‘Shift Into Her Time: a Review of Eimear McBride’s “The Lesser Bohemians”’, by Ella Cattach


“It takes a while to adjust but once you shift yourself into his time Jesus     what you get to see.” So says Stephen, one of the two leading characters in Eimear McBride’s new novel The Lesser Bohemians. It is 1994 and he is speaking to his much younger lover, Eily, about the first-disorienting-then-revelatory experience of watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia. The two of them have dashed from his Camden bedsit to see it at a cinema in Belsize Park. At eighteen, it is the first time she has seen it. At thirty-eight, it is his fourth or fifth. Though I name them here, the comfort of their names comes later. At this stage we know Eily, our narrator, as a young Irish woman freshly moved to London to go to drama school. We know ‘him’ as her first lover and an established actor (the kind who reads Dostoevsky alone in a bar). As readers of McBride’s flooring debut A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing will know, it takes a while to adjust to her prose—its surfaces and sounds, its temporality—but when you shift yourself into it, Jesus, what you get to see.

Tarkovsky’s own beautiful book Sculpting in Time appeared a few years after Nostalgia in 1986. In it, he writes of the poetic sensibility of his practice; how he sees poetry not as a genre but a “particular way of relating to reality.” The book itself is punctuated with poems written by his father, Arseny Tarkovsky, and it provides curious insight into McBride’s novel. The logic of Tarkovsky’s poetics, distinct from coherent narrative causality, is such that “material can be joined together in another way, which works above all to lay open the logic of a person’s thought.” McBride’s self-proclaimed hero James Joyce spectacularly showed us ways in which this can be done. Like Ulysses, The Lesser Bohemians lays open the logic of two subjectivities, joining together their material in very different ways – though here they are not strangers destined to cross paths, but strange lovers who hurtle towards devastating transparency before each other.

Stephen’s own name seems a nod to Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus (of Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) as well as to the tragic intellectual Stepan Verkhovensky in Dostoevsky’s The Devils, the book he is reading when he and Eily first meet. As a conversation starter, it is the prop that gets things going between them: he is caught off guard by the intimation she has read the book. Surprised, he says, “you just don’t look the kind” to which she teasingly responds “Oh? Boobs too big? Hair too blonde?” Soon afterwards she is “Dostoyevsky girl” and being led to his place, and into something neither of them expect.

These literary references shape the arc of the novel: if the language in which Eily is rendered is modernist, Stephen seems a century older through passages that tend toward the psychologically realist. To be reductive: if she is form, he is content. As in their relationship, this sharp disjunction sits uneasily. The line between them is partly drawn because Eily is the sole narrator; we hear her thoughts and perceptions as they form (or half-form), and we observe Stephen from the outside as it were, through the way that he speaks and moves. They are also separated by the years he has on her – she is utterly aware of her own lack of experience, or content, before they even meet: “I conjure farther futures from the ceiling cracks – in glorious technicolor – what this pleasant present lacks. I will it, hope and dream it. Fine my life’ll be when it comes. When I am right. When I have made myself. When I have.” He, as we learn, ‘has’ in abundance. We shift to another time when his narrative takes over for some seventy pages—he sheds all mystery and tells her his story—recalling the dramatic monologues of the Russian master that he reads.

Stephen’s section is almost exegetical in the way that it expounds his traumatic history. It is where the novel loosens its grip, where McBride’s startling, fragmented language makes way for linear narrative. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the clarity that comes with Stephen’s voice is itself disorienting. To be shifted out of Eily’s thoughts feels like being led astray from the heart of the novel – and to shift back into them is to find its logic reoriented, after which the names of characters flow in thick and fast. Topologically, there are more declaredly experimental techniques at work in McBride’s second novel. There are spaced gaps instead of ellipses representing pauses throughout, slightly smaller text embedded into the narration, dream sequences, and italicised blocks where Eily undertakes drama exercises. What these reveal are layers of consciousness and, most significantly with Eily’s dreams, the operations of an unconscious.

McBride has said that the smaller text indicates moments at which the mind is talking to itself. It makes injunctions such as “Go on. It’s only this evening, when will you see him again?” and is self-critical: “Fucking hell, you came here for this”, “You fool.” There are times where this logical formatting is not used where it could be and vice versa, and it demonstrates an awareness of this slippage (“You you can.”) In A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the narrator’s ‘I’ is always addressing the ‘you’ of her brother. In contrast, The Lesser Bohemians frees the narrator from the bind of a concrete external address, occupying the ‘I’ and ‘you’ at once. It shows us how, in our innermost thoughts, we always seem to be addressing someone or something outside of ourselves; how we cannot help but view ourselves from a perceived outside, and how inescapable that is, how it structures us on the inside too.

There is also a sense in which Eily and Stephen’s transgressive tell-all love affair could map The Lesser Bohemians onto the “Chick Lit Meets Avant Garde” movement sketched out by Tess McNulty in her recent Public Books piece. Where A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing—mentioned in passing for its place in the contemporary experimental vanguard and its description of female life—does not have the “‘girlier’ set of subjects associated with chick lit,” The Lesser Bohemians is replete with an ambitiously dramatic romance, gossiping friends, countless sex scenes, as well as messy partying and its fair share of drugs. Its references to high culture (Prokofiev, Lawrence, Bulgakov) are counterbalanced with references to low and alternative culture (Loaded magazine, Nick Cave and The Birthday Party, Reservoir Dogs). Like Girl, it contains a profusion of trauma, but here there is also joy.

McBride has described the novel both as a love story and a love letter to 1990s London. The love story is equally contingent and fateful, vulnerable and forceful. As Eily says, “this love insists upon itself.” To borrow Alain Badiou’s phrase, this is a love that advances with a limping march.

McBride was in Melbourne last weekend for the writers festival. I queued up to have her sign my copies of her two books. She commented on the sticky notes littered through them but not on the dog-eared pages. With a great deal of awkwardness I told her that I am writing my thesis on A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. She treated this coolly. As I was beginning to file the encounter as mortifying, she gracefully and generously told me this: the girl in The Lesser Bohemians dreams of the girl in the other book, and no one has picked up on it yet. I gave her a wide-eyed “Is that true? Thank you!” before tumbling out speculating. Yes. I remembered there being one about drowning – the fate that meets the girl of the first novel, but it was unclear to me, as if I might have dreamt it. At home it was there, sitting on the surface of my notes:

She floats face down. The world can do anything to her. Under here she is fingers and the weight of water piled up over her head. Under here with the empty torch of her breath she opens an eye and a quick fish I open mine to the bright, bright day. And the land and the life comes in.

Eily has this dream when she returns for the Christmas holidays to her family home in rural Ireland, a vague geographical description that fits where A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is set in the 1980s. The dream is the strikingly singular event of the trip, the entirety of which is given a single page. Speculatively, it speaks to a scene after Girl ends. Eily is dreaming of a time past, which has simultaneously and paradoxically not yet happened. In Ulysses, by the time Stephen meets Bloom, he has already, uncannily dreamt about him. For Tarkovsky, it is only the logic of poetics that can deal adequately—beautifully in McBride’s way—with “the vagueness, the opacity, the improbability of a dream.”

Ella Cattach is writing an MA thesis in English Literature at the University of Melbourne. She is also managing editor of special projects at Discipline.