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Did the crash usher in a new type of Irish literature?—Broken Irelands, by Mary McGlynn

Broken Irelands: Literary Form in Post-Crash Irish Fiction|Mary McGlynn|Syracuse University Press, 2022)

A new type of literature? Post-crash Irish writing in Broken Irelands, by Mary McGlynn

“McGlynn develops the most deft and fascinating discussions around very large issues, such as how Irish literature continues to be shaped within and by the world-literary system, Ireland’s colonial past, and the relationship between Irish literature and late capitalism.”

by Eoghan Smith

As with many branches of the Humanities, periodization has been an important conceptual tool within literary criticism. For Irish studies scholars, the collapse of the global capitalist system in 2008 – and with it the Irish economy – offers a clear, localised demarcation between the Celtic Tiger (circa. 1994-2008) and the ‘post-crash’ period.

Given the extensive and ongoing economic, social, cultural and political repercussions experienced over the last ten or twelve years, and more recently, the resurgence of the Irish economy, the Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is less clear at this juncture if there has been a further transition of Irish culture. But that said, the term ‘post-crash’, which generally implies 2008 to the present, is by now well-established in Irish Studies, and critics have even begun to chart within the last fifteen years or so its distinct phases.

For literary periods to be discrete, they obviously must contain new aesthetic formulations that differentiate them from what has gone before. With respect to Irish literary production since 2008, then, the challenge has largely been to establish the characteristics of post-crash writing.

Significant and substantial contribution

In her new book, Broken Irelands, Mary McGlynn, who is Professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY, has made a significant and substantial contribution to this critical field. She reads a variety of well-known and newer authors such as Sebastian Barry, Colum McCann, Kevin Barry, Mike McCormack, Claire Kilroy, Paul Murray, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Sara Baume and Melatu Okorie.

Unlike other studies of the period, her approach is less to focus on mimetic depictions of the crash and its effects, but to consider instead how a particular economic worldview – the species of late capitalism known as neoliberalism – manifests within the formal aspects of post-crash Irish literature.

This method offers a good deal of scope in the choice of texts, and in this respect, Broken Irelands is not about how the crash has been represented, but sets out to explore what the types of genres, styles and syntactical structures in recent Irish fiction tell us about how Irish writers have responded to the tensions, forces and anxieties of the post-crash period.

Needless to say, then, that the book is highly attendant to the interconnections between global economic forces and Irish society and culture, and how these enormous forces interplay at a microscopic level with fictionality and the structure of language.   

‘Irrealism’ and ‘ungrammaticality’

Accordingly, McGlynn’s book draws attention to two key trends in contemporary Irish writing, which she terms irrealism and ungrammaticality. The first term, which means not real or the opposite of real in common parlance, is applied by McGlynn in a more specified sense.

Irrealism here does not simply mean texts that are unrealistic, or even non-realist; rather, she picks up on a more nuanced idea that the deployments of non-realist techniques and styles signify certain kinds of literary engagements with specific social and economic conditions. This is an important qualification, because a number of the writers she considers here are still predominantly of the realist variety. In the context of recent Irish fiction, McGlynn links the re-emergence of irrealism to ‘crisis, austerity, and imbalanced recovery’ (10).

The second term – ungrammaticality – refers to her sense that present within post-crash Irish fiction are ‘performatively ungrammatical or unusual stylistic features, with profusions of specific formations like sentence fragments, run-on sentences, irreconcilable verb tense, and, crucially, a proliferation of the use of the present tense narration’ (12). 

Is this really unique to post-crash Irish fiction? One could suggest that there is nothing new in all of this as such literary experimentalism is simply part of the passed-down toolkit of any contemporary writer with a sense of tradition. The fiction of John Banville or Pat McCabe, it could be argued, has frequently deployed such techniques, many of which are features of late modernist/postmodernist writing, and one could always go all the way back to Laurence Sterne, if one were to be narrowly pedantic.

But this would be to miss the essential point. Although much of what McGlynn identifies as a feature of post-crash Irish writing was clearly established earlier by Irish modernists such as Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, which she acknowledges as part of the inheritance of Irish literature, she is undoubtedly correct that there has been a discernible resurgence of these styles of writing in the post-crash period. This trend has been identified by others, to be sure, but McGlynn’s book is the first to pay such extended attention to it and to link it so compellingly and so forensically to the prevailing socio-economic climate (Raymond Williams‘ famous ‘structure of feeling’ is a touchstone here). 

Deft discussions

Out of these connections, McGlynn develops the most deft and fascinating discussions around very large issues, such as how Irish literature continues to be shaped within and by the world-literary system, Ireland’s colonial past, and the relationship between Irish literature and late capitalism.

Did the crash usher in a new type of Irish literature? It has commonly been recognised, it is fair to say, that in the last ten years, a vibrant generation of younger Irish writers with their own set of contemporary concerns and issues have emerged as older more historical questions that dominated twentieth-century Irish writing have faded.

This vibrancy has occurred alongside the emergence of some new indigenous publishing houses and a plethora of literary and arts journals, although it must be acknowledged that the vast majority of successful Irish literature is published by the huge British and American publishing conglomerates. Echoing the work of Adam Kelly and Angela Nagle, McGlynn cautions that it is important not to ‘overvalue’ the crash as a decisive break with the destructive forces of neoliberalism.

In fact, she argues, Irish writing since the crash demonstrates ‘a spectrum of engagement, from continuities with earlier, unacknowledged critiques to some complicity with the neoliberal status quo, to innovations that represent new directions in Irish fiction’ (7). (This is an important observation that has been made perhaps most persuasively elsewhere by Joe Cleary, who has argued forcefully that, in the main, Irish writers were largely un-critical of the Celtic Tiger.) 

Articulate provocations

Consequently, Broken Irelands contains extended, detailed explorations of the Irish economic system through which Irish culture has been financialised, with large parts of the book given over to contextual interpretations of Irish culture, society and economics over the last twenty to twenty-five years. But the breadth of McGlynn’s critical eye means that she is equally at home with skilful close readings of the grammatical structures of recent Irish texts, and how such structures can be felicitously accommodated within theories of the ‘very large’.

Her aim is essentially to demonstrate how the emergence of irrealism and ungrammaticality ‘offer fictional resolutions’ to the contradictory – and often overwhelming – sense of limitless, individual possibility and the crushing feeling of powerlessness that is characteristic of our globalised, late capitalist age.

The book offers many instances of how this is achieved in Irish fiction, including, for instance how these fictions speak to a sense of temporality. McGlynn is particularly mesmerizing in her discussions of the grammar of time, although the book contains an extraordinary range of discussion of grammatical features of the English language, from the commonly known to those, one imagines, that are normally reserved for the specialist grammarian. 

It all makes for an impressive display of erudition. For critics of contemporary Irish literature, this is an unignorable book. The terms McGlynn offers here will doubtlessly generate further exploration and discussion. Broken Irelands is not an unformidable work, but her articulate provocations force attention and are highly rewarding for all that. The book is the work of a scholar whose efforts to define the literature of this most fascinating era for Irish fiction will surely shape the critical discourse.  

Eoghan Smith is the author of The Failing Heart (Dedalus 2018). His second novel, A Provincial Death is out now with Dedalus.