One of the more spirited debates in literature over the past couple of years concerns the likability of characters, especially female characters. During an interview with Publishers Weekly in April 2013, Claire Messud took umbrage at the suggestion that Nora Eldridge, the protagonist of her excellent novel The Woman Upstairs, was not someone the interviewer would ever want to befriend. “For heaven’s sake,” Messud responded. “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? […] The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”
In a New Yorker forum the month after Messud’s comments, five authors whose work I admire — Donald Antrim, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Rivka Galchen, and Tessa Hadley — offered their insights on the topic. Not surprisingly, all of them supported Messud and some of them saw a bias, in publishers and readers alike, to object to foul-mouthed, angry or demented female characters, especially ones created by a female author. They also agreed that likable characters are boring, Atwood quoted a 1993 essay in which she wrote, “Create a flawless character, and you create an insufferable one.”
I had several reactions to this forum, one of which was that, although I agree with Atwood’s statement, there’s a difference between likability and flawlessness. My strongest reaction, however, was about a fact of modern publishing that these authors didn’t address but that Jennifer Weiner touched upon in her well written counterargument in Slate, also from May 2013:
So on the one hand, we have women writers who are insisting — repeatedly, at top volume — that their books are real writing, ‘serious literary endeavors,’ and holding up their unlikable characters as evidence. On the other hand, we have writers being urged by their agents and editors to make their characters more likable, in the interest of sales.
Weiner’s focus was on women writers, but that second sentence applies equally to aspiring novelists of both genders. I know several would-be debut novelists who were told by agents, editors, and even writing teachers that, if they wanted to get published, they had to make their characters more relatable and likable. One might expect this kind of sales advice from a movie executive; in the world of books it bears repeating that the very best thing for a writer of fiction would be to simply ignore it.
And so I’m happy to report on two debut novels — Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves and Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing — that revel in difficult female protagonists who are, in the description of Claire Messud, unmistakably alive. Coincidentally, they were published within weeks of each other and both depict female protagonists dealing with Irish families. In style, however, they are worlds apart.
We Are Not Ourselves tells the story of three generations of an Irish family spanning the years 1951 to 2011. Its heroine, if we might use that word, is the aptly named Eileen Tumulty, who from an early age harbors an ambivalence toward her status as the daughter of immigrants:
She began to look forward to the day when she would take another man’s name. It was the thoroughgoing Irishness of Tumulty that bothered her, the redolence of peat bogs and sloppy rebel songs and an uproar in the blood […] She wanted a name that sounded like no name at all, one of those decorous placeholders that suggested an unbroken line of WASP restraint. If the name came with a pedigree to match it, she wasn’t going to complain.
The first 100 pages of We Are Not Ourselves whisk us through Eileen’s early life. She grows up in Woodside, a working-class neighborhood in Queens, but dreams of one day moving up to the slightly tonier neighborhood of Jackson Heights. Her father, Big Mike Tumulty, works for Schaefer Beer and moonlights as a bartender at a different pub each night. Her mother washes bathrooms at the Bulova watch company until a miscarriage and hysterectomy lead first to an eight-month hospital stay and then a drinking problem so severe that young Eileen has to drag her off the living room sofa, where her mother soiled herself, and into the bedroom.
Eileen attends nursing school, but her real ambition is to marry a man who will take her away from her working-class existence. In an early scene the student Eileen, who models dresses at Bonwit Teller for tuition money, runs into a former classmate, the daughter of an investment banker who seems to have the easy life. The young woman is engaged to a young man about to start work at Lehman Brothers. The reference to the now-defunct investment firm is a sly touch by Thomas and a nice of bit of foreshadowing to indicate that Eileen’s single-minded pursuit of status may be less wise than she realizes.
A couple of years later, Eileen’s friend Ruth sets her up on a blind date for New Year’s Eve 1965. The man is Ed Leary, an NYU graduate student whose subspecialty in neuroscience is psychopharmacology, specifically the effect of psychotropic drugs on neural functioning. Ed is quiet, athletic, polite, and a good dancer. Everyone likes him, especially Eileen. Even though his name is Leary, “as Irish as anything,” she agrees to marry him. In 1977, when Eileen is 35, she gives birth to the couple’s only son, Connell, named after Evan Connell, the author of Mrs. Bridge.
The remaining 500 pages of the novel dramatize Eileen’s quest to improve the family’s financial and social status. When Merck, the pharmaceutical company, offers Ed a job that would give him a higher salary and greater prestige than his college teaching position, he turns it down despite Eileen’s protestations. He likes teaching, he says, and isn’t in it for the money. Still, Eileen makes an offer on a house a little out of the couple’s price range — an expensive fixer-upper in Bronxville, the community of her dreams.
It’s not much of a house: Cabinet doors hang from only one hinge, the driveway is cracked, wallpaper is peeling, and Formica countertops are missing edges and chunks. But Eileen is sure that handyman Ed, who by now has turned down several prestigious jobs, will be able to turn the place into a luxurious home. She begins to doubt his abilities, however, when Ed begins behaving erratically — leaving a foamy razor atop his beloved copy of The Origin of Species, sitting on the floor of the den amidst planks of wood. Ed’s erratic behavior and subsequent serious illness will be the test of Eileen’s life, of what she is really made of.
Along with Eileen’s social climbing, she comes more and more, despite her protestations to the contrary, to hold racist views. She gets angry at a dark-skinned driver who blares loud salsa music as he zooms past the house. She reacts with scorn when a Father Choudhary replaces Father Finnegan at their Jackson Heights church. “Over the last decade, the priests had gone from being mostly Irish to mostly Hispanic; now, apparently, they were coming from India too,” she notices. She berates an African-American store clerk and accuses him of shortchanging Ed. And news about Ed’s health is made worse by the fact that Eileen receives the bad news from Dr. Khalifa, a “foreigner.”
Sometimes, Thomas tries too hard for poetry: “She wasn’t too young to understand that the ones who pleased him [Big Mike] were the rare ones who didn’t drain the frothy brew of his myth in a quick quaff, but nosed around the brine of his humanity awhile, giving it skeptical sniffs.” And Thomas does not let a good foreshadowing go to waste. Thirty years after their conversation in Bonwit Teller, Eileen stands outside the expensive home of the friend who married the Lehman man. Eileen’s intent is to reintroduce herself, but when Virginia, her acquaintance, steps out of her house, Eileen asks only for directions. “She searched Virginia’s face for clues to the story she’d never get to hear — whether she had kids, whether her husband was still around, whether she’d had a happy life.” This scene tells us a lot about Eileen’s difficulty confronting her mistakes and the unrealized dreams of upward mobility she formed when she was younger. One wishes at times, however, that the foreshadowing had been less obvious.
But We Are Not Ourselves stands out from most debut novels, despite its excessive length, because of its unprecedentedly vivid portrayal of a man in declining health. As anybody who has cared for a loved one in decline knows, the most devastating changes are often the smallest: the hand that doesn’t grip as tightly as it did last week, the memory that is slightly but noticeably slower. Thomas does a brilliant job of dramatizing these small moments, which, in the aggregate create an emotionally powerful reading experience. There’s nothing fancy about Thomas’s writing; he derives enormous power from the simplicity and straightforwardness of a traditional narrative.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is anything but traditional. McBride has written her novel in a first-person narration that approximates stream-of-consciousness, with an obvious nod to the James Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Another inspiration seems to be José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner who liked to combine two or more characters’ dialogue into long paragraphs and favored eccentric punctuation. The opening lines of McBride’s novel make clear the ride you’re in for:
For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear you say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
This takes getting used to, but, as do Joyce and Saramago, McBride teaches you how you read her novel as you go along. Soon, you discover how well McBride’s style accommodates such topics as childhood brain tumors, rape, and religious fervor. With its many interruptions and pauses and unfinished sentences, the novel creates immediacy and tension in a way that a traditional narrative structure might not have matched. It’s no wonder McBride’s work received rejection after rejection. She needed nine years to find a U.S. publisher — in this case Coffee House Press, one of the best indie publishers in the country.
The novel follows its unnamed female narrator from babyhood until about age 20. She has one sibling, a brother who is three years older and who is diagnosed at an early age with a brain tumor. The novel’s gut-wrenching opening scenes chronicle the aftermath of the boy’s surgery. The narrator is present when a doctor explains to her mother, a devout Catholic, the result of the operation. “We done the best we could. There really wasn’t much. It’s all through his brain like the roots of trees[…]You should take him home, enjoy him while you can.” The mother swears she will do all she can to care for her children, but the father can’t handle the trauma that is to come. He gives his wife 50 pounds, tells her to take care, and departs forever.
After receiving these blows from fate, the mother’s faith in God increases, but so does her propensity to dole out disproportionately harsh punishments. She slaps the children for touching the slugs that rainwater washes into the house and threatens to ship her son off to a school for the handicapped. When her daughter draws on a couch leg with a red biro, she strikes her with a wooden spoon. Later, after being chastised by her own father for not instilling in her children a strong enough faith in God, she beats the narrator hard enough to draw blood when the girl fails to keep her knickers sufficiently covered. But like a lot of people prone to hysteria, she eventually calms down, hugs her children, and tells them how much she loves them.
It is in this whiplash environment of loving gestures and domestic violence that the narrator and her brother grow up. They are each other’s best friends and closest confidantes as children. When their mother suggests to the narrator during a drive that the tumor has rendered her brother subnormal, the girl defends him and smashes a statue of the Virgin Mary against the dashboard. There are gorgeous details: The narrator describes the “sweet chalk powder licky to my tongue” when she slaps her hands on blackboards, and the “tea smelled breath” that fogs the school bus windows.
When the girl is 13, a posh aunt and uncle — they wear driving shoes and leather gloves and bags that match — come for an extended visit. The uncle has just made partner in a firm. They take holidays in Spain and are adding an extension to their house. The aunt brags about her two children and asks the narrator’s mother: What are the chances your two will ever achieve something like that? The narrator, furious, tells her aunt off:
I’m raging. I’m spitting. Come in slinging the door. Oh are they really aunt and uncle how was it they got in the convent when they only got D’s. Just lucky? Didn’t you pay for them in? … I’m flooding the hallway up those stairs to my room see their bags shout fuck off through the door so they’ll hear, they’ll hear me and know what I mean. You snobs. Bastards.
When he is alone with his niece a day or two later, the uncle apologizes for his wife’s behavior. She didn’t mean it, he says. “She’s very fond of you, underneath.” He asks the narrator if she ever climbs out her window to “meet your boy.” And then he rapes her. McBride’s short, choppy sentences during this sequence amplify the violence and pain the narrator undergoes:
He is goding goding goding. In his breath. Like a great surprise has taken place. My legs and thighs and ankles. He will have them all of me in this. Done and done to. Doing. I’ll do all of this. Dance with the pain of it and I would do later for many bleeding days.
It doesn’t spoil the novel to reveal this sequence—all of the events I just described happen in the first 50 pages. Nor does it ruin the pleasure of reading A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing to say that decisions the characters make in the remaining 170 pages are surprising and yet seem inevitable. The least original parts of this otherwise marvelous book are its ruminations on religion — when she’s waxing on about God and sin, the mother comes across at times as a caricature. But most of her scenes are riveting — in an especially moving scene, she admits to her daughter that she has to send the son to “handicapped school” because she can’t take the pain of caring for him anymore. The final 40 pages of the novel are among the most moving you will ever read.
Like We Are Not Ourselves, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing chronicles in excruciating detail the most trying experience a family member can go through. With extraordinary economy, McBride dramatizes each character’s reaction to the events unfolding. It has been said that times of tragedy can bring out either the best or the worst in people. We see all of these reactions here, from the shockingly crass to the heartbreakingly tender. None of the characters does what you would expect him or her to do, and McBride reminds us with bracing clarity that, even at life’s most trying moments, some people, such as the mother, cannot forgive perceived sins, whether it’s her daughter’s descent into promiscuity or a belated attempt to help care for the brother, an offer the mother greets with sarcasm. “Well aren’t you lucky we’ll have you,” the mother says. “You. Just keep to yourself. He needs his mother now not you.”
How often does any novel, let alone a first novel, reach this level of complexity and deal unflinchingly with profound themes? We Are Not Ourselves and A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing remind us what literature is and what it does — and that has nothing to do with marketing or popularity contests.