In 1957, the New Yorker editor and cartoonist James Thurber published the last in his series of five children’s books: a book called The Wonderful O. It’s the zany tale of two pirates who invade the island of Ooroo, sailing in on a ship called the Aieu, and quickly get rid of all words with a letter ‘o’ in them: ‘And so the locksmith became a lcksmith, and the bootmaker a btmaker, and people whispered like conspirators when they said the names’; ‘It was impossible to read “cockadoodledoo” aloud, and parents gave up reading to their children, and some gave up reading altogether.’ Ultimately, the pirates are overthrown; the islanders regain their autonomy, and the letter ‘o’ is restored to its rightful place in the alphabet. What happens in between times, however, is a fascinating and fun experiment in language and thought. What, asks Thurber, would a world without the letter ‘o’ look like? Would it be enough to make us ‘give up reading altogether’?
Alice Lyons’ extraordinary, experimental debut novel, Oona (published earlier this year by the Lilliput Press), poses the same questions to an adult audience. It hinges on a traumatic childhood event—the death of the titular character’s mother—and challenges the silence surrounding it. Oona is just thirteen years old when her mother dies of cancer. She hasn’t been told the truth of the situation: ‘They’d never said cancer. They’d never said terminal. They’d said tummy bug’. The experience is life-altering, language-altering. This loss of the ‘o’ is also a loss of the self—half of Oona is gone. If the letter is particularly well suited to expressions of emotion (whether the ‘Oh!’ is uttered in surprise, anger, or as an apostrophe), then its disappearance both expresses and reinforces Oona’s emotional trauma. The ‘o’ drops out of some words: ‘God’ becomes ‘G-d’, Ezra Pound becomes Ezra P., Jackson Pollock becomes J.P., ‘the Big Splasher-Dripper’. More common than elisions are substitutions. As Lyons explains in an Irish Times article on the process of writing the novel,
It seemed like building with Meccano minus the nuts and bolts to secure all the pieces. But as the writing progressed, new thoroughfares opened up where I’d expected impediments. A simple descriptive sentence such as “Sunlight shone through the windows” became “Sunlight blazed in the single-glazing”. The constraint made me work harder to look beyond obvious ways of expressing things. I had to slow down and consider my medium. I had to weigh each word.
Language is distorted, ‘made new’, Oona informed by the same linguistic verve that informs Lyons’ poetry (such as in her most recent collection, The Breadbasket of Europe: a riot of colour and type). In this respect, there is a point of commonality between Oona and Thurber’s The Wonderful O—poles apart in most other respects, they are both underpinned by a sense of play. Indeed, Lyons notes in the aforementioned Irish Times article that writing Oona brought her ‘back to the days of amazement as I observed my daughter learning language when every word was a kind of revelation.’ But why ‘o’, in particular? Why not another vowel, another letter?
Sophie Collins’ 2018 poetry collection Who Is Mary Sue? contains a section (‘A Whistle in the Gloom’) that concerns a speaker’s experience of reading Story of O—the 1954 French erotic novel published under the penname ‘Pauline Réage’. The meaning of O is explored:
Here I will purge the associations by listing them: zero (none); an exclamation (archaic); a lament (archaic); an interjection (archaic); a circle; a ring; any body orifice, including a gasping mouth or gaping anus; and, more tenuously, the grand rooms and dungeons to whose walls O is fixed; a mirror; an eye; a wound.
For Collins’ speaker, ‘O’, Initial-As-Name, represents ‘a conspicuous lack’: ‘I allow myself to comprehend O not as an initial, but as a personal pronoun; a Rubenesque alternative to I; an innovation in grammar signifying a tacit acknowledgement of the paradoxes of self-expression; a room to live and breathe in, with some honesty.’ From only O to no O, Oona examines a lack made even more conspicuous, tracing what is, in some ways, the quest for a ‘room to live and breathe in’, a room of one’s own. Lyons isn’t prescriptive about the significance of ‘o’ (although circular imagery proliferates, and the book is full of visual rhymes). In The Breadbasket of Europe, one poem is printed on a page facing another that is blank save for a small, red circle at its centre: ‘Mister Matisse my you are / bold red whole red whole / something my whole / life I am re / trieving.’ Oona also meditates on wholeness (and on hole-ness). The protagonist desires the restoration of ‘a linguistic fluency that had nearly been extinguished in me’. She has ‘been hurt by language’s lack’. She has ‘been rendered insight-less by trauma’. ‘At my centre’, Oona tells us, ‘there was a felt absence, an emptiness, a damaged and missing thing that hurt.’ Helen Vendler once said of Paul Muldoon’s poetry that there is a hole in the middle where the feeling should be; as I thought about the disappearance of the ‘o’ in Oona, I returned to this phrase. Oona the character struggles with feelings of numbness, of being detached as she is ‘dislanguaged’. Oona the book harnesses this ‘unfeeling’ to pack an emotional punch.
The book’s plot is more straightforward than its use of language. It’s an episodic bildungsroman that follows Oona from her childhood in a New Jersey suburb (‘Sun-drenched and untrue, it was a ruin in the making’) to New York, Dublin, Massachusetts, and, finally, rural County Leitrim, where the adult Oona settles (‘Yeatsville in the west Kavanaghville in the east what will almost certainly be Heaneyville in the Up’). The richness of the book’s poetry is matched by the breadth of its scope. Lyons interrogates the history of Oona’s homeland, the killing and displacement of Native Americans by early Dutch and English migrants, the segregation of the neighbourhood: ‘Far away (it was just five miles) were the dirty immigrants, the slave-descendants—all the castes we dumped and said we weren’t.’ What’s left is a world of ‘Us (white) and Cadillacs, cul-de-sacs, Little League, swim meets, Sunday mass, barbecues, tennis matches, pancake breakfasts, drunk priests, cutting-edge appliances, mean & frustrated nuns, basketball games, seven sacraments, pets, illicit affairs, Hawaiian punch.’ (To be American is to be in possession of ‘that future-leaning quality, that yesteryear blindness, that inward gaze which refuses the larger planetary view, refuses the past’.) Ireland, by contrast, represents ‘Misht beauty rain beauty rain rain rain beauty Sliabh an Iarainn beauty strand beauty wind beauty river river river river beauty’. That is, at least, until the ‘Great Latte Shift’ of globalisation happens, followed in turn by the 2008 financial crash:
when the luxury places multiplied and engulfed the village’s sweetness, when Lehman became a widely said name in rural Ireland, when the half-built estates became windswept rat, bat, slug and snail sanctuaries, when bitterness invaded the veins as we were swept up in a rising debt tidal wave that swamped us and caused debt fist fights excessive drinking pill-taking bankruptcy mayhem emigratings suicide murder and a widespread unravelling
More than a social history, however, Oona is a personal history, dealing with the protagonist’s journey into adulthood, her relationship to sex, her eventually becoming a mother herself, and her life’s work in the arts. As Oona grows up and moves around, she grows increasingly interested in the ‘writerartisting act’, becomes a writerartist herself. She learns to paint, encouraged by her mother. It becomes a lifeline:
Painting was an undivided self-speech […] She didn’t give this as she’d given me talk language, but she enabled it in the art-class gift every birthday. She didn’t speak it herself but she saw that I had that speech. Maybe it was the way I’d lingered in museums the few trips we’d taken. The Met. The Frick. Whatever. Fact is that she saw it. Saw I. Maybe saw her seed-me unplanted. She didn’t fear it, she didn’t push it away. Rather, she cherished it. This was a gift.
Oona learns to write, too. A pivotal point in the narrative arrives when she goes to college and is taught (as Lyons was) by William Meredith, whose words are interwoven with our protagonist’s recollections of that period in her life. Meredith is ‘the first live writer’ Oona ever meets; he is ‘gentle and insightful’. The teacher’s enduring legacy is one of kindness. It is here worth mentioning that I was once taught by Lyons, for a few months during my undergraduate degree—coming up on eight years ago—at Queen’s University in Belfast. The course surveyed some of the great texts of the twentieth century: The Waste Land, To the Lighthouse, Ulysses. In one class, she asked all us students there if we were into Russian literature, if anyone had read much. To the best of my recollection, no one had. Maybe she gave a few examples; I forget the context. But she was so excited for everyone in the room—for a group of teenagers just starting out in our reading lives—that it was infectious. Everything that lay in store for us! The Russians! It was the feeling of new possibilities, new words, new worlds opening up. That’s a feeling Oona inspires, too.
Just as the book is partially concerned with the many different ways in which we might look at the same subject (the story told, as it is, from a painter’s perspective), so there are many different ways in which to consider the book. Perhaps it’s Oona’s formal achievement that floats your boat (to use a phrase that couldn’t have hoped to sneak its way into the novel), the way Lyons engages deeply with a range of literatures; metabolises them; lets them inform something entirely personal, entirely unique. In the notes at the back of the book, we find reference to some thirty writers and artists, among them Dr. Seuss and Zbigniew Herbert, Elizabeth Bishop and Russell Hoban (whose Riddley Walker Lyons acknowledges as a particularly important influence on Oona). But reading it might just as well send you back to the foundational texts of the experimental traditions it revivifies—to the lipogramatic novels of Ernest Vincent Wright and George Perec, those e-less endeavours, or to Oulipo texts more broadly, their linguistic gymnastics. It might have you reaching for a copy of work by Pound or Joyce or Beckett or Williams or Stein, because it also speaks back to them. McGahern is in here too—‘The first day in the village I read McGahern’s The Barracks because the barracks was within spitting distance and all and sundry said he’s an amazing writer.’ And there are more recent comparisons to be drawn between Oona and the work of Eimear McBride, say, or Anna Burns; articles to be written on the relationship between language and trauma in their texts. So, sure, it’s fun to trace these lines of connection. And the novel offers plentiful source material for such readings. But this is only half the story.
One of Oona’s key virtues is that what could have been a ‘clever’ formal experiment isn’t just a clever formal experiment. When done badly, the imposition of a writing constraint like this one can grate. For an example of this, we need look no further than Christian Bök’s 2001 Eunoia, in which each chapter is written using words limited to a single vowel—a text so singularly annoying I once witnessed someone ripping pages straight from the book, provoked; a text with all the emotional depth of a crossword puzzle. At no stage does Oona feel, like Eunoia does, like an academic exercise, a display of bravado, cleverness for its own sake. It’s not a work of surface flashiness. Such is Lyons’ skill that I finished it thinking there was just simply no way the book could have been written with the letter ‘o’, as much as I was staggered by the care it must have taken to achieve. This is to say that the absence of an ‘o’ isn’t a gimmick: it’s the point. Just as Oona is estranged from herself, so too is the reader estranged from the language of the novel: a niggling sense of things being not quite right abides at the level of theme and form. There’s something voracious about the intellect behind this book; a joyfulness in the possibilities of language, even when it’s expressing something far from joyful. Oona, finally, is the result of a remarkable sensitivity to language and to experience.