Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “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.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Let Them Eat Babies

Had we but known, we could have organised a cannibalistic orgy of baby-eating. An article in The Economist, dated February 18 and by-lined ‘T.N.’, bemoans the dearth of ‘recession art’ produced by Irish artists, filmmakers, writers, et al. “You’d expect this sorry tale to have generated a wave of films, plays and novels,” observes T.N. after a short tour of Ireland, which somehow managed to miss the droves of natives on their hands and knees in the fields, feasting on grass. “After all, the Irish have never shied away from telling stories about themselves.”
  There’s more than a touch of schadenfreude about T.N.’s article. Have Americans ever ‘shied away from telling stories about themselves’? Have the British, or the Burmese, or the Virgin Islanders? How about journalists from The Economist? Isn’t ‘telling stories about themselves’ what people tend to do when telling stories?
  T.N. also seems rather exasperated that Irish cultural types haven’t yet started singing for their supper to provide entertainment of the world at large, like court jesters jingling their bells for a few scraps from the King’s table, bawling out beal bocht tales about our ‘sorry tale’ of riches-to-rags humiliation. Perhaps it’s significant that T.N. references the ‘Frank McCourt-style misery memoir’, suggesting that ‘sorry autobiographical or semi-autobiographical tales of poverty, domestic violence and abuse of various licit or illicit substances,’ dominated the best-seller lists in Ireland during the boom years. Really? I’d have thought that if there was one kind of book that could characterise the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, it’d be the bright, cheerful glitz of the chick lit novels, which celebrated, for good or ill, a country a million miles removed from the poverty-stricken hole of Frank McCourt’s Limerick.
  As for a recession generating a wave of films, plays and novels about the recession, well, T.N. appears to be blithely unaware that films and plays are expensive blighters to produce, requiring funding that a recession tends to bleach from the economy. Nowhere does T.N. refer to the savage cuts imposed on the Arts Council, say, or acknowledge that now, when they’re most sorely needed, the voices of Irish filmmakers are being choked for the want of seed capital. The same applies to those who produce plays, of course, although T.N. neglected to mention that one of last year’s runaway theatrical successes was David McWilliam’s one-man show lambasting the powers-that-be.
  The novel is cheaper to produce, of course, requiring no start-up funding; but few writers have the wherewithal to publish their own novels, and if domestic publishers - also feeling the squeeze, naturally - believe that there is more of an appetite for celebrity-endorsed books rather than treatises on economic failure, then there’s not a lot that most writers can do to get their work into the market.
  There’s another issue at play here too, and it’s that the greed, stupidity and pathetic ineptness of Ireland’s ruling cartel of politicians, bankers and regulators that have contributed so spectacularly to the crash are almost beyond parody. Certain people bemoan the absence of a Scrap Saturday-style show satirising such excesses, but really, given the headline-grabbing antics of Brians Cowen and Lenihan and Marys Coughlan and Harney, of Willie O’Dea and John Gormley, you’d need to be a complete moron not to get the sick joke without someone handing you a punchline on a plate.
  One aspect of the economic crash and bail out that T.N. doesn’t cover in his or her gleeful appraisal of the current situation, incidentally, is the extent to which ordinary Irish tax-payers are being punished for the sinful stupidity of European bankers who lent extraordinary amounts of money to Irish banks without taking even the most basic precautions to ensure that said banks would be in a position to repay the loans. If any of those European financial powerhouses were now of a mind to sponsor, say, a theatre festival dedicated to exploring the current economic state of Ireland, I’m sure T.N. would get a bellyful of Irish artists’ responses to the recession.
  Finally, T.N. does include a very short paragraph in which he alludes very briefly to a coterie of writers who have been using the economic crash as a backdrop to their novels for the past couple of years. To wit:
“[Fintan] O’Toole also draws attention to a couple of crime novels, “small masterpieces” he says do a good job of depicting Ireland’s “globalised culture”. In that vein I should mention that a couple of friends have recommended Alan Glynn’s WINTERLAND as painting an accurate portrait of the seamy side of Ireland’s boom.”
  Indeed it does, but T.N. - had she or he scratched the surface - might have discovered that Ken Bruen, in his own inimitable way, has been charting Ireland’s economic decline through the prism of Galway for the past number of years; that the recent novels of Declan Hughes have offered, almost in passing, telling insights into the country’s changing dynamic; that the characters in Tana French’s novels are chthonic in relation to their economic environment; that Gene Kerrigan in particular is exercised by the impact of macro-economics on the lower rungs of the social order; and that CAPITAL SINS, Peter Cunningham’s novel from last year, details the ludicrous excess of the Celtic Tiger’s last days. Yes, they’re all crime novels, and as such lack the cachet of the official literary establishment’s response to Ireland’s woes; still, if they’re all we have, they’re better than nothing, right?
  Finally, it might be worth noting that during the Great Depression in the US, the top movie box office draw for four years straight, 1935-1938, was Shirley Temple. Which is to say, and at the risk of jumping to conclusions, that when people’s lives are miserable, they tend not to want to spend what little hard-earned cash they have on perpetuating their misery; they prefer escapism, distraction, release. Hence, presumably, Jedward and the Eurovision.
  T.N.? We Irish will jingle our jesters’ bells with the best of them, but we’ll do it to laugh at and among ourselves, and to comfort one another by telling ourselves our own stories. Right now, pace Swift, we’re too busy eating our babies in order to survive.


seana said...

A Swiftian style satire is not beyond your abilities, Mr. Burke. Maybe you should reserve your title Baby Killers for that one.

Stuart Neville said...

Gene Kerrigan's latest, The Rage, also features the burst bubble of the Celtic Tiger. In fact, the economic situation is so tied to the narrative that it almost becomes a character in itself.

Anonymous said...

You rock, Mr Burke.


John McFetridge said...

It's interesting how even in the periods of the most prosperity there is still some poverty and the struggles that come with it, but people like T.N don't seem to notice it. And now, "a couple of friends have recommended," Winterland (a terrific book, by the way) but he hasn't actually bothered to read it.

So, the problem isn't so much the creation of this kind of work, it's getting it to the most oblivious readers.

Rob Kitchin said...

Looking forward to The Rage. If its as intense and angry as his Indo pieces then it'll be full on. As for the babies, they're damn chewy and best sprinkled with sugar rather than salt, so to speak. I bet Shirley Temple had the right amount of treacle for the commom palate.

lil Gluckstern said...

Good post; I am floored since there has been a steady interest in Irish mysteries, noir, etc. here in the United States. I think, in part, because the situation in Ireland reflects so much of what is happening here. And I'm not sure we are dealing with our situation very well, but we are really good at denial. the other thing that is so annoying is that crime, mysteries, etc. can't be as valuable as "literature." A lot of "literature" leaves me cold and seems self indulgent to me.