Roddy Doyle’s “The Guts”

They were sitting in the living room, sharing stuff.
– Your man Roddy Doyle has a new book.
– I don’t have a man.
– It’s just an expression. It’s Irish.
– Are there any Sheas in the new book?
– That’s El Porto Irish.
– What’s my man’s new book about?
– Your man Jimmy Rabbitte is back.
– How old is Jimmy, now?
– Pullin’ 50.
– I might have known. Does my man have a woman?
– He does, and children, too.
– Sounds like a family affair.
– And Imelda is back, too.
– Who is Imelda?
– That’s what Aoife wanted to know.
– What?
– Aoife, Jimmy’s wife. It’s an Irish name. I had to look it up. It’s pronounced EE-fa, long e followed by f then schwa, the a the schwa sound, you know? The upside-down e.
– And is the F word back as well?
– It is, but somewhat diminished. Though it climbs toward the end. Not a main character in this one like it was in The Commitments, the F word.
– So Jimmy’s a wife, then?
– And children.
– Is it good, then, your man’s new book?
– It is. I’ve never read anything by Roddy Doyle that was not good.
– But didn’t Roddy dis your man James Joyce?
– Roddy Doyle did not dis James Joyce. He was merely pointin’ out there are other Irish writers besides James Joyce.
– Includin’ Roddy Doyle.
– Roddy uses the Joyce style quote marks, no quote marks, the dash to start off dialog, you know? And he’s a master at the stream of talk.
– Is there music in this one, like in The Commitments?
– There’s music, yes.
– Is Van Morrison in the new book?
– No, I don’t recall mention of Van the man.
– Your man Roddy probably thinks of Van Morrison the same way he thinks of Joyce.
– Maybe. I don’t know. But I get your point.
– So what does Jimmy Rabbitte do in Roddy Doyle’s new book?
– Come here. I want you to read it, Roddy Doyle’s new book.
– Come here?
– It’s another Irish expression, apparently. But I think it’s only used when you’re on the phone. It’s like a head’s up you’re going to get some request for a favor, or it’s a signal that something serious is about to be said. I’m not sure. But like Jimmy’s on the phone to his Da –
– His who?
– His Da, his Dad, his father. Fathers are what happen to young lads. And Jimmy says, Come here. Can I borrow your car for the weekend?
– He’s pushin’ 50 and he’s after borrowing his father’s car?
– Isn’t that very El Porto Irish of you. They’ve only one rig, and they need two to drive to one of those outdoor concert festivals.
– So music is what this new Roddy Doyle book is all about?
– No, not first and foremost. But come here. I want you to read it.
– You haven’t told me what it’s about yet.
– Remember that movie we watched, The Pope’s Toilet?
– No. Is your man the new pope in Roddy’s new book?
– Never mind. Your eyes are a pretty blue, a powdery, baby blue.
– Compliments will get you nowhere.
– Fair play. Jimmy has no friends, either.
– I might have known. You and James and Jimmy and Roddy should all get together for a pint.
– Wouldn’t that be something?
– You think your man Roddy reads your blog? You going to post a review of his new book?
– He first self-published The Commitments, you know.
– But he’s not still self-publishing.
– I guess not.
– You think he reads blogs?
– There’s a funny scene in the new book, where Jimmy goes back to work after being away for a time, and he’s got like hundreds of emails waiting for him, and he deletes all the distractions he’s subscribed to, without looking at them. That’s the Internet. Subscribe to something, like you’re following it, but never look at it except to delete the update. But there’s mention of blog, I think. I forget. But yeah, there’s mention of a blog.
– You usually circle that sort of thing.
– No marginalia in this one, dear. I didn’t want to mess it up for you. Come here. I’m after askin’ you to give it a read.
– Why?
– I don’t know.
– What’s it called, Roddy’s new book?
– The Guts.
– The Guts? So what’s it about, finally, The Guts?
– It’s about courage, maybe, the courage of the ordinary.
– Is courage getting good reviews these days?
– There are plenty of regular reviews of The Guts out there readers can check out. I’m going to post this.
– What?
– Our conversation.
– That ought to nail it.
– I love the ground you walk upon.
– Go away. Go blog or something.

Roddy Doyle, “The Guts,” ISBN 9780670016433 | 336 pages | 23 Jan 2014 | Viking Adult | 6.29 x 9.33in

Unmoving Literary Works; or, Needs Editing, “Ha Ha Ha”

“Ulysses could have done with a good editor,” Roddy Doyle said, fed up with all the attention Joyce gets to the neglect of other Irish writers. “I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it [Ulysses],” Doyle said. Roddy was just stirring up the stew, tossing in some new ingredients, and no need to cook it so long over an open fire. Let’s eat; I’m hungry. But what of Paul Coelho; what’s his beef with Joyce? “Ulysses is pure style. There is nothing there,” Coelho said. We introduced the topic in Monday’s post: must a work “move” the reader to have literary value?

In his On the Sublime, Longinus says, “The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification.”

Ha Ha Ha! Take that, Coelho!

Yet Longinus also says, “In life nothing can be considered great which it is held great to despise.” But does the reader despise Joyce’s Ulysses for its “pure style”? Longinus said “that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface.” Is this true of Ulysses? And, if not, would editing help?

Longinus lists “five principal sources of elevated language:…the power of forming great conceptions…vehement and inspired passion…the due formation of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression…noble diction…[and] the fifth cause of elevation…is dignified and elevated composition.”

Can we edit one or more of Longinus’s principal sources of elevated language out of Ulysses and still expect something sublime to emerge?

But what of the idea that for a work of literature to be considered “great” it must “move” the reader? I began thinking of literary works that we might consider great yet don’t move the reader. I selected those works whose design seems to match up to Longinus’s ideas of the sublime and elevated language but also at the same time might, using Doyle’s critical voice as expressed in the Guardian article, have “done with a good editor.” Here’s the list, annotated with wry comments using the “must move to be good” literary critical voice:

1. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville: Edit out all that business about whaling, surely included simply to fatten the thing up, so Melville could boast he had written a big book. But the real problem is, can anyone be moved by the killing of a mad sailor by a vengeful whale? What has this to do with the price of a loaf of bread and a bottle of beer at the local grocery?

2. The Trial, by Franz Kafka: Well, it’s a trial reading it. And who was ever moved by a trial, particularly one that had no ending?

3. Three Novels (Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable), by Samuel Beckett: Triple play of boredom, the reader thrown out at every base, a runner that never reaches home plate. The work defines constipation, the antithesis of being moved.

4. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon: Where are those scissors?

Still, there’s something to the topic that invites comment. What is good? Should a work be considered good simply because it achieves its objectives, even if those objectives lack sentiment and fail to move? Or should we keep looking, for those books that are both “pure style” and contain enough sentiment to be considered moving? How about Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury?

Related Post: Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

From Longinus’s On the Sublime, Chapter 1: “As I am writing to you, good friend, who are well versed in literary studies, I feel almost absolved from the necessity of premising at any length that sublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in expression, and that it is from no other source than this that the greatest poets and writers have derived their eminence and gained an immortality of renown. 4. The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification. Our persuasions we can usually control, but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer. Similarly, we see skill in invention, and due order and arrangement of matter, emerging as the hard-won result not of one thing nor of two, but of the whole texture of the composition, whereas Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plenitude.”

Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

Every person alive has a story, but some don’t have voices. But there are many ways to tell a story, and stories can be told without words. Still, for the story to emerge, the storyteller must develop some kind of voice, allowing others access to their text – again, even if the text is without words. But some persons with voices remain unaware of their story, even as their story is read or enjoyed or devoured and repeated by others. Still others may be aware of their stories and have voices but choose not to share. Can all these stories be told, and who will tell these stories, using what voice?

I am moved this morning to tell this story as a consequence of a Twitter “interaction”: “Well, about Coelho, what can we say?” For I had re-tweeted a tweet calling attention to a Guardian Books post quoting the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho: “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.” The same article refers to a previous Guardian article, an interview with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who said: “You know people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.”

I think part of Roddy’s point, in the context of the interview, was to bemoan all the attention Joyce has received over the years, possibly to the neglect of other Irish writers just as deserving of readers’ attention. But both Coelho’s and Doyle’s criticism of Ulysses is grounded in their literary values – they think that for a literary work to have value, the reader should be moved, changed, brought to tears or laughter, that we should leave the theatre wanting to change our lives or somebody else’s life. For a story to be good, the Coelho-Doyle argument goes, the voice must be immediately recognizable, accessible, and force feelings to surface in the audience. And since Ulysses, for most readers, probably doesn’t do that, it’s not a good book, and since it’s nevertheless received so much recognition and so many writers have tried to use Joyce’s voice, it’s been harmful because it’s diminished the development of other voices, voices that might have reached readers and transformed their lives.

I’m reminded of the barbershop on Center Street in El Segundo, where I once dropped in to get a haircut. It was a one chair shop, and someone else was in the chair, so I had to wait, and while I waited, I listened in on what amounted to a lesson in art criticism. The barber had hung on the wall a painting of a mountain lake. “And I have a photograph of that very spot,” the barber said. “And if I hang both of them side by side, I defy you to tell me which one is the photograph and which one is the painting.”

Related Posts: Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo. The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress.

Happy Bloomsday!

Bloomsday, the June 16, unofficial, worldwide holiday, celebrates one of the world’s most extraordinary books, James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” June 16, 1904, is the day the book takes place. And one of the extraordinary things about the book is that its hero, Bloom, is not extraordinary at all. “The initial and determining act of judgment in his [Joyce’s] work is the justification of the commonplace,” wrote Richard Ellmann in the introduction to his biography titled simply “James Joyce” (1959).

Joyce had and continues to have detractors. Roddy Doyle, for example, would at least like the world to know that there are other Irish writers, some brand new who also write about the common man. Noted, Roddy. But Joyce’s example provided others, including Roddy Doyle, with extraordinary opportunities in one important way, without which it might be hard to imagine works like Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy, which includes “The Commitments,” “The Snapper,” and “The Van” (all hilarious).

Ellmann explains: “Joyce was the first to endow an urban man of no importance [Bloom] with heroic consequence.” In fact, some early readers, Ellmann explains, thought Joyce must have been kidding, that he “must be writing satire,” for “how else justify so passionate an interest in the lower middle class?” To his Marxist critics, Joyce commented, “I don’t know why they attack me. Nobody in any of my books is worth more than a thousand pounds.” Maybe the attack is explained because “Ulysses,” past the first three episodes, anyway, is written in such a way as to prevent access to the average, common interest reader. This is one of Roddy Doyle’s complaints.

Ellmann concludes, “Joyce’s discovery, so humanistic that he would have been embarrassed to disclose it out of context, was that the ordinary is the extraordinary.” “Dubliners,” Joyce’s book of short stories that preceded his first novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which was followed by “Ulysses,” is characterized by clear and concise writing that is accessible. And just so, Frank Delaney has devoted his Happy Bloomsday podcast, titled “Meeting Joyce,” to sharing Joyce’s “Dubliners.” It’s a great way to start reading James Joyce and to kick back and enjoy a bit of Bloomsday.

Where we go from Greil Marcus to Humpty Dumpty

I bought two books at the Rose City Used Book Fair last Saturday, the Li Po of the previous post, and “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music,” by Greil Marcus (1975). The Marcus is a first edition hardback in excellent condition, though it’s apparently not worth much to a book collector; I paid $5 for it. In his “Author’s Note,” Marcus says he felt an affinity for history writers who felt through their work that they belonged to a part of the struggle they wrote about, even if that struggle was long past. “Mystery Train,” Marcus says, was written from “the fall of 1972” to “the summer of 1974,” a time when the struggles of the past merged with the struggles of the present. I’ve not read it, but I’m putting it on the top of the stack. I don’t know why I didn’t read it at the time it came out. I suppose because at the time I was struggling with a few other writers, and, like Dylan said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” (“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” 1965).

I have read Marcus, though. I liked his “Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads” (2005), 225 pages on a single song written and recorded by Dylan in 1965. The song is on the “Highway 61 Revisited Album,” which I listen to almost every day if I’m out in the Ford, since it’s usually the only tape in the car. “Once upon a time,” the song begins, and you know you’re in for a story, and the rimshot gets your attention. Dylan said, though I can’t remember where, either in “Chronicles” or in the 60 Minutes Interview, it might have been, something like, that guy [Marcus] went a little far. Sure he did; that’s what’s so great about Greil Marcus.

I’ve also enjoyed Marcus’s “Real Life Rock Top Ten: A Monthly Column of Everyday Culture and Found Objects,” his Believer magazine article that began, according to Marcus in a Powell’s interview (2006), in The Village Voice “around ’86.” It moved from Salon.com to The Believer, I believe, in 2008. Anyway, I started reading it regularly in The Believer at some point, though I confess I don’t always get the contemporary references (“You never understood that it ain’t no good, you shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you…,” Dylan again).

I like the way Marcus blends culture and music, and though he probably doesn’t think about it as literature, he might be a kind of contemporary American Roland Barthes. He certainly does not think of rock lyrics as literature. In a 2002 “Online Exchange with Greil Marcus” at RockCritics.com, Marcus had this to say about his “approach”:

“You’re right about my approach, which is a matter of affinities – what I’m drawn to – and learning to follow affinities where they lead – in other words, to trust your affinities. I have no background in poetics. The difference between poetry and ‘rock lyricism’ – if by that you mean song lyrics – is obvious and complete: except for people who think they are poets, like Paul Simon, lyrics are meant to be sung, come to life when they are performed, take their weight and muscle and ability to move from music, and true songwriters understand this. They understand that the most intricate allusive subtleties will be lost in performance, superseded by another quality altogether, and that the most impenetrable banalities can reveal infinite possibilities of thought and emotion when sung. In this sense I think the best songwriters are less afraid of words than poets can afford to be.”

In the film version of Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments” (1987), in a scene not in the book, Jimmy, who frequently fantasizes success by interviewing himself, toward the end of the film, has his fantasy interviewer ask him what he’s learned from his time as manager of the rock band The Commitments, and he replies with a quote from Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” When asked what the lyrics mean, the particular sticking point, according to a BBC analysis, being “the light fandango,” Jimmy responds, “I’m fucked if I know” (the film faithfully captures the flood of F words that fills and overflows the pages of the book).

Words have meaning, too much meaning, suggested Lewis Carroll. Indeed, one should not let another get one’s kicks for one, which is to say one should follow one’s own affinities. Just so, whenever I come across lyrics or poems I can’t seem to get, even after giving them the old college try, I think of Humpty Dumpty’s conversation with Alice about the meaning of things.

“I can explain all the poems that were ever invented – and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet,” Humpty says, and he helps Alice unpack the portmanteau words in “Jabberwocky.” Then later, Humpty offers this:

“‘The piece I’m going to repeat,’ he went on without noticing her remark,’ was written entirely for your amusement.’ Alice felt that in that case she really ought to listen to it, so she sat down, and said `Thank you’ rather sadly. `In winter, when the fields are white, I sing this song for your delight – only I don’t sing it,’ he added, as an explanation. `I see you don’t,’ said Alice. `If you can see whether I’m singing or not, you’ve sharper eyes than most.’ Humpty Dumpty remarked severely. Alice was silent.”

Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo

“Fancy living in one of these streets – never seeing anything beautiful – never eating anything savoury – never saying anything clever!” The quote could easily have come from any one of Roddy Doyle’s many crude characters, hewn from a pub-lyrical pint in a Barrytown road: “Wha’ part o’ Dublin? Barrytown. Wha’ class are yis? Workin’ class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah, yis are…Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from,” Jimmy Rabbitte says, who will manage The Commitments to his vision of a Dublin band playing soul music.

But it can’t be a Roddy Doyle character said it, the bit about “never saying anything clever!” For Roddy Doyle characters rarely say anything that’s not clever. Clever’s what comes from never seeing anything beautiful and never eating anything savoury. But what’s savoury? For that, we might to go Roddy Doyle’s The Van: “He got the scoop in under the chips and got a grand big load into the bag, filled it right up. Good, big chips they were, and a lovely colour, most of them; one or two of them were a bit white and shiny looking.” A bit of tea to go with the fish, perhaps, from Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper: “He tried the tea. It was brutal.” But if it was a Roddy Doyle character said it, he would have said it passin’ through a Churchill neighborhood.

Brutal too is the knowledge that our opening quote does not come from a Roddy Doyle character, but from Winston Churchill, quoted, according to Adam Gopnik, in “Finest Hours,” in the August 30 New Yorker, by Edward Marsh, Churchill’s secretary, as Churchill visits a working class neighborhood in Manchester. Gopnik pulls the quote out to evidence that those closest to and in a position to assist the great in their finest and not so finest hours are in the best position to snap shots peculiarly revealing. Gopnik may have had other reasons for isolating the quote. For one thing, it’s possible Churchill’s enculturated attitude displayed in the quote explains his ability to use those living in those streets as cannon fodder in his war.

There certainly is something to be said for living in beautiful, savory, and clever conditions, as Jonah Lehrer explains in his Frontal Cortex blog: “In the late 1990s…the University of Illinois began interviewing female residents in…a massive housing project on the South Side of Chicago. Kuo and her colleagues compared women randomly assigned to various apartments. Some had a view of nothing but concrete sprawl, the blacktop of parking lots and basketball courts. Others looked out on grassy courtyards filled with trees and flowerbeds. Kuo then measured the two groups on a variety of tasks, from basic tests of attention to surveys that looked at how the women were handling major life challenges. She found that living in an apartment with a view of greenery led to significant improvements in every category.”

But literature does not come from the beautiful, the savory, and the clever, but from the brutal, the sardonic, and the cleft. Art does not come from patios filled with plants, but from greasy asphalt alleys glistening in flickering neon. This is why we must be careful of the library. The library is like a zoo, its books like wild animals, snakes, and deadly insects, but the library is not a zoo, for in a zoo there are cages that separate and protect us from the lions and tigers and bears. In a library, the stacks are open, and readers reach out and pet the books at their own risk.

And after leaving the library, assuming you make it out alive, and you’re hungry and there’s a food cart about, be sure they’re stuffing their wraps with real food and not nappies.

On the Trail of Diaper Fish Wraps and Hot Hot Dogs

Larissa MacFarquhar’s “Busted” (New Yorker, Feb 1) opens and closes with dialog, a kind of journalistic Roddy Doyle: “Crrrcchh,” in which everything is revealed and nothing is resolved. The spool is running, and we are told that New York City’s Department of Investigation is on the prowl, overseeing those on the make. The DOI’s apparently a productive unit. They “arrested a group of sanitation inspectors…they arrested half the city’s taxi inspectors…they infiltrated a gang of parking-meter attendants.”

The central drama of the piece focuses on the sidewalk food vendor industry. Inspections and permits of the food carts fuel a thriving underground economy. And no wonder: “Food venders [sic] can make a hundred thousand dollars a year,” MacFarquhar says. Yet a permit cost only a couple hundred bucks, but since they are limited and distributed by lottery might be sold on the black market for thousands. Calling the vendors an industry is not hyperbolic: According to a Slate article (Simons, Aug 12) “A hot dog vendor was kicked from the curb outside New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last week for failure to pay his monthly rent—of $53,558.” So no surprise the vendors have organized into the Street Vendor Project, providing education, support, and outreach for some 10,000 street vendors working in the city.

I’m not thinking of opening a food cart, in spite of the obvious potential for profits, but I do occasionally, out on one jaunt or another, smell and contemplate the odd hot dog, sense the greasy-good butter soaking up a bag of popcorn, see the summer day in a spool of cotton candy. What would it be like to step up to the cart and order one, I wonder, and then to actually eat it?

The potential for profitable characters attracts the entrepreneurial writer. In Roddy Doyle’s hilarious The Van, the unemployed Barrytown Dubliners have purchased a used food vendor van with a fryer on board and have outfitted it as a fish and chips restaurant on wheels: “It’s not fish, said Bimbo. – …What is it? – It’s white, said Jimmy Sr. – It’s a nappy! The man told him. – Wha’!… – He’s righ’, Jimmy, said Bimbo – it’s a Pamper; folded up. My God, that’s shockin’. – Shut up! Jimmy Sr hissed at him. – I must have put it in the batter – Shut up! – What is it? said Sharon. The man wasn’t angry-looking now; he looked like he needed comfort.”

And then there’s John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius, the anti-hero of A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius works for a time for Paradise Vendors, pushing a hot dog cart around the quarters of New Orleans. But he seems to eat more hot dogs himself than he sells to customers. And having eaten his stock, he concocts a story about being robbed to explain the situation to his boss: “How much money did he get?” “Money? No money was stolen. After all, there was no money to steal, for I had not been able to vend even one of these delicacies. He stole the hot dogs.” Later, Ignatius is under investigation by the inspection board: “They seen you picking a cat out the gutter on St. Joseph Street.” “It was a rather appealing calico. I offered it a hot dog. However, the cat refused to eat it. It was an animal with some taste and decency.” 

The sidewalk food vendor business is full of characters and complicities; indeed, what business is not?