Claire Kilroy’s third novel, All Names Have Been Changed is my first introduction to her work. Although her writing is well respected and her books highly regarded, it has been suggested that All Names Have Been Changed is not the best place to start. I may have to agree. This book didn’t put me off reading more of Kilroy’s work, but it didn’t fully work for me.
From the very title, there is a suggestion that the book may be slightly autobiographical. Set in the 1980s in a Creative Writing Course at Trinity, it mirrors Kilroy’s own experience of attending the same school. Naming each chapter after a great work of Irish literature, plats and songs is a playful nodto Kilroy’s place in that canon and the book is certainly peppered with plenty of references to Irish writing.
This is a campus novel through and through. Structured in three parts to reflect the academic year, the book is narrated by Declan, the only male in a group of five mature students who have signed up to take a writing class with their literary hero, the infamous and celebrated PJ Glynn. To say that this group of wishful writers are in awe of Glynn would be an understatement.
We came because he called us. Glynn set down his words knowing they would mean nothing ton most, but everything to a few. We, those few, heard his siren song and followed it, having litte alternatice under theinhospitable circumstances. He wanted his art to be a dangerous force, alive. Well then, you might say he got what he asked for.
The esteem in which they hold this notoriously difficult writer is quasi-religious and can not be maintained and as the year passes, Glynn slips slowly but surely from the pedestal on which he as been placed by his students. Their slow discovery of the man behind the myth and the claustrophobic setting of the creative writing class allows the intense group dynamics to flourish, bloom and eventually wither as the year wears on.
Glynn is a great character. Like Brendan Behan crossed with Shane MacGowan, he embodies that myth of drunken Irish writer, indulged and celebrated despite his behaviour which veers from patronising to charming to grotesque.
He was forever picking at himself, sniffing himself, tasting himself . . . in a perpetual swoon of fascination with his own detritus. ‘Glynn’s great subject was the self,’ wrote the New York Review of Books. Little did they know.
Unlike his adoring students, the reader sees a man who is never less than human despite his flaws. Kilroy creates and entire ouevre for her central character featuring novels, essays and interviews and what emerges is a fascinating, interesting man who becomes even more relatable as his ego deflates in the eyes iof his adoring students.
It’s a shame then that the other characters in the novel aren’t so well rounded. Declan and his four companions – troubled Aisling, snooty Antonia, worrier Faye and the beautiful Guinevere spend most of the year fighting for Glynn’s approval, forging friendships then testing them and of course, falling in love, but none of them come across as real people.
It also doesn’t help that very little happens here. This is not a plot driven book, but when your characters aren’t particularly strong then there is little for the reader to get their teeth into. They drink Guinness, start and scrap novels, sleep with each other and inevitably mess things up and it rains a lot. There is a pervading sense of tension and doom that never leads where you expect.
This is a book about emotions and mainly about looking back on those key moments in your youth that didn’t merit their own significance at the time.
I was young then and had no comprehension of the significance of proceedings, no grasp yet that such encounters were unique and unrepeatable, instead regarding all that occured as preludes to te main event. Life was an entity due to commence at some point in the future. That’s what I used to think.
Some of the best scenes in All Names Have Been Changed take place outside of the rareified halls of Trinity and the cosseted world of literature, as Declan strikes up an odd friendship with Gaz, a drug addict who lives in his block of flats. I found myself yearning for scenes between the two as they count among the best writing in the book and providing an interesting counterpoint between the two worlds co-existing in Dublin in the 80s.
Kilroy does have some great inights into the nature of artisitc endeavour and the toll that the pressure of writing can take but the book at times feels over-written. During a romantic moment with Guinevere, Declan reflects on,
The force of her emotions. A shaft shot out of her into the heavens, another to the molten cosre of the Earth. I felt the true magnititude of her, caught a glimpse of her dimensions. All I can compare it to is how certain places, certain historical sites, connect you to the events that unfolded three centuries earlier.
Possibly Kilroy is lampooning Declan’s writerly aspirations here, but the descriptive passages can be tiring. Declan is a character who, when musing on a break up, thinks, ‘I was pleased with my pathetic fallacy if nothing else’, and it can make him a hard character to like. The level to which he is in thrall to Glynn is overwhelming, leaving a vacuum at the centre of his own character that serves to distance the reader.
That the moon was serene was yet another delusion. Had I thought that or read it in Glynn?
All Names Have Been Changed is a very literary novel. Kilroy clearly relishes language and the book is dense with literary allusions andself-concious references. The comparisons with The Secret History (campus setting, intellectual student and charismatic teacher) are inevitable but add nothing to understanding either book. Admittedly, it was my love of a campus novel that lead me to read this Claire Kilroy first. Despite being underwhelmed, I do plan to read more of her work. This one just fell flat for me.
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