“The novel is deeply concerned with the act of creating fiction, with the existential reality of fictional characters and how that reality maps onto our own.”
—Stephen Reid on A Provincial Death, by Eoghan Smith.
by Stephen Reid
I spent some time with Eoghan Smith’s second novel, time partially spent wondering if it was named after a Russian short story – ‘Surely,’ I thought, ‘Chekov already bagged this great title?’ – and partially also wondering what exactly was taking place on the page.
This is to say, Eoghan Smith is doing something in this novel, several things in fact, which are quite interesting and enlivening as a reader, and yet pinning down exactly what those things are can be tricky.
Existential and ecological disaster
The blurb for this novel sketches a tale in which our protagonist, Smyth (not to be confused with Smith, our author) engages in a fraught pursuit of his mysterious academic mentor, McGovern, who has fled across an eerily desolate Irish landscape in search of the lighthouse on Tuskar rock in the middle of the Irish Sea.
Existential and ecological disaster frame the backdrop for this story, as McGovern believes the moon is about to enter a fatal spiral towards Earth, culminating in total annihilation for all involved.
As the book opens, Smyth’s caper appears to have lead him to a sun-blasted rock in the middle of the sea, far from shore and it would seem equally far from the lighthouse. ‘A story of human survival, the mysteriousness of existence, and planetary catastrophe’ as the publisher Dedalus recently described it.
On the surface, this summary conjures a novel not totally dissimilar to the forthcoming action film Moonfall, where the impending planetary collision acts as the impetus for plot propulsion and existential self-examination (this might be giving Moonfall more credit than it deserves).
But Eoghan Smith’s novel is less like Kim Stanley Robinson, and more like Samuel Beckett.
The plot is opaquely constructed – possibilities hinted at, scenes limned, but nothing appears to be exactly what it seems.
I found it pretty incredible that a book which, on the surface, is focused on the impending impact between the earth and moon, manages to push that element of the story to the back of its key concerns, instead finding its strengths in Smyth’s vacillating thoughts, his desperate reconstruction of his memories, and in the playfulness of its prose style.
Act of creating
Throughout the book, to complicate matters, the question remains as to whether the impact of the moon is at all likely, or simply an empty conspiracy hatched in the mind of McGovern – McGovern who herself felt like she might be an empty conspiracy hatched in the mind of Smyth.
The novel is deeply concerned with the act of creating fiction, with the existential reality of fictional characters and how that reality maps onto our own, when their very ‘existence’ is predicated on our creating them.
Smyth, our anxious, intellectual, blundering protagonist is an interesting if infuriating creation. We find him essentially as he finds himself – clinging for dear life to a large rock in the Irish Sea.
How he got there, why he got there, and what he will do next are on one level the primary concerns of the novel.
On another level, the novel is concerned with the existence of Smyth as a fictional character, and what his existence means. What’s most interesting as a reader is the experience of reading the interplay between Smyth and our unnamed omniscient narrator, and also watching Smyth essentially conjure a past and invoke a future for himself.
In some ways Smyth exists as a kind of Schrödinger’s cat, as the entire novel takes place in a period where he is essentially both alive and dead (once the book ends, so does he.) Smyth is, and this is made quite clear to the reader, doomed, both by the external circumstance he finds himself in, and his crippling lack of agency.
The novel itself is almost entirely occupied by Smyth’s thoughts, his fears, his attempts to reconstruct (or construct from scratch) his memories and reconcile himself with the death of his mother and absence of his father, his wife and his daughter.
From beginning to end, Smyth is lashed to the rock, as all around whirl his memories, imaginings and anxieties.
Always in the background there is the sense that this is a novel with a core concern – the loss of those we love, and the inevitability of that loss, in some sense or other.
Beneath the layers of Beckettian prose – which can, by times, be as hostile a reading experience for the reader as any of Beckett’s densest work – there is, just as with Beckett’s work, a concern with the universal trials of human life, and weight of the inevitable upon our puny human lives.
There is circular, reiterative nature to the prose style here – quite often if feels like a novel written in verse; quite often it is a novel written in verse – and the opaque, relentless folding back on itself that the writing undertakes has both a punishing and an satisfying quality to it.
As an author, Smith uses the novel as a vehicle to exercise concerns both philosophical, ecological and deeply personal.
These concerns, and the form in which they’re explored, at times risk overwhelming the book (and the reader), testing the limits of what can be defined as a novel.
And yet, the interplay between the author, the narrator and the protagonist, and the interrogation of narrative form and capacity here makes the book a truly interesting and genuinely experimental foray into Irish writing.
Stephen Reid works as an Assistant Editor with New Island Books and as a Sales Agent with Brookside Publishing Services