After I'd finished The First Verse by Barry McCrea it occured to me to wonder how many other wonderful novels are published in Ireland but never publicised (or even published) in the UK. A quick glance down the backlist of McCrea's current publisher, Brandon Books, suggests that the answer might be quite a lot. Not that contemporary Irish writers are unknown to us, far from it - Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry, John Banville, Patrick McCabe, John McGahern all come immediately to mind - only that it would appear there are innumerable novels passing the British mainstream by unnoticed. (The same clearly goes for American novels and novelists too; not to mention those writing in a language other than English. An unavoidable shame, or an Anglo-centrism we should seek to rectify? Thoughts on a postcard.) The First Verse has lost out on media attention twiceover. Originally published in America (where McCrea now lives) in 2005 after failing to find a British backer, it has just now reached the UK market in the guise of an Irish paperback. If it had been written by an English man living in England would it have been different? I should imagine so.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, it has already won the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, and been nominated for various other LGBT awards. (Should we add: if it had been written by a straight English man living in England...?) The shout-quotes on the front cover from Edmund White, Colm Toibin and Elaine Showalter are universally glowing. I note that it was also favourably reviewed by the ever watchful London Review of Books on its American release; yet another sign of its superiority amongst book papers. I'm at a loss as to why it has taken so long to appear here. Because, despite the lack of trumpets and fireworks heralding its appearance, The First Verse quickly proves itself worthy of all possible accolades. McCrea is the kind of new writer we should be excited about - fluent, witty, meditative, terrifying, fiercely literary. His book was first recommended to me by a work colleague, who had herself been recommended it by word of mouth. Consider this my way of handing on the good news to you.
I'm not unaware of the irony of passing The First Verse from virtual hand to virtual hand, since the plot itself rests on the obsessive passing of books from one reader to another. And, not incidentally, on the transformative power of reading. It all hinges on the person of Niall Lenihan, a young gay man native to James Joyces' Sandycove. The novel intially finds him aged 19, lovesick, shy and on his way to take a degree in English and French Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. It is, as he latterly recognises, the 'extreme unction of his childhood' - the break from home, from parents', from old lovers - and amongst lifes most disturbing and wonderful experiences. But soon after unpacking his bag in his dorm room, making tentative friends with his classmates and scoping out the local gay clubs, he receives a strange visitor. A handsome coquettish man calling himself Pablo Virgomare rings his doorbell and asks for him, only to then sing a few lines from the nursery rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons' before disappearing into the Dublin streets. Niall is, understandably, intrigued and more than a little seduced. At first he dismisses the man as a momentary aberration, a hallucination brought on by the trauma of independence, but over the weeks that follow Pablo persists in appearing at the periphery of Niall's vision, singing his infernal rhyme.
At the same time Niall meets and becomes intrigued by two reclusive postgraduate students, John and Sarah, who spend their lives obsessively and arbitrarily flicking through the pages of books. Like Pablo they initially exist at the edge of his awareness, only gradually coming into focus until, eventually, he begins to riddle out their strange behaviour. Both practise a form of divination called the sortes, using random passages selected from books - novels, non-fiction, tour-guides, pamplets, or text of any sort - to guide their every action and decision. A series of synchronicities - coincidences involving, in this case, literary quotes - convince them to take Niall under their wing and initiate him into their 'cult', Pour Mieux Vivre. They claim that practitioners of the sortes exist across Europe, working towards a common goal, although Sarah is the only point of contact with other members. Their aim is to unify life with art, literature with reality, through what John calls 'esoteric reading practises'. At first it seems like the answer to all of Niall's questions - it rips away the pale uncertainties from the world around him and offers a model of the present and future which is knowable and accessible. More importantly it relieves him of the responsibility of living his own life, of finding love or of pleasing his friends. Instead all he need do is consult the books, interpret their answers and act accordingly. Who has not wished for such a blissful relief from the trauma of actually living? His is an act of literary submission - the epitome of escapism.
Yet it becomes increasingly clear that Pour Mieux Vivre is not compatible with the living of an ordinary life. College, friends, family, eating, sleeping all must be jettisoned in the name of the sortes. As the three practitioners fall deeper under the addictive spell of the books, they become like ghosts, flitting in and out of a reality which, for Niall, is becoming less and less important. They spend hours and hours conducting their rituals and rites, reading passages from books simultaneously until they experience visions - singing, heavenly lights, moving statues. It becomes clear that they must give up the game or loose themselves to it all together.
There is a plotted tension to The First Verse that is alien in a book of its kind. It is at once a book of no surprises, and many. You see, McCrea's writing style will be familiar to most readers of good contemporary fiction. He writes here in an assured first person that oozes confidence, straying occasionally into verbosity but never irrepreably. He is entirely at home with words and is, consequently, a wordsmith of the first order. His descriptive prose is especially good, fed by the rich ancestry of Irish literature; his talent is clear from the first page:
For a long time I used to lie, and say that words had 'always' been my 'trade', while in fact mine is just the rude tongue of my homeland, the bourgeois suburbs on Dublin's southern side, a Levantine country reaching from the tree-hushed redbrick of Ranelagh, Rathmines and Donnybrook, on the edge of the city centre, stately places of canals, cornices, and quiet burghers, extending east and southbound along a glittering Mediterranean coast. Amphibious green trains run along its foamed edge, sliding back and forth between the heart of the Hibernian metropolis and the deep south, through the litorally bounded civilisations of Glenageary, Blackrock and Killieny, through Dalkey, Seapoint, and Bray... These are the boundaries of my home, and my language consists only of its bland Neapolitan vowels, its middleclass maritide cadence and its uncertain refusal of tense.
At the same time The First Verse is a thriller - a quiet thriller but a thriller nevertheless - with a plot that rushes the reader to the end. Happenings are as important to McCrea as expressing the happenings, which is a sadly rare thing in fine literary fiction. The marriage of style and plot is such that we're left to wonder: is this a thriller disguised as a literary novel or a literary novel disguised as a thriller. I lean towards the latter but, either way, there is no denying it works a magic all its own.
At the heart of the book is a philosophy of reading that interests me greatly. Members of Pour Mieux Vivre simultaneously expect too much and too little of their books, and of words more generally. They are asking for prophecies, in the full expectation that the world is ordered thus, by glutting on nonsense and mainlining books (which are words, which are information) like junkies. If reading is an act of understanding then they are barely reading at all. They are incanting, which is not the same thing. The irony is that by overestimating the power of books to predict the future (and know the present), they are underestimating their power to help us think critically for ourselves. Niall experiences this loss early on, when he realises that he can no longer 'read' what is written without overwriting it with his own predictions and impressions. There are no longer any novels, or histories, or travel guides, there are only words chosen at random and mashed together. He cannot follow a thread; there isn't meaning, apart from that which he applies. And if words no longer have meaning, then the stuff of reality, held together by language, begins to disintegrate. Without the co-ordinating power of words, Niall's grasp on the world begins to slip. Even as he expects the sortes to reveal a hidden world, he is destroying the one he already knows.
I considered interpreting this in a number of ways: Reading as a dangerous escapism... Reading as a form of divination... Reading as solipsistic crisis management... My most persistent impression, however, is that McCrea is exhorting readers, all readers, to be careful, critical and thoughtful. Reading is an act of interpretation, and it is inevitable that this process be subjective. At the same time it places us in a position of responsibility - to the book, to the author, but mostly to ourselves - not to be complacent or flippant. We are not to glut on words until they mean nothing, nor to take them for granted by using them wantonly. Which is not to say that we should read less, or not read for pleasure, but that we should read more critically. When we do this we are no longer escaping from reality with a book, but using a book to confront it.
There are other questions to be asked, of course, since this is such a characterful thriller: who is Pablo Virgomare? Why does his name so conveniently invoke the Virgin Mary? What is the underlying state of Niall's mental health? Is Pour Mieux Vivre real, or an illusion conjured by Sarah? Is Sarah an illusion conjured by Niall? And what does a child's nursery rhyme about church bells have to do with anything? Touching on them now would spoil the effect, and so I won't. Because The First Verse is a powerful revelation of a novel and you should read it for yourself. There should be a blog-buzz about it. Really.