,” and that was me, the writer, trying not to tell that story, trying not to go down that road, but coming back to it the next day and knowing, “Oh, but he did.” I knew that would be the story that I would have to tell. So the mechanics are actually visible in some places.
Some critics and readers have described your style as "stream of consciousness," but that doesn’t feel like quite the right term to me. It has a "now-ness." There is such an immediacy to it.
Stream of consciousness is where I came from, but I wanted to take it further. I wanted to take it back a step. So I’ve been saying stream of pre-consciousness, because it’s about gut reaction rather than processed thought, about before language has begun to form. The reader is right in at the very beginning of every experience the girl is having.
Yes, you have said that you wanted the story to come from the inside out, rather than from the outside in, and that’s how I felt as a reader. This made the theatrical experience last night quite interesting because I was looking at it from the outside in. Annie Ryan [the dramatist] took the sections that were more naturally dramatic, and less metaphysically and linguistically challenging.
It was a more normal experience.
In Ali Smith’s book, Artful, she writes: “Form never stops. And form is always environmental.” I felt that this was particularly true for your book; this girl could not have told this story in any other way but in this form. It makes me wonder what you’ll do next — and you do realize the expectations are nauseatingly high? If I were you, I’d be tempted to do a Harper Lee.
The thought has crossed my mind! Back to the acting!
Will you have to invent a different form for the next work?
I certainly feel that the language was built to tell this story and so nothing can ever be the same because each time I will have to build a new language to tell a new story. But I’ll also take with me what I learned with Girl and I’m not tired of that point of view. Everyone has a pre-consciousness, so that can work again. But the next book is about two people so the language has to open up more.
It was challenging for you to find a publisher because the publishing industry is not always willing to take chances. Nevertheless, you suggest that direct realism has outgrown its usefulness. Do you feel it is critical for writers to push the form?
Absolutely, and you know I think there is nothing wrong with being interested in entertainment, and with writing as entertainment, and I don’t just mean pulp novels, I mean serious, heavyweight, middlebrow books … though I think those can be somewhat disparaging terms. The publishing industry has been discouraging writers from doing what writers have always done — which is to push forward and find new ways of expression — and this has created, not a glass ceiling, but … they’ve definitely kind of bricked us in by making it impossible for this kind of work to get out there. A lot of writers have become discouraged. God knows, I felt pretty discouraged myself for a long time. But it’s essential that the form evolves because it will die otherwise. We can’t just keep writing Victorian novels; they no longer fit for purpose. While I can enjoy and appreciate novels that are written in that style, there can’t just be that. With the internet, and with everything that happened with the music industry, the publishing industry got terrified and decided that it was the end of days, and that they would just wring the last bit of cash out of a dying breed. In a few years’ time, they believe, everything will be on the internet and there will be no more books and people will no longer have the attention span to read. I disagree: it is even more critical for writers to be finding different modes of expression, different ways of relating life.
I’m fascinated to know the editing process.
The editing process was completely minimal. There wasn’t even a line editing process.
Copyediting? And comprehension?
Galley Beggar Press said, “Can you cheer up the ending? Can she live?” And I said, “No.”
I didn’t find the ending sad. It’s probably blasphemous to say this, especially in Ireland, considering what she’s doing, but it felt to me that she was herself at the end.
That’s exactly what I wanted; I wanted the end to be about transcendence and not despair. All the way through she’s battling so hard to become herself. And those ways become increasingly self-destructive and the ending is the most ultimately self-destructive thing you can do. But it was about her taking back control of her life. She sheers off all the bad things in her life, and she’s free.
She’s nameless the whole way through, and I remember being struck at the end with her saying, "my name," and "I," and "me."
“My name for me.” So, yes, the editing process was very hands-off. I cut 8,000 words — all language tweaking rather than scenes. I wouldn’t change the end so they said, “Well, can you open up the language a little bit more at the beginning, just so that people can find their way in.” And I said, “Yes,” and I did that, and I think they were right.
Talking about letting the reader find a way in — even though the voice is radical, your narrative is chronological from pre-birth to death, which is incredibly helpful to the reader because if you’d started to move around in time …
It wouldn’t have been fair and it wouldn’t have made sense. Also it didn’t occur to me because I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in any kind of plotting; I’m only interested in story.
I found myself wanting to read it out loud because when I did I could follow the switches from action to dialogue. You hear them more than read them. Did you write it out loud?
Yes. Absolutely. And I read it out loud constantly to myself to make sure it scanned.
Is that due to your drama training?
My whole approach to creating character comes from the Method training, from that all-encompassing understanding of character, of a person’s life. When you train as an actor you have a much more physical attachment to language because it’s all about making it live rather than making it scan or making an idea clear. You’re making a person all along so you have a more irreverent attitude to language.
Virginia Woolf once said, “The born writer’s gift [is] being in touch with the thing itself, and not with the outer husks of words.” Of course, our challenge is that words are all we have and — talking of irreverence — I noticed that you make up words. For example, “breaky” struck me: her brother rode his bike in a “breaky” way.
How do you know when you’ve made the right word?
Certainly, when I was writing the book I felt like I was banging my head off a wall trying to get the right words. I find English is so blunt. I did a lot of German at school and I always loved those enormous German compound nouns; if they don’t have a word for something they just add a little prefix or suffix to change it just enough so that the word changes meaning. I think that was part of that idea, of trying to make my own language.
So, if I can’t find the word, dammit, I’ll make my own?
I think language needs to work. If you’re trying to describe this pre-consciousness, straightforward language just doesn’t cover it. No one owns language. I can do whatever I want. It’s interesting because people get incredibly annoyed by it.
Joyce and Beckett are allowed to do it, but not you?
This woman cannot do this. This is not allowed.
The differing opinions of this book are due to the demands you place on the reader to be part of this process; to take this half-formed thing and make it whole. Do you think readers have a responsibility?
I don’t see why they shouldn’t have a responsibility. I don’t think there is anything wrong in asking them to work a little, in asking them to participate on the page, as long as you’re going to make it worth their while. And hopefully they do feel they’ve — well, maybe not enjoyed it — but felt they’ve gained something from the experience. Most books that are published — 99 percent of books that are published — don’t ask the reader to do anything. The writer is in the middle helping the reader through, telling them, “Go here, go there, understand this, feel this, when you read this bit, this is what is going to happen inside you now.” With Girl, I wanted to take myself completely out of that, so that the relationship is absolutely between the reader and the character. Maybe that’s where some of the anxiety comes for some readers? Because they’re not being told what to do or how to feel or what to think? And it was very important to me that I didn’t write with any form of judgment about the girl and the choices that she makes. I just wanted to say, “Here is a life,” and it is up to you to decide yourself what you think of it.
And there have been very divergent reactions to the girl, this forward-rolling, knickers-flashing girl. I’m not sure if you remember at the Borris Festival [the Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas, June 2014, County Carlow, Ireland] there was a lady in the audience who described the girl’s relationship to her uncle as an affair.
Oh, yes, I do remember!
And you clarified that, given that the girl is 13, you wouldn’t term it as an affair. Some reviewers have described it as a "relationship," whereas others have defined their first encounter as a "rape." Why this difference in perception about what is actually going on here? Are we still suffering from what I term Lolita syndrome — where it is automatically assumed that if a grown man has sex with a young girl then it must have been her fault?
I think we are, and I’ve been very surprised by that actually. To me it seems so evident that if a 41-year-old man has sex with a 13-year-old girl, that is rape, and it can never be anything other than rape, and just because it’s not physically violent or coercive, she is a 13-year-old girl and she is not in a position to make that choice. I suppose people feel it’s ambiguous because I don’t make him a monster, because I wanted to talk about sexual abuse in a grown-up way. Sexual abuse is not always dramatic and the effect is not always dramatic — it can be very insidious. All of the rest of her life and the choices that she makes are colored by that experience.
In that kitchen …
How she thinks of herself, how she feels about her body, about her sexuality, the ways she tries to clarify it, to control it, and to use it to control other people, all come from that very first loss of control. She chooses when she is 18 to go back into a relationship with him and that is more ambiguous. She seeks him out, and she consents to it, and she encourages him, and she asks him to hit her, and she does all of these things — but she only does that because of what he did to her when she was 13. I understand that there is an ambiguity about the latter part of the relationship with him in the broader sense, rather than in the romantic sense.
Not a lot of romance in this book.
No, no romance in this book! It was very liberating not to write about romance. I didn’t want to write about female sexuality in a sentimentalized way. Female experience is so infantilized in the media now; it’s all fucking fluffy teddies on pillows with hearts on them, and such bullshit.
These scenes are raw and explicit, and that is why people are finding them so uncomfortable to read. She is trying to search for some kind of oblivion in the sexual experience. Lots of woman writers don’t write about this directly, they swerve around it.
I think it is complicated because the language we have to speak about it is not our own. It is one that has been imposed on us, and the vocabulary of female sexuality in particular is so infantilized and sentimentalized. Sex cannot be spoken about without emotion, as though women only experience it emotionally and not physically. Whereas men have physical experiences, and this is a fundamental part of their lives, and there is an assumption that it’s meaningless for women unless there is emotion involved, which I think is so untrue. I understand that women writers want to steer away from it, because it’s hard enough not to get pushed into that trap. I found it hard myself. It is very tricky to not use any kind of moralistic language.
Some readers may expect the girl to suddenly say, “Oh, my goodness, I’ve been so naughty, I must stop doing this.” Or for her to be condemned, or for someone else to take her life, but she takes her own, which is the ultimate act of ownership. You have talked before of the difference between transcendence and redemption. Is redemption too religious a term?
For me personally it is. I don’t think it has to be, but for me the connotations are too religious, and also in a way it’s too … big. Redemption requires too much. It would require some kind of recanting, some kind of confession, and I don’t think she has anything to confess. I don’t think she has anything to recant. So she does not need to be redeemed because she hasn’t done anything wrong. Transcendence is a personal and a secular thing, I think. She transcends her experience; she does not transcend herself. She becomes her own distilled and pure self.
It feels to me that there is a direct line, a lineage, from Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls to the Girl. Have you met her?
She sent me a copy of her book Night, which I read when I was a teenager, and I wrote to thank her, and we’ve exchanged letters.
Now when her book came out …
Well, there was a whole other sort of shit-storm!
Have you had anything like that, here in Ireland?
No, bizarrely, I haven’t. When I had my launch in my hometown in Castlebar (County Mayo) there were nuns coming in to get their books signed, rather than standing with pitchforks and throwing it on the fire! I was nervous, but the country has changed because of people like Edna O’Brien.
Joshua Cohen, in The New York Times, wrote that you “[refuse] to equate universal experience with universal expression.” How important is the Irish heritage for your work?
To be Irish is hugely important to me. It forms my understanding of language — that impertinence that the Irish have with the language. The skin of English is stretched over the bones of Irish, and that looks very odd, makes language very odd, feel very different. Though I’m not interested in writing in dialect, I think in those rhythms, that reflexive quality that Irish has.
I was actually quite surprised when you once said that you couldn’t remember the last time you bought poetry.
Growing up in Sligo, Yeats was a formative influence. But no, I’m not really interested in poetry. It’s not enough for me as a form, there’s not enough room in it. I don’t have the pith it takes to be a poet. In a way it’s too hallowed. I’m definitely a creature of the earth. My feet are on the ground. My language comes from that — it does not come from above, it comes from below.
Feminism is obviously critical to you. These days some women are even afraid of saying the word, and we have this war on women nonsense. How are you holding up now that you’re in the "mother box"?
It is tricky, and I really sort of kicked against it when I first had my daughter. I still kick against it. Because I feel women are really diminished by the outside world into this role of motherhood. Suddenly you’re a “young mum” or a “yummy mum,” or “just a mum.” Overnight you stop being a person. And I find it absolutely infuriating. I don’t feel like I’m a different person. I’m a much busier person and a more tired person, but things that were important to me before have not ceased to be important to me now. Everyone tells you your identity will immediately evaporate and all you will care about is your child. That hasn’t been my experience.
Is this going to come out in your work?
Absolutely. Percolating. Certainly. I don’t sit down with an agenda though. I’m not interested in writing a feminist book, or writing a strong female character. I’ve heard Anne Enright say, “you write outside of gender when you write,” and I identify with that. For me it is an organic, instinctive experience, but those instincts come out of things that obviously I’m preoccupied by so it’s kind of chicken and egg.
Do you feel at all intimidated about the next book?
I’ve got to get it done by next September. The book is written; I just need to write it properly.
When Girl started to be successful last summer, I did get the fear terribly. A lot of the reviews finished with the unhelpful comment: “she can never top it, what can she ever do after this?” But as the book became ever more successful — because you know my great fear was that I was not going to be able to get published at all because that has been one of the overriding experiences of my life — then I thought, “Well, even if it’s a pile of shit, the next book will be published,” and this just means I am free. I can go back to how I was when I wrote Girl and do whatever I want. That is the only way to write, because everyone is going to be disappointed. Whatever I do next it’s not going to be A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. The person who has to be satisfied with this next book is me.
Who’s your first reader?
My husband; he was the first person to read Girl, and the first one to read the second one. He’s a good reader because he doesn’t lie to me and we speak the same language. I can never divorce him. I need him!
I read somewhere that one publisher suggested that you publish Girl as a memoir.
I don’t have any interest in writing memoir. I find the truth far too limiting, though obviously there were parts of my own life I used as starting off points for Girl. It took me nine years to get the book published, and that experience was horrible, so if someone dangles that in front of you, it can be very hard to say “No.”
However, you began another book so you obviously had conviction.
Yes, conviction and desperation.
It’s hard enough to write a book, but to do it with the weight of failure sitting over you — that you are delusional, that you actually are that mad person who doesn’t understand that she is not a writer. You think: Do I go on? Do I accept that I’m a failed writer? Do I keep writing even knowing that that might be the case?
Would you really have felt that you had failed if you didn’t publish?
I didn’t feel like the book had failed. I never thought that the book was wrong. But at the same time, I knew it was the best I could do. It was the best book I could have written. If it wasn’t good enough to be published, that was a kind of failure.
You said somewhere that “if you want to write for yourself, keep a diary.” You wanted your voice heard? You needed an audience?
I wrote it to be an experiment in form, to see if it would work. It’s all very well if I think, “Oh, I’ve discovered this interesting narrative perspective and this new way of writing about life,” but if the reader cannot understand it … it was really important to me that this could be an experience that someone else could have, and that probably comes from my acting background. I didn’t write it to please a reader, and I didn’t write it with any particular reader in mind, but I did write it with the view of it being read.
Susan McCallum-Smith writes essays, fiction, and reviews. Her work has appeared in, among others, AGNI, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, the Dublin Review of Books, and the Scottish Review of Books. Her story collection, Slipping the Moorings, was published in 2009. She lives in Scotland.
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