Monday, April 2, 2007



Niall Griffiths' antidote to the "Vomit Novel"

I finished this Liverpudlian writer's fifth novel last night. Waiting for the only copy in all of Los Angeles' libraries to make its way to me, I'd been waiting nearly two years for it to be published in the U.S. It's rare that I can name a contemporary writer (five years younger than me, depressingly) whose complete works I have read-- unless that author's written a book or two. Fiction by recent writers, especially. I read less fiction these days, and outside of my stint in college & grad school necessarily immersed, my drift into compendia, arcana, and trivia tends to lure me into the less-frequented eddies of knowledge that can be verified, or if like theology or science perhaps on occasion, can at least be rationalized or theorized. Not that literature's free of such earnest interpretation, criticism, and often soulless scrutiny. My own attempts at lit crit invariably get tagged as too reflective rather than objective, but it's my dogged mission to steer lit crit away from Sargasso Seas. Alas perhaps one reason of many why I labor on the non-tenure track.

What I like about Griffiths is his mixture of the demotic, full of invective, overdetermined (ha! this is admittedly a great lit crit adjective), and often futile ravings at the injustice of it all. He blends into this a rather somber, measured, omniscient voice that to me hints of the kenning, the sermon, the treatise, and the meditation. This register's notably more erudite, often tossing in meteorological or geological terms amidst finely crafted reflections on mortality, history, and individuals who even in post-Thatcher, now-New Labour Britain, at its Cymric fringe and the corridor past Wrexham to Rhyl and points southerly in the Principality (although I reject this term as a proper anti-monarchist who doubtless romanticizes an equally brutal counter- resistance among the speakers of Celtic languages who are called for convenience if inaccurately the Celtic race) manage to strive towards the right, the good, and the moral center. How Griffiths does this within fiction that if opened randomly appears to have been transcribed by some recording angel from a tape recording at a pub, a rave, a football match's aftermath, or the scene of a crime all with the liberal use of limited phrases, is masterful.

My wife as I was reading "Wreckage" asked me about the book and author. I said that while he's inevitably compared to Irvine Welsh, Griffiths is his own man, who uses the surface of a caper to delve into deeper depictions of youthful apathy, bitter inarticulation, and frustrated glimpses of the beautiful and the orderly beneath the carnage his characters leave in their frenzied wakes. Well, at least the Welsh and caper tags. She then noticed what I did not. Trainspotting's author's blurb on the bottom of the front cover. I then noticed on the back the Daily Telegraph's blurb: 'In the foreground is a caper story; in the background, a poetically expressed, apocalyptic history of Liverpool.' So, I was intuitively in line with my fellow critics and literati.

This book picks up where the caper of the previous "Stump" ended, with hapless Alastair and raging Darren back from a failed hit in Aberystwyth-- whose town-and-gown, tourist vs. scholar, student vs. everyone else milieux earn vivid illustration-- their failure itself hinged on a marvelous sort of shaggy-dog anecdote that I cannot give away. The pair witlessly and suddenly decide to rob the post office in the village of Cilcain. (Hmm-- symbolic name?) Darren coshes the old postmistress, and absconds with the loot before Emrys, her hurrying husband, can get off a shot from his gun in defense. Their Scouse accents are heard hooting, their Morris Minor 1000 gains attention for a moment, and soon their crime's on the news for their gangland boss Tommy Maguire to hear about and put two-and-literally another bumbling two, Robbo and Steve, together with the subversive robbers Darren & Alastair. Complications ensue as the four thousand pounds stolen make its successive stealers think they can rule the world of Lime Street, with blow and broads enticing their fevered, puny visions of utter wealth and eternal power derived from this rucksack of banknotes.

A sample of his style early on, pg. 8. A description of the postmistress: "THUNK, that hammer went as it struck skull. THUNK. And no noise made as the old woman fell except for a dry rustle of starched apron and old skin similarly bereft of moisture because of the years spent behind that counter franking envelopes and shuffling papers until the body becomes a parchment itself. And then the world's rude reward: attack and blackness, and the body brought to earth with one THUNK and crisp rustle as if its station has consumed it whole, the obliteration of one office never- altering." You can see the cadences. Implosive violence amidst a flow of contemplation.

What I admire in Griffiths is his control of his characters' own voices along with the grand narrative omnisciently intespersed. His first novel, "Grits," floated in and out of half- a- dozen Welsh and blow-ins scattered about near the rocky coasts in the raves of the early 90s. He can share the feelings of altered states brought on by drink and all sorts of drugs powerfully-- at least to a gullible near-teetoller (when it comes to pills, thrills, and bellyaches) who admits he is technically a boomer but could've been the child of one if she was soon getting it on, as being born the early 60s hardly means I was burning draft card, moratorially marching or getting high with a little help from my friends during the Summer of Love. I hate it when the media lump anyone 1946-64 into the same demographic. Gen X and Y and whatever's now don't have such a generous inclusion into their disaffected slacker, wired, and/or endlessly retrorevivalling ranks.

Back to Griffiths. Ironically, our five-year age difference may account for his deft ability to plumb the down and outs of his native West Britain. His combination of learning and lager in "Wreckage" bursts into a self-penned self-critique, or a parody of the same given the wretched verse declaimed by a Poet of the New Sensitivity, one Andrew Boswell, in the pub the Egg that Alastair-- on the tiles at another pub and now feeling it-- stumbles into desperate for the loo.
Boswell fumes at the perceived lack of respect. Later from the shellsuited ne'er do well we learn that he wanted to wait politely, but had to interrupt to heed nature's call and succumbed. The Poet feels infringed upon. He places Alastair, however, in a surprising niche that's news to me.

"Maybe he's one of those Scum Novelists researching his next Vomit Novel. Every year one comes out, some anti- intellectual spewing, some proudly plebeian vitriol or bile that everyone seems to need or make a fuss over and they're all the same. exulting in filth and inverted snobbery. I bet that's what he's doing in the toilets, making notes for his next Vomit Novel. That's all they are, just pages of exploitative nastiness; lacking in any kind of sensitivity or compassion and all written in the same grubby little voice. Oh, authentic depiction, they say! The voice of the common man? It all lacks vision, it lacks commitment, it lacks ... artistry. And still they go on as if it's still the year of Trainspotting and not the tired twenty-first century, as if they don't realise that people are tired of them by now, all this sordid concern with the one voice and the one time. Society doesn't need the Vomit Novel. It never did." (pp. 130-131)

In "Grits," the half- a- dozen voices were all effective, but the novel at over four hundred densely plotted, overlapping, slang-laden, and often phonetically challenging prose made for a challenging read. The reward was earned for the reader, but it was a lot to take on-- Griffiths like a musician on his first album in his own novelistic début poured in "nastiness" and "compassion" but the former for its graphically described scenes may have understandably garnered attention. His second work, half its size, cut half the voices. Its narrative arc, tossing in molestation proved a bit disappointing as this plot device for a character's motivation, as in the film "The Sweet Hereafter" out around the same time, was not essential. "Sheepshagger" did not need this additional layer of revelation as it already had delivered an efficiently created, sharply defined, and satirically inflected sense of the clash between the Welsh and the English today. The natural beauties contrasted with artificial strip-malled, franchised, mercury-lit modern concrete that took over Wales as anywhere near a motorway in the last century gain by juxtaposition. Griffiths embeds in his characters a social critique, an indictment of our current indifference to the fragility of our surroundings that natives ironically often diminish while visitors praise it unendingly. You see why both sides feel the way they do, no small achievement.

Of Irish and Welsh descent, as his name denotes, Griffiths often sidles into the past century that saw such devastation inflicted upon the Welsh in the invasion of their homeland. Here (although countering the blurb quoted earlier I would not say that Liverpool's history per se occupies as large a role in "Wreckage"), Griffiths broadens his scope. He recreates the history of violence born by the ancestors of his main characters-- as well as the victims of Darren's dozens of earlier beatings, nurses, patients, thugs, feckless progenitors, and many of the suffering... with cameos by such as "Passenger," "Alky," a wartime barrage balloon, and "Drizzle." The shadows of recent drug wars by "Coggies" among Belfast's loyalists stretch over the final pages. There may be well room for a third installment in this saga of Liverpool's low life.

One of the two titular protagonists of his third novel, "Kelly + Victor," resurfaces if only in two asides, one by an extra here and an anecdote by a cabbie working for Maguire. An appealing, and effective quality to Griffith's fictional realm is the passing entry and exit, if only recollected, of a character in another novel. It reminds me of the construction of Krystof Kieslowski's nuanced journey into similar moral terrain, in his ten-part film dramatizing-- as cleverly as in Griffith's books-- the temptations disavowed and the aspirations codified by the Ten Commandments as "Dekalog." For Polish filmmaker or Welsh-Irish-Liverpudlian writer, our times offer as many scenarios for the battle between good and evil as biblical tales do. In "Wreckage," the ethical vacuum of our new century has been created by earlier generations, who also sucked the life out of each other in a city and country no less unforgiving of frailty.

Griffith's narrative as it enters its second half shifts in time, and moments begin to be repeated as seen by different people. This again adds to the verisimilitude. Not all progresses linearly. The whole unpredictability of life's coincidences and outrages provides a realistic novel that nonetheless elevates its tone and subject above the level of injury, anguish, and reverie. Yet, it does not condescend to those on the lower rungs, no more than it romanticizes the actions of those who punish, assault, and plunder. Griffiths enters memorably those often overlooked in capers: those marred for a lifetime after the big score in body and mind by thoughtless reflexes of anger or meticulously planned cruelty.

Griffiths ponders his hometown in two world wars and the 1981 riots, and in a strikingly sketched passage, the ancestors of Tommy Maguire during the Famine who sought refuge across the Irish Sea. We unearth after this section the roots of the Maguire hanging tree. As the years unfold, the victims and the tormentors do not always stay the same. "Innocent perpetrators" of the ultraviolence? This conundrum requires an open-minded interpretation. The moral center may not be present, but it's absence tears apart those in our own frantic capitalist thrashings. Why and how those who hit and those who are hit switch to the opposite team, by choice or by forced trade, becomes the lesson of "Wreckage."

Alastair's grandmother had worked in a hospital in both world wars caring for the maimed. This drove her into seclusion long before the Alzheimer's disease is shattering her identity. Bits of her familial Welsh swirl amid English words in her brain, and silently she peers out at this battered offspring of a daughter equally savaged by the men who rule by beating and preening. The complications that turn a young criminal into a more believable figure emerge as he takes the hand of his "nan." He "feels it just tepid with what wanes within it and the skin like the fibre of his tracksuit, somewhat satiny, unmoist. Feels the faint pulse in it as a separate life more animate is ensnared there, a smaller yet mightier animal kicking to be free with the final scrap of its strength." (p. 159) The kick inside: this is what Griffiths studies no less than his precisely phrased outbursts among a couple of dozen voices animated by their mortal moments of hate and passion and confusion.



2 comments:

THE TAO OF DOG said...

Superb evaluation of Griffiths' work, and I have always got annoyed when he gets filed away with Irvine Welsh.
Griffiths is a really profound and complex writer who resonates on so many levels of the psyche - symbolic, social, spiritual, cultural, mythical etc.
As a man born into the same socio-economic and cultural background as Griffiths and his characters, I think he is one of the most important writers to emerge in the UK in the last 30-40 years. He does remind me of a 21st century Francis Stuart.

Fionnchú said...

Tao of Dog, my review of Kevin Kiely's biography of Francis Stuart is forthcoming in Etudes Irlandaises. I prepared a longer version of it, which had to be edited down for the journal, which I can post to you if you'd like. Tony Bailie's blog "Ecopunks" (linked via my own blog) also has reviewed some of FS's novels. Thanks for this comment, and I too look forward to Griffith's novels regularly, although they sometimes take a while to appear over here in the US.