For my seventeenth birthday, my sister gave me a copy of Paul Murray’s debut novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes. I believe there was no better reason for this than my having a friend back then who was also called Paul Murray. (Hello, Paul, if you’re reading this: it’s been a long time.) As enjoyable as Murray’s precocious first book is, his next effort, Skippy Dies, represented a significant step up in his writing. A sprawling tragicomic tale set in the fictional Seabrook College, the novel received rave reviews and a Booker longlisting. For my sins, I went to a school not a million miles removed from Seabrook. I vividly recall thinking, when I first read Skippy Dies as a teenager, that Murray knew whereof he wrote—not least at the novel’s black-hearted end, which seemed to bear out the grumpy adolescent suspicion I felt, but didn’t know how to express, about how the adult world worked. If those in systems of power—teachers, priests, politicians—would continue to look after themselves first, failing those in their care, it was at least gratifying to see someone calling out their hypocrisy and cracking jokes in the process.
With his follow-up novel, The Mark and the Void—a metafictional caper set amid the devastation of the financial crash—Murray cemented his status as contemporary Irish fiction’s preeminent satirist. With distinctly Hiberno twists on the Pynchon and DeLillo modes of ambitious scope and antic forays into pop culture, in each of these books seemingly unrelated, disparate settings and themes—greyhound racing, boys’ schools, string theory, investment banking, and many more—provided fuel for hilarious, moving dissections of the secrets and lies that lurk beneath the characters’ would-be charmed lives. Any of these novels could plausibly have been titled We Don’t Know Ourselves, à la Fintan O’Toole. Indeed, the ways Irish society changed, pre- and post-crash, provide a unifying theme across Murray’s oeuvre. ‘It genuinely seemed that from about 2001 on, everything was for sale; conversely, if something didn’t have a monetary value, it was worthless,’ he told Banshee in an interview from 2016; ‘it’s not that much of an exaggeration to say that any sense of compassion or care went out the window. Instead, being a massive asshole suddenly became an okay thing to be.’
Murray’s first three books all take place among Dublin’s moneyed classes. At first glance, his latest, the Booker-longlisted novel The Bee Sting, may appear to represent a departure, with its small-town setting. Nonetheless, it is every bit as cutting a depiction of the foibles, minutiae, and everyday deceptions of Irish life as his previous work.
The Bee Sting details the fall of the Barnes family, whose car dealership looks set to go under, first in the wake of the recession and then following numerous, increasingly questionable business decisions. Perspectives shift between the milquetoast Dickie, reluctant heir to his wealthy father’s company; Dickie’s beautiful, lonely wife, Imelda, barely able to suppress her fury at her husband’s failings; and their children, angsty teenager, Cass, and youngest son, PJ. Until recently, shopping trips to New York and holidays in Cap d’Antibes were normal for the Barneses, though how much each family member knows about their current—and previous—personal and financial circumstances varies greatly. The multigenerational focus allows Murray to reflect on the widening chasm between the experiences of the parents and children, in terms of their individual lives, as well as the Ireland they knew—and the Ireland they thought they knew.
None of Murray’s novels could be described as slim; The Bee Sting rings in at a modest 656 pages. Where this book differs most markedly from his previous work, though, is in tone. In the opening scene of Skippy Dies, the protagonist fulfils the title’s promise by—of all things—choking during a doughnut eating contest, setting the reader up perfectly for a story that is, by turns, farcical, irreverent, and tragic. Even amid Skippy’s grim depictions of bullying, addiction, sexual abuse, self-harm, and suicide, the witty, generous brio of Murray’s writing is never too far from the surface, tempering the darkness. In The Bee Sting, there is a similarly macabre slapstick moment—in what is probably the book’s clearest foray into black comedy, an old woman slips on a guava and dies 40 pages in, bringing the curtain down on the novel’s most openly comic section. But in general, humour is reserved for caustic asides. Murray subjects his characters to an all-consuming chaos, adopting a more serious and direct approach to the frequently depressing and distressing tales of contemporary life. The Bee Sting turns this sombre tone towards depicting not only the various private hells each member of the Barneses must endure, but also the self-deceptions needed just to get through the day when the world is on fire.
Climate change looms over The Bee Sting, from Cass’s disquiet on learning, for a school project, the extent of carbon emissions the family business is responsible for, to Dickie evading his problems by going further and further down the apocalyptic rabbithole. Dickie’s deepening climate nihilism both reflects and feeds his self-hatred as he begins ‘future-proofing’ a dilapidated hut behind his house, nicknamed ‘The Bunker’, with Victor, the local doomsday prepper. Murray shows us, in affecting fashion, how the terrifying expanse of climate change can be too much for our small personal lives to take in. PJ’s initial enthusiasm for helping out with Dickie and Victor’s DIY project contrasts starkly with the men’s survivalist reasons for pursuing it; you can hardly blame the boy for losing interest after hearing one too many lapsarian screeds.
Then again, maybe some people are simply more inclined to catastrophising than others. As Tony Soprano—another fictional family man prone to depressive moods—put it: ‘You can talk about every day being a gift and stopping to smell the roses, but regular life’s got a way of picking away at it. Your house, the shit you own, it drags you down.’ Dickie’s father tried to talk him out of his teenage obsession with the end of the world by telling him that the ‘salesman believes in the future. The future is good, that’s your number one message!’ Dickie seeks a professional opinion when his fantasies of disaster continue into adulthood, and his doctor notes that he could be responding to unresolved personal trauma. ‘The past remains with us, in all kinds of unexpected ways,’ he explains to Dickie. ‘If we haven’t made peace with it, it will come back again and again.’
In a review of Andrew H. Miller’s On Not Being Someone Else for the Times Literary Supplement, Daisy Hildyard describes individuals as being ‘fixed, like eight billion Miss Havishams, in particular points in our own personal histories. As a collective we are so obsessed with possibility that we are unable to be present.’ This rings true in The Bee Sting, which shows its characters reflecting on specific moments in their personal histories and wondering whether it was then that it all started to go wrong. The book reminds us, in vivid detail, that unravelling lives are often the consequence of numerous happenings and decisions rather than one isolated point in time.
More than a few of the novel’s cast fall within well-established archetypes: the trophy wife, the football hero, the star-cross’d lovers, the moody teenager, and so on. However, what we think we know about even seemingly straightforward types shifts significantly throughout, with deft narrative callbacks adding layers of dramatic irony. (The titular bee sting supposedly caused Imelda to wear her veil for the entirety of her wedding day, though even this farcical scenario loses any hint of humour when you finally discover her real reason for refusing to show her face.) The author plays with our expectations of roles—expectations that the characters themselves struggle with. ‘We try to make ourselves the way we think we’re expected to be,’ Cass’s English teacher tells her class when they question Sylvia Plath’s suitability for teenagers. ‘So many of the bad things that happen in the world come from people pretending to be something they’re not.’
Well, there’s pretending to be something you’re not, and then there’s Dickie Barnes. His family all keep secrets, but Dickie’s hidden lives vary the most from the face he presents to the world. Shifts in perspective, from the ‘accident’ during his time in Trinity to his calamitous dealings in the garage, fill in Dickie’s complex backstory as the seemingly strait-laced family man, one who accepted roles he didn’t really want—businessman, husband, parent—out of a misguided sense of duty.
Dickie’s son PJ also keeps things to himself, and his sections of the book are particularly moving. PJ’s wardrobe full of bloody socks, hidden from his parents lest they realise his feet need the new shoes they would struggle to afford, is an image that has stayed with me since finishing the novel. The kinds of horrors the internet exposes him to, meanwhile, made me more grateful than ever for my pre-smartphone childhood.
The characterisation of the Barnes women, however, is less convincing. Imelda and Dickie sleepwalked into marriage, with little else in common other than shared grief. Imelda frequently bemoans the contrast between her husband’s booksmarts and lack of common sense; she is referred to as being sharp and clever, and so the breathless, almost stream-of-consciousness prose used for her narration does her a disservice. It comes off as less Molly Bloom than childlike, sometimes even ditzy. Cass, meanwhile, provides the least interesting of the family’s subplots. Her adolescent self-obsession and acting out perhaps didn’t need so much air space, and the all-consuming desire she experiences for her beautiful, two-faced best friend, Elaine, seemed a little forced at times.
Cass’s feelings for Elaine mark one of several instances where the Barneses and their circle grapple with homosexual desires and experiences, all of which throw their lives and emotions out of kilter. Even Dickie’s old college companion, Willie—seemingly the best adjusted of all the novel’s queer characters—is later shown giving a speech explaining how the outsized camp he affected in his youth was symptomatic of, and a cover for, his own self-loathing. This is of course plausible, not least given Willie came of age at a time when homophobia was deeply ingrained in Irish culture—and The Bee Sting is an equal-opportunities zone when it comes to dislike of self. Still, surely it should be possible, in 2023, to write characters, queer or otherwise, without meting out to them such roiling self-hatred at best, and awful punishment at worst.
The Bee Sting’s operatic displays of suffering and scandal, sexual and otherwise, occasionally stretch credulity. Their resolutions, through perfectly timed phone calls or coincidental reappearances of people from the past, sometimes feel a little neat. Yet there is a powerful, irresistible narrative drive propelling the events of the novel forward. Murray’s urgent, energetic prose wins you over; we feel genuinely invested in each plot shift, even when these arise through convenient devices. In his novels, loose threads of the story tend to come together at the end, and The Bee Sting is no exception. Switching to second person singular for the final section, ‘Age of Loneliness’, Murray ramps up the tension unbearably in the last thirty pages as several characters converge on the woods behind the Barneses’ house. Rapid changes in point of view, and the immediacy of that ‘you’ form, produce a cinematic effect that makes for visceral, almost anxiety-inducing reading. Even the ambiguous ending seems to take on a terrible significance thanks to Murray’s expert foreshadowing, bringing the reader circling back to the very start of the book.
The contemporary novel form can appear, increasingly, to be the domain of slim, introspective works. With so many writers competing for our ever-diminishing attention spans, the appearance of a sprawling novel like The Bee Sting in the publishing landscape seems significant. Murray deserves credit for sustaining the reach and vision to write long books, crammed with people and incident, that are actually about something. Yet at times The Bee Sting appears to be in danger of sinking under the weight of the detail and turmoil cascading around its characters’ lives. The author’s most successfully realised novels generally have defined nucleuses (a school in Skippy Dies; the IFSC in The Mark and the Void) grounding the breadth of people, circumstances, and ideas coursing through their pages. By contrast, The Bee Sting is set in a Midlands everytown that is both anywhere and nowhere, and the plot jumps freely from past to present and character to character. While this approach allows Murray to cover an ambitious scope of personal and political events, the marked changes in place and perspective can be hard to keep up with.
Then again, information overload is nothing if not depressingly contemporary; the sheer number of things happening to this novel’s socially isolated, unhappy characters speaks to the current moment. In previous works, Murray offered his humour to offset the misery in ways that transcended mere comic relief to provide a sense of warmth or hope, however absurd. But The Bee Sting contains little such solace, and it feels like a consequential departure; it is sometimes hard to tell whether the author is necessarily on his protagonists’ side and I craved a little more authorial compassion for the Barneses, from time to time.
With its unsparing perspective, the novel raises questions about the role of literature in these desperate times: is it art’s duty to rail against the world’s ills, or to provide diversion from them? Is writing a novel an inherently political act, or something tending towards mere frippery? On the basis of the below paragraph, which appears towards the end of The Bee Sting, Murray might be unsure:
Today, in the developed world, the great threat to political order is that people will pay attention to their surroundings. Thus, even slaves have access to entertainment. You could even say that we are paid in entertainment. The novel was the first instance of what in the twenty-first century has become a vast and proliferating entertainment industry, an almost infinite machine designed to distract us and disempower us. We are presented with a virtual world powered, literally, by the incineration of the real.
Art may be judged on its ability to reflect society, and by this token, with his affecting, animated portrayal of a rotten world, the author has succeeded. Nonetheless, slave to the infinite machine that I am, I confess that I wish he’d applied his natural comic touch more liberally to The Bee Sting, and wonder what a slightly streamlined version of this novel—or one where the author went a bit easier on his characters—might look like.