You could say Patrick McCabe’s career was launched in earnest in 1992, when his third novel, The Butcher Boy, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and subsequently made into a Neil Jordan-helmed film (as was 1998′s Breakfast on Pluto). He’s enjoyed and endured critical hugs and hidings ever since, largely because he’s never stopped experimenting. But his most audacious experiment to date – a 600-page novel in free verse, shot through with Gaelic, Irish folklore, pop-music references, goblins and spirits – seems to be paying off.
Poguemahone – in which an Irish transplant, Dan Fogarty, relates his and his dementia-addled sister Una’s ofttimes bleak origin story in London’s working-class Kilburn district in the mid-1970s – keeps drawing favourable comparisons with James Joyce’s Ulysses. For an Irish writer, that is as likely to feel like a millstone as a pinnacle, and I mean no disrespect to McCabe, or to Joyce, when I say McCabe’s is the easier read.
McCabe spoke to The Globe from his hometown of Clones, Ireland.
This is a marvel of a book, though if I’m honest I was intimidated by it at first.
It’s like the Bible isn’t it, the size of the bloody thing?
But once you get into the rhythm of it, you’re transported. Did you feel that way as you were writing it?
Well eventually, when I got the key that it was supposed to be in. Because when you’re trying to find the soul of a book you’re in a number of different registers. I would have had about six, seven, eight drafts that had approaches to the key, to the beat or rhythm – and it wasn’t comfortable at all. But whenever you do get the beat, which in this case was the beat of the bodhran – it’s a goat-skin Irish hand-drum and sometimes it’s bellicose, sometimes it’s mellow, sometimes it’s celebratory, sometimes it’s ominous – once I got the idea that it was a percussive rhythm it was powerfully emotional. It was a high ride after that, basically.
Do you play?
After a fashion. [Laughs]
What came first, the subject or the verse form?
I’ve always been annotating and jotting down little phrases that have resonance for me, that I never can quite understand. And although I’m not a fluent Gaelic speaker, I now understand that it was approaching the rhythm of Gaelic, which is different from English. But I was perplexed as to what I was doing this for. The material presented itself initially as very orthodox, straight storytelling: the experiences of a family. And I thought, well, who’d want to read about that? But as the days went by, it was like drilling down into the subconscious to get to the real story, which in this case embodied ludicrous elements of Victorian melodrama. I’ve always been attracted to lurid cinematic melodrama – the movies of Roger Corman and the cartoons of the early sixties. They kind of formed me. So all these elements were gathering like iron filings on a magnet.
I’m interested in your decision to give Una dementia, which means Dan has to narrate for her.
A very close relative of mine had it. It was if his soul was being erased as I watched him day by day. And I almost had a moral qualm, because there’s a whole thing about taking people’s stories. We’ve got to be very careful with dementia, what the person knows – I never called him “the person” in my life, but suddenly here I am now objectifying him. Anyway, that fragmented consciousness and this soul taking leave – bit by bit, almost like a rubbing on a chalkboard being teasingly, cruelly erased in front of your eyes – how do you deal with that sympathetically? The Beat poetry and the splintered sentences was the way that person spoke – sometimes extraordinarily lucid, other times you couldn’t understand.
And this is the thing about the collapse of time: For all the advances in science and psychiatry, how can you explain it? You might as well have recourse to the land of the goblin and the metaphor and the inexplicable dread that was given corporeal form by previous generations. It could be the golem in Jewish mythology or the gruagach in Irish or the trasgu in Portuguese or Brazilian – whatever form it takes, every culture has it, and we’re not really that much further along in terms of understanding. Because you cannot find the words to explain what you feel when you see the person you love disappear.
What, if anything, makes you a different writer than the one you were 30 years ago?
I think suffering and a little bit of wisdom. When I wrote The Butcher Boy, which was a kind of irrepressible guerrilla assault upon language and the world, that kind of confidence can only come with youth. Humility comes with age. I might have made pronouncements on my parents or the society that I came from by which I might be embarrassed now, because I’ve got three grandchildren and I’ve seen a couple of generations. Everything changes and nothing changes. You think you’re going to do everything right by your children, and of course you don’t.
The world began to change at a horrendous rate for our generation, who thought they were the first generation to collapse the cathedrals, to introduce permissive society. But if you live long enough you see how that plays out, and it’s not at all what it looked like at the beginning. It’s ever thus. So I suppose there might be a small bit more wisdom in a book like this than there would have been anything I’ve written earlier.
I saw that you crowdsourced to raise money to write it. What was that like?
It won’t be the last time. It was a great experience. My editor told me the readers are out there and we’re going to find them. I was astonished at how it was done, because it was unknown territory. What happens – in this homogenized, globalized age where people are bounced around by corporations and taken for granted – is they can take ownership of a work of art and experience great delight in doing it. I get e-mails from people holding the thing the way people used to hold a prayer book: like a treasure trove that had old pictures in it and notations in the religious age. Not that it’s a religious experience – far from it. It’s fun and it’s all sorts of things. But I really took great delight in people taking back the power of the imagination, that they weren’t being instructed to follow some manufactured trend.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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