Eimear McBride Is Not Afraid of Cruelty

An afternoon with one of literature’s most audacious voices

Eimear McBride is not interested in linear sentences. She is not interested in “endless heaps of description,” or “being told what something is like, instead of what it is.” She gives me an example, an elaborate, figurative description of a girl going down the stairs, and then cuts herself off: “I think, ‘Oh god, just go down the stairs!’”

Don’t waste time, she seems to be saying, because life doesn’t waste time — it rushes forward, all the way to the end.

Like the narrator of her newest novel, McBride trained as an actor in London in the 1990s, and I find myself awed by her ease with words as she sits across from me in an empty office above the NYU Creative Writers House, drinking tea someone brings her in a Styrofoam cup. (“Oh lovely, thank you very much,” she says, as he ducks out of the room.) She is warm and expressive and straightforward. She answers every question, and says exactly what she means.

“I like reading women who write cruelly,” she tells me. “It’s not something that we’re supposed to do — and of course it’s a huge part of us, as big a part as it is of men.” There are typical female subjects — motherhood for one — which are interesting to McBride in their own way, but she’s also interested in women who are unafraid to write outside of those conventionally female concerns — “women who just don’t.”

When I first read McBride’s astounding debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, in 2013, I went around for a while shoving the first page in people’s faces: “Isn’t this amazing! No one else writes like this!” Also, I was terrified. I was sucked completely into the world of the girl, whom we follow from the womb and into life — but who never gets a name, and never gets to “become.” Instead she spirals backwards through abuse, deaths, guilt, and her brother’s sickness; she keeps hurting herself, or letting herself be hurt, even as she keeps reaching for some kind of rebirth, some kind of life. I read Girl through the day and the night without stopping, without moving, feeling awful. I went for a swim and panicked, for a moment, that I might get dragged under. I knew, while reading Girl, that death was much nearer than I’d ever noticed.

All this to say that McBride is not afraid to write cruelly. She is unafraid, period. Her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, now out from Hogarth in the US, is similarly riddled with pain and guilt and sexual violence. In the turns and eddies along the characters’ paths, McBride here proves herself unafraid to write in the other direction, too — towards joy, growth, tenderness.

“Is it Virginia Woolf who talked about the angel on the shoulder? I don’t have that.” No one is going to step between McBride and her pen, warning, as Woolf’s angel did, “My dear, you are a young woman…. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own.”

Woolf wrote, in “Professions for Women,” that this angel of propriety “bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her.” But she also wrote, in the same essay, that she had never been able to speak truthfully “about the passions,” “about my own experiences as a body.” She doubted that any woman writer in her time had managed it yet.

Thankfully, this modesty has never gotten in the way of McBride’s writing. I ask where she finds the courage to write explicitly about the life of the body, which even today still feels transgressive. “It’s not really bravery. It’s more of…” she laughs, “stubbornness, I suppose; an unwillingness to be told that I can’t, or that I shouldn’t.” What would happen, she asks me, if women decided not to be ashamed? “We are told everything about us is shameful, in every aspect of our lives…. What if we just said, ‘I won’t be shamed. I am not shamed.’”

“We would rule the world,” I say, and we laugh. (This was before the US election, when we could laugh about these things and still believe — or at least I believed — that this future was at our doorstep.)

“I find that I’m very interested in shame,” McBride goes on. “Even creating an experience in which I feel shame, as in writing a novel which is full of explicit sexual description, sort of gives me a thrill I suppose!” There is shame throughout McBride’s two novels — characters humiliating one another and hurting one another in extremely intimate, complicated ways. In their broadest terms, so many of these scenes are “two people being vulnerable in a room together,” which “isn’t always a nice experience.”

“Sexuality is such a huge driver in human interactions,” McBride tells me, “and it’s so badly served by literature. There’s an argument that women [today] write about the body because that’s the only way to make room for themselves in the canon — because men don’t write about it — and I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with that.”

In a society where women are brought up to live far outside our own bodies, writing is, for McBride, a way to reconnect with the physical world. “I’m trying to write truthfully about experiences which are not easy to speak about, but which are fundamental to who we are, to the choices that we make in our lives for ourselves.”

McBride’s sentences are what get her deep into the life of the body — their quickness, their rhythms. They turn language on its head; they let words do things we didn’t know they could do: spin and tumble out the way sensations move through our bodies and thoughts move through our minds.

“I am able to sit on this chair,” she explains, “keep my balance, think about your question, think about my response, think that my ear is a little sore from the flying, think that I miss my daughter back in Norwich…the brain can do all of that at once. So I wanted my sentences to do that.”

When she first began Girl, McBride knew that she wanted to write from a different perspective than we often get in literature, from something “deeper, much further back in the psyche, and in the body,” so that reading becomes “a physical experience rather than an intellectual experience.” In reaching for that kind of “immediacy and intimacy,” the linear sentence becomes redundant — it simply takes too long.

That closeness of perspective continues through the narration of Eily, the narrator of The Lesser Bohemians:

“River run running to a northern sea. Thames. Needle skin brisk and eyefuls of concrete. Lead by the. Strip for the. National Theatre. Go on. Get a ticket. Go in.”

She is thinking of the beginning of Finnegans Wake with “river run,” and in fact the voice of this book does sound a bit like that one, in its rhymes and echoes, knocking about on the page. Unlike Joyce’s famously difficult final work, The Lesser Bohemians is perfectly intelligible on the first reading, once you get into it — and more so the further you get in; everything “begins to connect up,” McBride says. “As the book goes on, as [Eily] begins to make the connections within herself, the language begins to connect as well.”

The Lesser Bohemians is a book about “becoming.” Arriving in London from a traumatic and intensely religious childhood in a small town in Ireland — “Ireland is what it is,” Eily reflects, “Sealed in itself, like me.” — she now wants “to feel connected to life.” The river in “river run running” is “all the rivers of the world,” for Eily as it is for Joyce; being in London is being a part of the world.

“Go on. Get a ticket. Go in,” Eily tells herself, and in she goes: into the high tide of people, into the streets, the art, the messy drunken nights, the violence, the mess of sensations and emotions. “This is the finest city,” she thinks, after losing her virginity in a painful and humiliating night with an older man, “and no matter how awkward or bloodily, I am in it now too.”

Eily is “voracious;” she wants to feel everything — the good experiences and the bad ones. “There is a hunger in her for life”; it’s something McBride likes about her. Eily is unpredictable, illogical, often unkind to herself, but young and pure-hearted and lusty. This is, perhaps, what kept McBride going through the nine years it took to write the book.

She had written Girl at twenty-seven — three drafts in six months, followed by nearly a decade trying to get it published. After the first few years trying, she put the book in a drawer, and then had to decide if she was still a writer, even if she was a “failed” writer, an unpublished writer. The pragmatic part of her thought she should be “useful,” retrain as a teacher, even though she didn’t want to be a teacher — “but you know, life is slipping away and you’re just the person with this book in a drawer.”

“And then I just thought, ‘I can’t do anything better! Even if I can’t get this book published, I know that there’s nothing I can do better in the world, so I’m kind of stuck with this’.” She started writing again, and once she made it to the second draft of The Lesser Bohemians, once she fell in love with the book and started to feel that “rush,” publishing or not publishing didn’t seem to matter so much.

‘I can’t do anything better! Even if I can’t get this book published, I know that there’s nothing I can do better in the world, so I’m kind of stuck with this.’

Then Girl was published “out of the blue” in 2012 by Galley Beggar, a tiny, new press in the UK, followed by Coffee House Press out of Minnesota in the US, to enormous acclaim and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014 — following which, of course, there were the nights when McBride would wake up in a cold sweat, worrying “what if I can’t write another book as good as Girl!” But by then she’d been working on The Lesser Bohemians for six years. She was “swept up” with the book; she felt “this tremendous weight of responsibility towards the characters, like this was the only life they were ever going to have, so I had to get it right!”

It is November 2016 when McBride and I sit to talk in a florescent-lit office above the space where she’ll give a reading, at the beginning of her packed US tour for the release of The Lesser Bohemians. “It’s such an honor to meet you,” I squeak out as we sit down, my voice several decibels higher than normal, and McBride laughs and responds on her jolly Irish accent, “Well, that’s very nice. It’s only me, though!”

I am struck again by her generosity — towards me, nervous and shivering in the chair across from her; and towards her characters, for whom she wrote and wrote and rewrote to “get it right,” to let them feel — as Eily so desperately wants to feel — alive. She is generous, too, towards her readers. She wants to give them the space to “take their own position,” to step inside her fragmentary sentences and, as Jeanette Winterson suggests in the New York Times Book Review, “fill in the gaps.” The “openness” of McBride’s writing is a departure, that review notes, from the controlling hand of the “old-fashioned despot writer,” the “take-it-or-leave-it arrogance” that we find in writers like Joyce.

Does that openness, that generosity, have something to do with writing as a woman? Certainly many male writers in our canon are the supreme rulers in the worlds of their novels. “I don’t know,” McBride responds, when I ask if we can attribute this difference to gender. “I know that as much as I love Joyce, it is a barrage…. Joyce is always present, and for me the point of writing is to make myself as a writer completely absent — so that everything that happens happens between the character and the reader. The reader should feel that it’s unmediated, that I’m not there with my moral views and my political opinions telling them what they should be thinking about all these things.”

‘Joyce is always present, and for me the point of writing is to make myself as a writer completely absent.’

This refusal to control the reader’s experience is certainly not a refusal to color it. McBride deeply admires Dostoyevsky’s ability “to create a whole atmosphere that you can’t escape from, that you almost suffocate within.” Her sentences could not be more unlike Dostoyevsky’s, but she creates this sort of all-encompassing atmosphere in her work too: “you just move through that whole world and it all feels like it’s the same color, and everything belongs there” — even the characters’ voices are part of the same fabric.

But the fabric is moving; it’s permeable. There is a lot of “room” in her writing — room for the reader to “go in” like Eily, to be a part of that world, to make of it what they will.

McBride reminds me of a sentence toward the end of The Lesser Bohemians: “When I first came here I wanted the world to look at me and now I might prefer to be the eye instead.” It’s part of growing up, she says, being able to connect with something outside of yourself; being a part of the world. This is where the unnamed narrator of Girl falls short. She wants to live, to feel, just as voraciously as Eily, but — to put it simply, which is of course a disservice to the nuance and extremity of the girl’s experience — family and disease and violence and trauma push her back, keep her “half-formed.” She is trapped in; she collapses inwards.

We all love a tragic heroine. We love to cry over Anna Karenina, Ophelia, Madame Bovary, and now Girl, squashed down by the weight of the world. But Eily — coming from similar circumstances as the girl from Girl, and connected to her in many ways (she once even dreams of the girl drowning) — Eily gets a ticket; she gets to London; she gets a start on that tangled path of “becoming.”

We talk about the book’s ending, which I won’t give away because, of course, you have to read it yourself. But in abstract terms I will say that like the best endings, it is also a beginning, and that like McBride, it is unpredictable. “You know that it shouldn’t work out that way,” she says, “it should resolve in a more comfortable, ‘normal’ way…but of course that’s not how life is. People do messy things all of the time, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t work. It just felt more human and more risky — to let people want to be happy.”

Here McBride’s bravery, or stubbornness, or whatever you’d like to call it, takes a new form: the audacity to let a young, naïve girl — from a traumatic past, in a traumatic present — live.

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