You hear a lot of guff these days from Ireland’s literati about Irish literature’s failure to produce the Great Celtic Tiger Novel. ‘Where, oh where, is the Great Celtic Tiger Novel?’ is the general gist of it, followed by, ‘Why, oh why?’ and ‘Oh when, oh when?’. Well, a little birdie tells me that the wait is almost over. Once Amadán O’Lungamhain concludes IT’S A LONG WAY FROM LICKING GOOBERS OFF THE COBBLES, his five-volume epic ring cycle on the eradication of TB, he’s setting his sights on the Celtic Tiger years. A HILL OF MAGIC BEANS should be arriving on shelf near you by 2051 at the very latest.
At the risk of sounding a tad more obtuse than usual, I really don’t get this obsession with the Great Celtic Tiger Novel. Yes, I understand that Ireland is a post-colonial country that has yet to shuck off its inferiority complex, and that a reluctance to engage, as Brian Cowen might say, with ‘we are where we are’ is a symptom of that. And yes, I understand that writing novels about the past offers the opportunity of rewriting the past, and thus making the official version of our tawdry history that bit more palatable. And I understand too, if the post-boom years are any marker, that Ireland is one of the very few modern nations for which the past is not another country where they do things differently; Ireland, as the newspaper headlines on any given day will tell us, is a country that bears an eerie similarity to the psychological landscape of Flann O’Brien’s THE THIRD POLICEMAN, in which past, present and future are locked into a hellish cycle of eternal return. If our politicians, financiers, bishops and electorate are all doomed to repeat their mistakes over and over again, never truly escaping tragedy into farce, then why should our novelists be any different?
Maybe it’s the case – and bear in mind that some days I’m more wilfully obtuse than others – that I’m simply too callow or uneducated to appreciate the subtle nuances of a body of literature that glories in its inability to come to terms with the present, or at least to try. But it seems to me that any self-respecting novel should be more interested in raising pertinent questions than providing belated answers, in wrestling with current dilemmas than offering quasi-philosophical interpretations of historical events. The point of any art, surely, is to reflect and / or investigate the culture from which it springs. That’s not as easy as it sounds, of course, especially when it comes to the novel. A good book can take an author years to write, so that he or she finds that the zeitgeist has long sailed by time the book lands on a shelf. It’s also true that a crucial moment in a nation’s development can take many years for all the sediment to sift down, so that an author can see it clearly enough for what it really was. By which time, unfortunately, the novel is no longer relevant as a tool to aid our understanding of ourselves, which is the fundamental point of art.
You wouldn’t know it if you only listened to the Irish literati, but there is a body of writers engaging with modern Ireland. Only time will tell if they are entitled to call themselves artists, but right now they are asking hard questions of our society, our mores, challenging our ethical stances. This is the kind of thing that good crime fiction does as a matter of course, and that a number of Irish crime writers are doing on a regular basis. Brian McGilloway, Ken Bruen, Tana French, Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan, Alan Glynn, Stuart Neville – these are some of the writers who do not allow themselves the luxury of elapsed decades before confronting the issues that are relevant to a country bedevilled by corruption at virtually every strata of society. Yes, yes, I know I cut a pathetic figure bleating on yet again about the relevance of Irish crime fiction, but you’d need to be a far more obtuse figure than I not to appreciate the fact that there is a phenomenon at play here; and more, that such writers – like Liam O’Flaherty publishing THE ASSASSIN in 1928, or Colin Bateman publishing DIVORCING JACK in 1995 – deserve credit for their courage in grappling with crucial issues when they are still live, messy and important.
All of which protracted preamble leads me to the ever-radiant Arlene Hunt, who appeared on TV3 last Thursday morning chatting about her new tome, BLOOD MONEY. I can’t say too much about the novel just yet, as I won’t get to start reading it for another day or two, but I do know that the story dips a toe into the murky waters of organ tourism, aka the black market in organ transplants, and subsequently tip-toes through an ethical minefield. Now, I have no idea of how prevalent organ tourism is here in Ireland, although I’ve no reason to believe it’s not as common-place here as it is anywhere else; nor do I know how qualified or otherwise Arlene Hunt is to write about the topic. I do know that Arlene Hunt is a terrific story-teller, though, and that I’m looking forward to reading a topical novel about contemporary Ireland.
Topical novels about contemporary Ireland, eh? When literary Ireland finally gets around to pulling its head out of its ass, and stops whining about how the Arts Council trough is no longer as full as it used to be, and realises that it’s not entitled to consider itself an heir to Joyce, Beckett, Shaw, O’Casey, et al simply because there’s a harp on its passport, it might want to consider the following question: Is a topical novel about modern Ireland once in a blue moon really too much to ask?
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.