Thursday, May 06, 2010

Ghosts and Lightning - Trevor Byrne

I needed to finish Ghosts and Lightning by Trevor Byrne. When I began reading it, I found it so easy to set it aside in favour of another and I did so several times. (I think there’s something to be said about a book to which you can so easily return after long absences.)

Set in Dublin, modern day, the first-person narrative of the life of a twenty-something man is disturbing and sad. Denny Cullen wallows: drugs, alcohol, and unemployment; violence, bigotry, and death; suicide, loneliness, and poverty as well as filth and grief. But this isn’t dystopia; it's simply an ugly reality.

This man needs a change. In fact, each character in the novel, to varying degrees of awareness, needs change. Only Pajo, a longstanding friend of the narrator, seems positive about his situation. At least, he isn’t as despondent as Denny and his relentless pursuit of the religious experience counterbalances Denny’s godlessness.

Not surprisingly, Pajo both annoys and inspires awe in his friend:

He’s mad into this kind o thing; life after death, ghosts, yetis, any and all religions. Basically, anythin there’s fuck all proof for, Pajo’ll believe it. Almost like he’s definin himself against the world in some way.
I think Pajo’s belief-seeking faith provides him with a certitude that Denny does respect even if he doesn’t believe that he could have it for himself.

Denny, in contrast, finds little by way of supernatural motivation or guidance and certainly no comfort. When we consider the appearance of a stuttering priest at a funeral (his message makes no sense to our narrator) and the fact that Pajo’s relentless, religious optimism bothers Denny, then we are as certain as he that nobody’s god will scoop him up to safety, either.

And Denny often muses, unpretentiously, about the nature of stories and the function of narrative in our lives. Mostly, there’s the sense that stories and their sources are to be questioned but the possibility that some stories ring true objectively – ghosts, gods? -- is never entirely discounted, either.

But it seems to me that narrative in itself is a transcendent experience and individual story might be a form of mysticism or mystical experience. I don’t know if Trevor Byrne agrees, but when Denny explains:

Stories though, man. The way they work on yeh. They’re a kind of spell, aren’t they? Or a prayer, maybe, some o them. An article of faith. How the fuck else can yeh make sense o things, like?
It sounds like transcendence to me.

Conversations about fairies, banshees, and the wee folk abound as do the legends of pre-Christian Ireland in CĂșchulainn and Finn MacCumhail (McCool); Buddhism and Catholicism are also dominant. I love the appearance of so many kinds of stories. In addition to the above Irish and specifically religious ones, gossip, drinking tales, jokes and even Jack Frost, appear. And, as Denny says, “Stories don’t ever actually end, do they? They go on.”

But there is the sense that the author wants us to examine our tales in a philosophical context. We need stories – and Denny says so -- but why?

It’s not just all fuckin . . . like . . . evolution or wharrever. Cells and impulses. There’s got to be stories as well. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. And it all meant this. It all meant this.
The stories in our lives – those told to ourselves, to others and those that just seem to have followed us all our lives – give life meaning which, our narrator seems to sense, is otherwise lacking.

We find, consequently, strong themes: personal responsibility, action, the necessity of defining ourselves and isolation. We decide which stories make the most sense to us as well as who – and where -- we want to be; and we decide that we are, ultimately, alone in determining these things.

The novel’s messages call to mind Sartre and Camus and make me want to revisit Being and Nothingness and Myth of Sisyphus, respectively, as two decades have lapsed since I last read these. They also remind me of Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game which I read at the end of 2009 (in which Camus’s work actually explicitly appears).

I love this novel but love it in retrospect. I strongly suspect that there’s so much more to it that I haven’t here mentioned or even considered yet. I think it bears thinking about for some time.

There's seamlessness and everything hangs together so well that I have to admire the final product even if it isn't exactly what I wanted. In fact, there isn't anything about the characters that I could not believe: The strength of Denny's own voice is unwavering throughout and each character eventually confronts the future and the question of personal responsibility in his own way.

1 comment:

  1. I'm enjoying your blog very much, Suzanne! I'm already compiling a list of must-reads for myself :) We must chat more about these when we drop the girls off at the Community Centre. (I'm especially stoked about Adrian Mole!)

    As an aside, I tried to find you on Facebook but there are 71 Suzanne Manns, and I couldn't determine through a profile picture. I believe I'm the only Christa Clark from Dundas, ON - perhaps you could find me?