Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

"Beatlebone" by Kevin Barry (Canongate, 2015)

It's 1978. John is being driven through Ireland. He asks to be let out - "It's four in the morning - the motor idles at a low hum - and the trees have voices, and they are very old" (p.7). "He's been coming loose of himself since early in the spring ... And he has been haunted by his own self for such a long while" (p.10).

He wanders, recalls his childhood and looking after his baby. Years before, he bought a nearby 19-acre island. He reads on a tourist display board that there are 365 islands. "So how will he tell which island is his?" (p.13). He finds a place to sleep. "He sits in his tomb up top of the Newport hotel. It contains a crunchy armchair, a floppy bed, several arrogant spiders, a mattress with stains the shapes of planets and an existential crisis. But he wouldn't want to sound too French about it." (p.22). He's signed in as Mr McCarthy. He knows the media will catch up with him. "All I want is to get to my island" (p.31), he says.

He's interested in words, and has a quick sense of humour. He calls a minder and they get drunk. He pretends to be Ken, with a stutter. Fragments of conversation come and go. There are stream-of-consciousness sections - "He circles and twists like an aggravated goose. Energy is the difficulty always. Too much of. An excess of. Flick out these fingers and they might shoot beads of fire. One neurotic foot in front of the other, and circling - what you do is you keep moving" (p.44).

He hides in the Amethyst Hotel (more a squat than a hotel) with a young couple and Joe Director, who fancies himself as a therapist. "Part four" is written almost like a play script. It begins by setting the scene -

Pale night.

An upstairs room at the Amethyst Hotel.

Once a room for dancing, its ghosts, unseen, move in silence across the old boards still.

Sea-rasp outside hoarse as love by night whispered.

The room is bare but there are symbols of the occult daubed on the walls.

The 4 of them have a Ranting therapy session. John walks out, his thick skin unpunctured despite his weak points being probed - the others know he's John Lennon. He spends a day in a cave by the sea, has a conversation with a seal.

Part Six begin at 11.11.11 on 11.11.11 by the entrance to the Dakota Building. "If I was going to make beatlebone everything it should be, I needed to get to the island" (p.176). It's the putative author, writing about his research. There's a photo of the hotel. The author even spent a night in the cave. There are a few psychological/biographical similarities between the author and John Lennon.

Then it's back to the story. His minder finds supplies and a leaky boat, and they head for the island

Home bites at him for a bit. But he will not go back there. The days of England are done for now. What the fuck is England good for? Sausages and beer and pale gawpy faces. He sits in the boat and he fucking well bails. On white porcelain cups in railway cafés the lipstick traces. The boat moves on its slow-boom beat and it dips and scoops and cuts through the water. His gut is all over the shop. His heart aches for old England. The dark sky growls; in the near low mountains there are rumbles. (p.211)

The next chapter's set in a London recording studio. It ends with a fragmented monologue about Liverpool, about the island, about avoiding a big egg that could be a symbol of his rebirth. In the final chapter he's making his way back to civilisation. He remembers first love.

There's a empty line between paragraphs, and many one-line paragraphs. The fluid style (mixing real/unreal, inner/outside seamlessly) and in-character dialogue reminds me of Nicola Barker's. I liked it.

Other reviews

  • Edward Docx (The Guardian) ( sentence by sentence, the writing is original, exact and telling. When Lennon is forced to lie low at the Amethyst Hotel on nearby Achill Island, the hog-like man running a “ranting” cult there has “tiny yellowish piss-hole-in-the-snow-type eyes” while his young acolyte has “milk-bottle shoulders”. There are a dozen great passages that lyrically solder the profound to the profane in the way of the great Irish playwrights. And lines emerge every few pages that make you want to read them again ... But for all this, on the macro level, the novel didn’t quite work for me. The problem manifests itself in the uneasy fissure between Barry’s command of language and his Lennon’s less comfortable relationship to words)
  • Steve Earle (New York Times) (Only a literary beast, a daredevil wholly convinced he was put on this planet to write, would ever or should ever attempt to cast a person as iconic as John Lennon as a character in a tale of his own invention... Books like this come along once in a generation, books by writers with real chops, who haven’t yet been discouraged from taking real chances and blurring the lines between disciplines. Barry employs every tool in his formidable toolbox — ­razor-sharp prose, powerful poetics and a dramatist’s approach to dialogue unencumbered by punctuation. )
  • Luke Brown (Financial Times) (Barry is an excellent writer of dialogue, skilled at establishing characters quickly, and accordingly he writes some of the best pub scenes in the language, hilarious cacophonies of egos clamouring for attention. He describes drunkenness exactly in disconnected bursts of clarity. ... Lennon, we realise, offers Barry a way to approach his own biography and the “sentimental forces” he has “always been repelled by and drawn to”. )
  • Eoin McNamee (Irish Times) (What is Lennon after? Its hard to tell, tied up in who he is. There is the frail figure unable to bear the weight of his own mythology. There’s the hard-headed survivor. The seeker, the rebel, the self-infantilising, guru-seeking peacenik. He composes music by tapping the subconscious and seeing if he can put manners on what comes out. He addresses his id in the same way ... The complexity and beauty of the language are counterpointed and boundaried by the honed-down structure.)
  • Jean Zimmerman (Barry absolutely nails the period ... Hallucinatory and beautiful, the language Barry employs to reveal Lennon's inner torment make Beatlebone much more than just a work of fan fiction.)
  • Francesca Wade (The Telegraph) (As Barry follows John’s strange journey, the boundaries between fact and fiction, author and subject, past and present morph. Dark, trippy and comic, Beatlebone is a heady exploration of creativity and identity.)

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