The OF Blog: Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Picture how she comes.  Our Lady in white, when you're not looking.  She beckons you to Christ.  Pray to be chosen.  To bear her secrets for the world.  A dying world.  Please don't to me or catch her floating on the stairway.  Reaching out.  Howabout stigmata instead?  Worse though you'd never go to school again or look at my hands in case I see it.  The Holy Spirit's in me.  Not a punishment.  It's a gift.  No not like the violin.  Any eejit can do that.  I feel it aching in my palm but when will the blood burst?  Now please Jesus or not at all.  Lickety lips of the praying wouldn't mind if I was one.  But they'd all like it for their children.  A visionary born from me?  You'll only be able to tell the seasons by the trees Malachi prophesied or Colmcille.  And they say the last secret of Fatima is destruction of the church.  The Vatican won't say either way because that'll be the end of days.  Gulp this.  But we'll know anyway from Medjugorje the day before.  Shiver I purple terror high in my throat.  The dead will knock your window.  Deadly bony spirit hands.  They'll beg for you to save their souls.  Open the latch they cry.  You will not.  Can not.  You must turn from them.  Away.  Shut the curtains.  Light a candle and pray for your salvation while the apocalypse blows your door.  And if they plead they love you, so much the worse for their souls.  Those poor souls howling.  Sucked into the forever night.  Will you save us Mammy?  I'll say easy children close your eyes for this world is coming to an end.  But Mammy it scares me.  Well better behave yourself then. (p. 24 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Some stories are not meant to be told in "easy" language.  Some tales deserve, no, need, a more "challenging" narrative structure in order to contain the necessary depth of character, plot, and theme.  In Eimear McBride's debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which recently won the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, her prose is not "easy," it is very "challenging" indeed.  But what sort of challenges does it entail for the reader?

The basic contours of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing are relatively straightforward and familiar to readers:  a young Irish girl dealing with multiple family issues, ranging from her brother's losing battle against brain cancer to her mother's perhaps too-staunch Catholicism to her creepy uncle.  Yet what McBride does with this basic setup is what differentiates it from most contemporary Irish family fictions.  The nameless narrator's use of "broken" grammar, where the comma disappears in favor of the full-stop, punctuates the fissures and fault lines in this narrative. 

At first glance, paragraphs like the one quoted above might be difficult to parse.  But listen to the rhythms that develops within these staccato bursts.  "Open the latch they cry.  You will not.  Can not."  In this comes a call and non-response, an urge and a resistance.  The narrator, addressing her now-dead brother throughout as "you," she is constantly battling, fighting to establish some semblance of self amongst the tugs and pulls of others.  She wants to be good, she wants to be herself, but she is degraded by those around her.  This is what comes through in this carefully-crafted prose, where the images and sounds of anguished indecision are codified within this non-conventional prose style.

For some, style is an afterthought, a mere window dressing that could cover up somehow "the story."  This is certainly far from the case here, as the style is integral to the unfolding story.  McBride's narrator is a girl who has entered puberty and has suffered from an incestuous, sometimes non-consensual relationship with an uncle.  This affects her views of sex.  It becomes not an enjoyable act or a positive part of the girl's self-identity, but instead a weapon, a means of self-annihilation through non-loving relationships that reinforce the sense of self-loathing rising within the girl's narrative.  And through it all, the language of this suffering, this cry for release, is seen in passages such as this:

These journeys.  These train journeys they are always going on.  What I.  Am I doing?  Rolling over the country.  I'll give up going soon.  Where?  Here or back or.  Enough.  Thankless pointless things I'll learn.  To.  But.  Like it matters now who inspired who and who.  Fuck that I don't.  Care.  I.  And your other one.  Stupid cow out running friend.  Drive my head round the bend with all the oh my life has troubles too.  But I better do, have got to.  Just stop see and cut the cord the thread with this life and I'll be alright.  Give it up, uncle up, that's the way.  No.  And it sounds easy.  It sounds not.  But what I want.  Not to be this.  Ripped.  Ah I see.  Not.  To.  Do.  This.  Any.  More.  What.  Nothing I don't do a thing.

Few fucks here and then and who's that to do with?  No one but myself.  See.  See.  In the future I'll decide.  If I must go home.  For good.  If I.  But now.  But now.  I'm doing fine.  Like you.  I'm.  Doing.  Fine.  (p. 97)

There is a primeval quality to this, this fractured stream of consciousness.  It is not something we may readily wish to dip into to experience, but it is still there, seething.  McBride's story works so well because of how easily she taps into this raging maelstrom, allowing readers who are willing enough to "lose" themselves in the narrative to experience the narrator's emotional conflicts on a deeper, less verbalized level than what a more "traditional" narrative might have accomplished.  McBride breaks syntax and, by extension, word context in order to create new lexical shades of meanings.  In doing so, her work resembles in this particular fashion those of Joyce's Ulysses and Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom!.  Like them, McBride's story works not just only on the surface level of plot and character, but also on the level of word/signifer contextual relationships.  It may not always be "easy" to follow, but as far as it being a "challenge" for readers, it certainly does force readers to evaluate the story in fashions they might not have been prepared to do.  That the result is a moving, poignant tale of an identity being forged is a bonus that makes A Girl is a Half-formed Thing worthy of the awards that it has already won.

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