It started on the late, late shows. While most boys in the early ’70s were trawling the late-night TV channels in the hope of glimpsing some illicit flesh, the teenage Alan Glynn was getting off on a more potent charge: paranoia.This article first appeared in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times’ Culture section.
“I think that the stuff you ingest as a teenager is the stuff that sticks with you for life,” says Glynn. “When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the biggest influence was movies, and especially the conspiracy thrillers. What they call the ‘paranoid style’ in America – Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, and of course, the great Chinatown. There was a societal thing going on, they were examining the whole paranoia thing in American politics at the time, which seemed exotic to me when I was catching late-night movies on BBC2. It was exotic back then, but now we’ve got it. We’re all paranoid now.”
‘Follow the money,’ urged Deep Throat in All the President’s Men. Sage advice for those trying to understand why and how Ireland’s boom went bust; or it might be, were there any money left to follow.
Written while the economy was still thriving, Glynn’s new novel, Winterland, nevertheless gets under the bricks and mortar of post-boom Ireland. Noel Rafferty is a consultant working on a building development on Dublin’s quays. His nephew, also Noel Rafferty, is a gangland hard man. When both men die on the same night, Gina Rafferty, sister and aunt to the men, suspects there is more to the deaths than mere coincidence. As Gina asks questions of those in authority, however, the novel broadens its remit to investigate the connections between blue-collar criminality and those who inhabit the white-collar worlds of politics and business, the latter with fortunes to lose if their building development fails.
Is there a danger that there will be little new in Winterland, at least in terms of newspaper headlines, for contemporary readers?
“There has been a tendency for people to say that this is a very prescient book,” he says. “But none of it was consciously written to be prescient. It’s not an economic polemic, or a political polemic, so the specifics of the story detail and how they run parallel to where we are now aren’t all that important.”
Established as a paradigm by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the theme of linking street-level crime to those in positions of authority abusing their power is virtually axiomatic in crime fiction. Glynn, however, is interested in taking that paradigm onto another level (“I haven’t read a lot of it, really,” he says. “I’m not an expert on crime writing.”) In common with such recent Irish novels as Gerard Donovan’s Julius Winsome, Kevin Power’s Bad Day in Blackrock, or Gene Kerrigan’s Dark Times in the City, Winterland expands beyond crime and punishment to explore those junctures where the personal becomes the political. Fuelled by bad blood and paranoia, the novels investigate the nature of justice itself.
“Gene Kerrigan is much more knowledgeable about the specifics of this, because of his career in journalism,” says Glynn. “And I think ‘crusade’ would too strong a word, but juxtaposing street crime with the kind of crime that happens in politics or business, I think that highlights on a moral level the question, ‘Where’s the difference?’ Not to be heavy-handed about it, but in Winterland, certain people get away with things in a way that people from a lower economic class wouldn’t get away with.”
In person amiable and self-deprecating to a fault, Glynn is a far cry from the hard-bitten anti-heroes of ‘the paranoid style’, although he is every bit as single-minded when it comes to following his instincts. Born in Dublin in 1960, and educated locally, he decided very early in life that he had a vocation to write.
“There was never anything else, ever, on the radar. I have a photograph of myself when I was about seven, sitting at a desk with a pen and a notebook. I only came across it recently, and I was amazed, but it’s completely consistent with what I remember as a kid.”
He went to Trinity College to read English, where he met his wife Eithne, with whom he has two sons. He then spent five years in Verona teaching English, and then went to New York, returning to Ireland in 1992, when he took the decision to write full-time. His first novel, The Dark Fields, set in New York, was published in 2002.
“It’s insane,” he says of the writing process, “it’s painfully, painstakingly slow. If I have to write a note to the milkman it’ll take me half-an-hour and three drafts. Not that it’ll be any better in the end, but that’s just the process I have to go through. And that’s a disadvantage in some respects.”
The main disadvantage is that, as a father of two, and despite working as a full-time writer, Glynn has produced only two published novels in eight years. A third novel, The Paloma Stripe, was rejected in 2005.
“The reason I was given basically boiled down to ‘likeability’, they had a ‘likeability’ issue with the main character. And that’s a very subjective thing.” It’s also an issue more relevant to commercial fiction, whereas Glynn’s ambitions are more literary. “Look at Humbert Humbert, you wouldn’t call him a likeable character. Or Macbeth.”
With the publication of Winterland and a Neil Burger-helmed Hollywood adaptation of The Dark Fields due later this year, Glynn’s personal circumstances have hugely improved. His themes, however, remain the same.
“It’s called Bloodland,” he says of his current work, “and it’s not a sequel to The Dark Fields, but it develops a minor character from that novel and turns on similar themes of power and corruption and the abuse of money and position. The character is an investment banker, and he’s involved in a series of companies which are involved in illegal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m fascinated by this idea that the scramble for Africa, and the plunder of its natural resources, is as big or bigger today as it was when Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness. Then it was ivory and rubber, and the exploitation was on a massive scale. Today it’s coltan, and other precious metals that are used in consumer products, like mobile phones and games consoles and that kind of stuff.”
Again, the personal meets the political.
“Well, absolutely. It’s about responsibility – taking responsibility or not taking responsibility, and the broad consequences individual actions can have throughout society.”
Winterland’s abiding symbol is a tower being built in Dublin’s docklands, proposed to be Europe’s highest building if only those individuals with their hands on the levers of power can apply enough pressure in the right places. Such projects, whether flawed by engineering or overweening ambition, are now considered monuments or mausoleums to the boom years.
“I was writing this when everything was fine, economically speaking,” says Glynn, “although in saying that, if you looked ahead you knew there had to be something coming down the tracks. People saying, ‘This time it’s different,’ and ‘The Irish model is different.’ We knew then that that was insane. But I was conscious even then that this flaw in the building could symbolise in some sense the hubris that existed, that there was an in-built, invisible fatal flaw in this whole economic boom. Originally the flaw was just a technical issue, an engineering problem, but it quickly became apparent that it was symbolic. I didn’t want to push that too heavily, or be heavy-handed about it, but it was there.
“Now, in the context of the economic collapse, it makes more sense. It’s clearer to me now than it would have been then. The organic development of those kind of ideas … Sometimes it’s hard, because you’re not quite sure of where it’s bringing you. I think that’s a very important part of writing, to learn to go with that instinctual feel for an idea. You have to trust that.”
‘That all is not what it seems’ was once described by the great creative writing teacher John Gardner as the quintessential narrative hook, and it’s an instinctive philosophy that Glynn cleaves to as he gives voice to a distrust of authority that is by no means confined to Ireland.
“It’s the only sane position to hold,” he says. “This whole idea that we’re being presented with what’s going on, but that behind that again there’s something else happening. Not to be a loopy conspiracy theorist, but just to voice the sense that there’s a disconnect. And we’ve had plenty of evidence of that over the last two decades that things simply were not as we were told they were.”
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
The Dark Art of Paranoia
The publication of the paperback edition of Alan Glynn’s WINTERLAND is as good an excuse as any to reprint the interview with him I had published in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times’ Culture section a couple of months ago. To wit: