"Ulysses," decides Martin Amis in The War Against Cliché, "is about cliché." James Joyce's masterwork, claims Amis, is a parodic recalibration of language, one that conscientiously dispatches clichés – "ready-made formulations, fossilized metaphors" and the "secondhand hatreds" of prejudice – in order to undermine and reinvent their meanings. Amis isn't unique in this reading of Joyce, but as with most of his arguments, he's certainly been the most self-assured in making it.
It's difficult to find a review of Eimear McBride's work that doesn't name-check James Joyce, and McBride herself has declared his influence in an essay for The Guardian titled, candidly enough, My Hero. Certainly there are confluences: syntactical contortions that mimic the flow of thought; a preoccupation with bodily functions/the functions of the body; both writers are Irish. But, if we accept Amis's thesis, their respective treatments of cliché might be where Joyce and McBride differ. What was suggested in her almost unanimously celebrated first book, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, now turns central to its follow-up: Archetypes of language, plotting and character aren't dispatched here to be reconfigured or destabilized, but to inhabit, understand and honour them.
Like any Künstlerroman, The Lesser Bohemians treads familiar ground: Naive young artist leaves home, is intellectually/sexually/emotionally initiated into adulthood, emerges changed. It's a well-established form, with antecedents from Goethe through Proust and, yes, Joyce to, more recently, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante. And with nearly 300 years of history, its tropes are as established as those of any systematized genre.
The particulars here involve a young, aspiring actor, unnamed until a crucial moment midway through the novel, who moves to London from rural Ireland to begin her studies at a prominent theatre academy. "I will make myself of life here for life is this place and would be start of mine," she tells herself – though most of the narration comprises her telling herself things. And so she does, taking up with her classmates for some requisite drunken escapades, before one night she bonds with an older guy over Dostoevsky's The Devils and goes home with him. The following half-dozen pages are masterful in their twining evocations of virginal desire and terror, revulsion and acquiescence, depravity and halting pleasure: "While his body works through every single thing it wants … mine, in his best moment, silent, accepts the mess it's made." And finally: "So that's done and something wrecked, what should I do next?"
Such are the ignominious beginnings of the romance at the heart of The Lesser Bohemians, and a glimpse into the power dynamics that inform it. That wanting body turns out to belong to a well-known actor more than twice the narrator's age, and their relationship is at turns disturbing, passionate, duplicitous, fierce and tender, and McBride's irreverent syntax is a perfect conduit for the attendant muddle of emotions. Together the two lovers share and explore past trauma, and an extended passage that details his troubling autobiography not only culminates with a declaration of love, but also, at last, provides our anonymous narrator a name: "I love you Eily and I've been wanting to tell you for nights, weeks." (Sixty pages later, at an accordingly significant moment, we find out that her boyfriend is called Stephen.)
It's impossible to convey the intensity of Eily's and Stephen's relationship in the formalized language of a book review, which can only skim from the surface of what McBride renders with profound emotional acuity. While this is a story we've more or less read before, the novel is much more remarkable for how it is told than what is being told to us. Which is not to say that the stylized diction constantly reimagines the possibilities of language and narrative; it also adopts the hackneyed tenor of teenage poetry, the sort of the thing scribbled in hormonal angst into lockable journals: "Before him I believed that when love came it would come perfectly," Eily explains, addressing both an imagined confidante and, as with many young people attempting to comprehend the world, herself.
This is not a criticism. Plenty do it unwittingly, of course, but rare is the novelist brave or canny enough to deliberately embrace cliché to express truths about her characters. In young adulthood, one's faith in the novelty and significance of each new experience obfuscates awareness of how generic those experiences might actually be. Eily's fights with Stephen feel scripted per the melodramatic conventions of all lovers' quarrels – "I scream into his duvet until I am numb," she admits, and then wonders, "How could you say those things to him? And now? And what?" – and while these confessions feel more literal than literary, there's an undeniable honesty to them, too.
As such the novel operates in two registers: one in which the language soars, and one that mucks about in the dirt of the everyday and banal. The results do not undermine the clichés of first love, but instead acknowledge the simultaneous commonality and poignancy of its extreme joys and heartbreaks. Through two books now, Eimear McBride has proven herself an astute, sensitive chronicler of youth, and The Lesser Bohemians captures – fearlessly, tenderly – the solipsism and openness of those fledgling years of self-discovery, when all the possibilities of life and living seem to sprawl inward and outward at once.