Recently I was struck by a meme that I stumbled across online, which jested that reading a novel involves little more than staring at slivers of processed trees while hallucinating vividly for hours. It’s true! How bizarre, our human habits. Strange, too, to consider how the printed word translates itself to the mind’s eye of a reader, how two readers may experience the same text in wildly different ways. To me, this is a fundamental flaw with a detached model of book reviewing. Objectivity in reading is an illusion. The ultimate task of creating a novel rests not only with the writer, but with the reader, for don’t we too play a key role in the construction of a novel’s world in our minds? As such, the reviewer’s own history of reading is important to their judgement of a book’s success.
So before I begin, allow me to tell you that I was a bookish child. For hours I would burrow myself away in a wardrobe or behind a curtain, with a stash of library books and stolen biscuits. I adored the process of immersing myself in the world of another, of letting myself become another character, of allowing a whole new sphere to build itself in my imagination. So vivid was my encounter with The Little Princess that I can still remember her attic room, and a monkey’s small face making a hot fog on her window. Sadly, in the intervening thirty years, my imagination has grown jaded and weary. In choosing a novel now, I am always a little sad, knowing that I have worn the edges off my imaginative capabilities. Now, when I read fiction, I am distanced from the characters, and though I enjoy observing their exploits well enough, I never feel that pulse-thumping immersion that I did as a child. Rather, my adult experience is akin to viewing one of Vilhelm Hammershøi’s interiors; in reading a novel, I can gaze into the room of a scene, I can see its furniture, I can feel its atmosphere, I can even make out a character—her neck, say, or a shoulder… but try as I might, I cannot enter her consciousness. The alchemy is gone. My rusty imagination has left me distanced, little more than a detached observer. I can still enjoy a book, witnessing the life of another, but I am aware, always of the artifice of the interaction.
Now that I have confided in you this most pathetic of facts about my drab inner life, let me confide a little further. As a result of my weakness, you might think that I would give up on reading fiction altogether. Surprisingly, the opposite has occurred. I have become a junkie reader. Every fortnight, I haul home another sack of library books, making my way through them voraciously, and still, it’s never enough to slake my terrible and shameful thirst. At home, teetering stacks of books taunt me with the prospect of my never again feeling that elusive reader’s high. I have condemned myself to a lifetime of chasing the same old buzz. I am a fool, I am. I am a fool for books.
Given this bleak scenario, imagine how fortunate I felt this year, to come across not one, but two books that gifted me a return to the type of reading that I had craved for so long.
Last summer, Anakana Schofield’s novel Martin John exploded into my life, gripped me by the collar and flung me inside the head of a strange, dark, very real character. I was electrified by the process of reading the novel, while at an intellectual level, I was mystified by how this sense of absorption was generated, how I had been led into the inner whirligig of a character I was both repulsed and fascinated by. I was exhilarated, thrilled, but I doubted whether anything could match reading Martin John. I was wrong to doubt, for already (already!), I have been spoiled with the arrival of another novel, very different both stylistically and form-wise from Martin John, but for a jaded reader like myself, similarly staggering.
In Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, the reader is immersed in the spinning, growing mind of another. This may feel unpleasant at first, if one is averse to the simultaneity of momentum and disorientation that one feels on the waltzers, say, but for me, this was precisely what I was longing for.
At this point, I could outline for you the plot, a young woman’s encounters with love and sex and city life, etc., etc., etc., or I could dwell on the structural influences of modernism on the voice of the work, etc., etc., but that would be to lead you astray from the immediacy and joy at the heart of this book.
The experience of reading The Lesser Bohemians was astounding to me. In truth, I felt it as a collision. I adored the language, a rubble of fragments and lush, smashed chunks of sentences. A brief taste:
River run running to a northern sea. Thames. Needle skin brisk and the eyefuls of concrete. Lead by the. Strip for the. National Theatre. Go on. Get a ticket. Go in. Here the vault and not Hawk’s Well. Smacks of the hell-less or at least of the sensible. I’d be. What I’d be. Is this the Olivier? Yeah, on upstairs for you. Through and oh to its canyon. I never saw so many chairs. On beyond uncurtained stage – You may take and have me, please. But Saturday matinee. Sole in my row. Where is everyone else? In the dark comes spiders out of art and first I’m sleuthed away. Measuring up the vying worlds. Meandering into the emphasised words but under neat speeches are oceanous platitudes and so I slide and slide.
Astonishing, the intricacy of thought that is evoked here, the tightrope act of (1) immersing a reader in a world and (2) kindling a complicity in how thought unfolds in all its messy convolutions. McBride doesn’t stop at cognition, however. We are privy to all the joys and tribulations of a body. We are utterly swallowed, utterly subsumed by a reading experience that is both arduous and muscular. We are absorbed into bodies as they drink and smoke, wonder and walk, fuck and talk.
The landscape of London is evoked in all its momentum and filth, as we enter the squats and bedsits, the theatres, pubs and bookshops. If our principle character is an immigrant in the city, then we become immigrants too, for as Jean Rhys put it: ‘Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important it finds homes for us everywhere.’ McBride makes a home for us in the consciousness of others. She creates a landscape both innovative and immersive, where the reader is submerged in the unrelenting truth of human perception and thought, plunged into the being of another, one who feels as utterly real, as flawed and messy, as oneself.
To praise The Lesser Bohemians is not to claim that it is an immaculate work of literature. There were moments where the texture roughened suddenly, where I felt the spell wear off a little, but for me, art can only be richer for those moments. It is in the small flaws that one appreciates the grand achievement of the whole all the more. This book returned a joy to me, let me taste again the pleasure of childhood reading where words and imagination collide. When it comes to The Lesser Bohemians, I wouldn’t change a syllable.
What better commendation can I pay a book than to simply say that I am glad of it? I am glad of this book’s existence. I am glad of the hours it gave me, sitting alone in a small room, my eyes roaming over slivers of processed trees, hallucinating vividly for hours.