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Kevin Barry, the Irish author, has written a new novel, Beatlebone, about a 37-year-old John Lennon who is suffering from a creative block and ‘coming loose of himself.’

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Kevin Barry
Knopf Canada

In June, Zadie Smith published a story in The New Yorker called Escape from New York, wherein Marlon Brando, Michael Jackson, and Elizabeth Taylor all flee the city after the fall of the twin towers. Writers have always been taken up with a kind of celebrity necromancy – making the famous dead put their flesh and bones back on, only to run harder away from the fame that plagued them while they were living. In the case of Beatlebone, Kevin Barry's second novel, the celebrity in question is John Lennon.

It is 1977, three years before his death. He is 37 years old and trying to escape to an Irish island he bought a decade before. Fresh from a bout of "Scream Therapy" in California, Lennon wants to be left alone to scream in privacy. But first he must escape reporters and paparazzi.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Barry says he felt a novel about John Lennon would have to be a "properly wild and naughty book." The Lennon that Barry has conjured is addled by ghosts and mythical characters: his parents, in particular, as well as a talking seal and a cult leader, Joe Director, who runs a sort of commune with the sum total of two wayward followers, well off the beaten track, at the Amethyst Hotel. All three take turns ripping into Lennon, trying to unhinge him. Joe Director, with his "hog arrogance," is an archetypal father figure, who berates Lennon and tempts him with promises of sexual exploits and cocaine, all in the effort of releasing the singer's demons, or perhaps just for the fun it. Throughout, sitars waft; there are "hot shrieks" and "livid whelps."

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Throughout his journey to the island, Lennon has a mentor and spiritual adviser in Cornelius O'Grady, a larger-than-life Irishman who is part chauffeur, part boatman, driving the singer to the Hades of the inner self. Both bodyguard and tour guide, Cornelius is bent on getting Lennon to his island undetected, offering lots of life lessons along the way. (At one point, he brings Lennon to the edge of a vertiginous cliff in a powerful wind and instructs him to lean over toward death, and to trust the wind will hold him up. The experience is about facing fear. Or it is murderous foolishness.) Cornelius is shady and shape-shifting throughout. He is a cooker of big breakfasts, including blood pudding and ale, and there's an understated wit in everything he says. For instance, when Lennon explains that scream therapy is "a technique for getting at buried pain and childhood trauma," Cornelius responds: "Why would you want to do that?" The question deftly debunks a whole cottage industry of pseudo-psychoanalytic fads and treatments from the seventies.

Barry creates a series of fragments to portray his version of Lennon. Beatlebone even has an essay, embedded in the novel, about the author researching the book. Much of the novel is written in play format, although the stage directions aren't really stage directions, but inner thoughts. There is a lot of white space, and single lines that read as poetry, aphorisms or koans.

Barry's Beatlebone is a fragmented inquiry into the nature of making art, how one does it; what it does to one. And it's also historical fiction – what did John Lennon mean? Who was he? As with Zadie Smith's short story, or a novel like Andrew O'Hagan's The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, about the actor and her pet companion, this novel uses fame as a metaphor to question the nature of identity – how fragmented, how fragile, is the island of the self? And how to escape it?

The Lennon of these pages is ghostly, alive in the aperçu, slipping through the fog and empty stretches of sea. The landscape, islands off the coast of Ireland, mostly uninhabited, is sublime: vacated, hallowed and harsh, wind-scraped. There are hippies and cocaine and scream therapy becomes an extreme sport involving insults and sexual taunting; haunting and hunting. Paranoia and false-footed intimacies. Drinking that leaves Lennon spewing on the side of the road in the early dawn, spiritually enlivened.

But does the novel hold together? Does it matter? Barry is a supreme stylist; he makes sure you can't guess what's coming in the next page, or paragraph or sentence. Every word is fresh. This is textured writing, aware of the cadence of a phrase, dialect-canny, full of vivid imagery, and there is an unrestrained lust for language. Aware also, that the written word is a pale imitation of the unfettered wit-riven spontaneity of speech. Along with his contemporary Irish writers Edna O'Brien and Anne Enright, Barry puts the spoken word on the page. You hear it, rather than read it. It has a musicality.

Barry won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award with his futuristic novel City of Bohane, a noir of violent gang warfare set in 2053, a novel of mesmeric language and charged imagination. Beatlebone is its equal. Barry has established himself as an experimental writer and an innovator. You haven't read anyone quite like him, I promise.

Lisa Moore's young adult novel Flannery will be published in May.

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