No 596 All Names Have Been Changed by Claire Kilroy

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.

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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.

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The Arts Block at Trinity College Dublin

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.

claire kilroy

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.

 

Read on: Book

Number Read: 151

Number Remaining: 595

 

Tender by Belinda McKeon

Tender was my favourite read of 2015 and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is about this book that got under my skin. Could it be that it is a university novel set Dublin in the 1990s – a time when I too was at university there? Is it the epigraph, taken from James Salter’s Light Years that rings so true?

You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.

Or possibly it is the beautifully simple writing, the perfect characterisation and the fact that this story of obsessive love and desire feels so utterly, utterly true that makes Tender an unforgettable read.

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It is 1997 and Catherine Reilly is in her first year studying English and Art History at Trinity College Dublin. She meets James Flynn, a friend of her flatmates and the two could not be more different. Flamboyant, worldly and open, James is antidote to the narrow sheltered life she has led so far in rural Longford. He has travelled and is open about his feelings. She is insular and insecure. James says

the stuff that, Catherine now realised, she had always thought you were meant to keep silent.

The pair become inseparable – the best of friends. James opens Catherine’s mind to new ways of looking at the world and the descriptions of how this new friendship makes Catherine feel resonate with that youthful sense of the whole world opening up before you.

Trinity-College-Library-Dublin-Ireland

Trinity College Dublin Library

 

To the rest of their friends they seem like a sweet couple. But they are not a couple and just as Catherine thinks she may have sexual feelings for James, he admits that he is gay. Catherine’s reaction to the news is pitched perfectly for the times and for her lack of experience. She feels a proprietorial novelty that she now has a gay friend, yet knows this reaction is childish and innapropriate. Her sheltered upbringing means that her admiration for James is one of breathless adolescence and soon their friendship becomes all consuming. She begins to think about him all the time, bend her opinions to be in tune with him.

They were so alike, the two of them, so alike in every way — and yet, there were moments when she saw the ways in which they were so different. And she… did not like those moments.

Catherine wants James for herself. She becomes jealous of the time he spends with other friends and eventually her feelings and their relationship shift into dangerous sexual territory which can only lead to disaster.

It was not that she did not want him to be happy; it was that she could not deal with the idea that it was others who could make him happy, as he seemed to be now. She wanted him to be only her friend. She wanted the best of his attention; she wanted the highest pitch of his energy; she wanted to be the reason he was fascinated, delighted, amused.

This is where Tender could have faltered, in what is essentially a love affair between a gay man and his straight female friend, but what elevates it is the intricacy of the characterisation. This is no Will & Grace style comedy, Catherine doesn’t want to just be a best friend, nor is she a ‘fag-hag’. Catherine is a complex character – manipulative, selfish and often petulant, but she is at heart a decent person, torn apart by her love for a man, when that love is predicated on him being something he is not. James too is wholly believable, lively, funny and very real, his predicament as a gay man in Ireland in the 1990s rendered with a knowing sensitivity and clarity. In an argument with Catherine he reminds her that

that every day there was still the fear; not being able to hold his boyfriend’s hand in the street, for instance – did she have any idea what that felt like? . . . Probably not, because she was one of those people, wasn’t she? She was one of those people who begrudged them every precious scrap they had

McKeon captures perfectly James’ sense of isolation and pain at being unable to share life with someone he truly loves, of his inability to be openly gay without fear of recrimination and of his desperate need for love and for human contact which he finds in Catherine.

Lonely: that was the word he had written over and over. Alone: that was another. Never: that had been another.

For her part, Catherine, who is studying the work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, adopts Hughes’ line ‘What happens in the heart simply happens’, to justify her increasingly desperate attempts to keep James with her. Hints of the Hughes/ Plath relationship float through the book, prefiguring the notion that this will not end well for either of them. As their relationship deepens and becomes both intense and equally more painful, other characters slip away from the narrative until there is just Catherine and James and a claustrophobic sense of suffocation and self-deceit. The book begins to feel like a time bomb, primed for detonation. Catherine and James know that this cannot end well, as do we and it is testament to McKeon’s skill as a writer that no one becomes the villain of the piece but instead we are witness to a relationship based on friendship and co-dependence that is both moving and heart-breaking.

belinda-hiroki-kobayashi

The rumblings of the Celtic Tiger are there in the background, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland are also woven into the narrative, but there are no gimmicks in Tender. It is essentially a love story, yet McKeon perfectly captures that feverish, frantic need to be loved, that longing to be known entirely by another person. Catherine and James are portrayed with such a depth and unflinching honesty as to be entirely absorbing and the book rings with truth and humanity. McKeon never presents the central relationship as anything other than a genuine love regardless of the sexuality of those involved and the perfect ending takes us right back to that well-chosen epigraph – you only have one friend like that, there can’t be two.

tender epigraph