Spinning yarns to make sense of an unintelligible world
There’s something mesmerizing about seeing your native tongue mangled in unfamiliar phonemes. If there’s anything at all worth remembering about the 2000 Guy Ritchie picture Snatch, it has to be the itinerant bare-knuckle boxing champ Mickey O’Neil—not only because it was another chance to see Brad Pitt shirtless and punching people in the face, but because of the peculiar and mostly incomprehensible accent with which he spoke supposed English. Audience members who were already having trouble with the Cockney representing the British underworld the film portrays were, without the help of English subtitles, utterly defeated by the cant Pitt simulated in portraying a further underworld, where even Jason Statham was out of his depth. And if Pitt’s accent is the most memorable part of the film, it’s partly because the community his character inhabits is (by far) the most compelling.
Point being, the real takeaway from Snatch was a craving for a better look at this further underworld, and more of this mysterious voice; Gavin Corbett, in his second novel, This Is the Way, gives us both. In his hands, the voice turns out to be at once more mysterious and more sharply drawn, and the community turns out not to be an underworld at all, but rather a world unto itself.
In the movie they’re only ever referred to as “pikeys” and “gypos,” but the transient community to which O’Neil belongs is properly referred to as the Irish Travellers, (or amongst themselves, as Pavees). As of the 2006 Irish Census, there were 22,369 Travellers in the Republic of Ireland, a not-especially-visible portion of the Irish population. It adds another layer of obscurity to the circumstances of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Anthony Sonaghan, that he is himself hiding out from Traveller families on either side of an ancient feud—the Sonaghans and the Gillaroos—from both of which he is descended, and who reportedly mean him harm.
This is how he comes to be in the Dublin tenement house where we find him when the novel opens, and where his uncle Arthur, having left the Traveller community years before only to become a solitary wayfarer in Great Britain and continental Europe, soon comes to hide as well. The opening lines bring to mind Molloy or Malone or the unnamed narrator of The Unnamable: “There I was now. In a room, a tidy room, tidier than any room I been in before. The bed was hard. The walls they gave no sound. A heavy window thumped itself shut. Good I says. Peace I says.” As a pair Anthony and Arthur are Beckettian in their isolation but also in relation to the world around them: their chief preoccupation is making sense of things—the “settled” world, their personal histories, their cultural histories, love, kinship, language, et cetera. Like the rest of us, but with more gusto, the way they go about making sense is by telling stories—they sit around Anthony’s decrepit room sipping sherry left by a previous tenant: “I says Arthur you’ve a gift do you know… For setting out the story there in front of someone and the light and life in it is there to see.” For his own part Anthony claims to “know fuck all about stories,” but it’s his way with words that achieves just that light and life throughout the book. As when he describes, for example, the menace of his quarter of Dublin, he tells us: “At any place you would turn you would find a man waiting to take it in hand the thing been troubling him. This is what you would think.”
Corbett doesn’t try to transcribe Anthony’s voice phonetically, but the syntax is rendered with such skill that you can hear him in your head; it’s hard to resist the urge to read passages like the one above out loud. His and Arthur’s is an oral tradition—Anthony is the first of his family to learn to read and write—and as such it is rich with fanciful histories and folktales and parables, to which long digressions are devoted. More intriguing, though, (to me, at least, and I sense to Anthony) are the stories he and Arthur tell about themselves. And, as the book goes on, the stories they tell about Anthony’s father/Arthur’s brother, Aubrey Sonaghan, from whom they are both estranged. It was Aubrey who, years earlier, by marrying a Gillaroo lass and by transposing inter-family violence from the streets into the boxing ring (where he was of course an invincible bare-knuckle champion), effected the peace that Anthony and Arthur have now shattered in some as-yet unnamed way.
At any rate it’s telling stories that leads them to Judith, a professor who takes an anthropological interest in them both. Because of the fractured and elliptical and enigmatic nature of Anthony’s voice, the narrative thrust of the book can be tricky to parse. But he relays Judith’s advice, and as readers we do well to take it: “you have to look at these things in detail and in whole and the story will make sense… it is not fate but from where you are looking it can seem like fate.” Anthony, Judith understands, lives inside this tension, between a sense of agency and a sense of inevitability; the stories he tells and the decisions he makes are always told and made relative to both.
Things get complicated all around, as they often do—Corbett does a good job keeping a lot of balls in the air. Anyway, as with Snatch (but of course much more so), what captivates is the voice itself. In Anthony’s case, it isn’t incomprehensibility that makes us want to look closer at his mouth, but rather it’s the words themselves, the music of them and their lucidity and their newness in his throat. Take for example his description of Arthur upon his arrival in Dublin: “He was wearing a hat. I could not say if I liked it. He said it was made of felt and he got it in France. There used to be a feather in it he said. He took it down off his head and he showed me the inside.” It’s a passage of no real consequence, and no obvious beauty, but in it there’s a wariness of the strangeness of the world, and a weariness of the need to process all that strangeness, that tells us everything we need to know. After the fashion of Beckett, Corbett gives us language that is its own form of mysticism; as in Malone Dies this mysticism’s best use is in spinning yarns, in being mystified, in seeking peace and finding none.
—Chris Knapp lives in Brooklyn with his wife. He has recently completed a novel.