Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies
At the close of James Joyce’s moving and magisterial story ‘The Dead’ the reader learns that ‘snow was general all over Ireland… falling faintly through the universe … on all the living and the dead’, and the settling, drifting whiteness is given its full emotional force in a tale of imprisoned passions. In Danny Denny’s début novel, which makes free, updated use of Joycean wordplay and stream-of-consciousness effects, it is rain – a perma-rain – that envelops a degraded future Ireland, a soggy, drenched, inimical environment through which characters struggle in pursuit of their obsessions. It’s an omnium gatherum, mix-and-match, jazzy sort of a narrative stitched around some adversarial high jinks between the two eponymous figures, a royal hegemon or gangster chief and an early-adolescent boy who has fathered a child by the King’s daughter.
This interwoven thread of conflict supplies an element of plot in the shape of a quest/pursuit structure, but overall Denton aims for a ‘polyphonic’ style in which a range of narrative inputs, like a chorus of discordant voices, combine with a very contemporary mash-up of genres, mythology, history and fantasy often arranged, literally, in bits (‘Bit by…’, ‘Bit from…’, ‘Bit called…’, and so forth). As a visual supplement to this eclectic choice there are typographical variations: oblique strokes substitute for quote marks, slanting dashes like descending rain spatter the ‘Mister Violence’ pages, ’Bit from THE PLAY’ appear as photocopied pages of a typescript. Playful or significant? Or both? It’s up to you.
It’s a dizzying experience to read, as the text scatters its multifarious contents like the payload of a luxury piñata. Nonetheless it is not incoherent, and Denton’s ear for a cadenced Irish English prose fashions some memorable imagery . A brief passage that tickles my personal fancy will suggest the quality and tenor of his writing.
The cities festered, the suburbs drowned. And the countryside changed forever–no longer farmland but marsh, swamp, fen, fish farm, labs and compounds on concrete stands in the mangroves. The first Irish pink dolphins were discovered in the Boyle, the first green dolphins in the Lee. These were scientific triumphs until it was discovered that the animals were deaf, tortured animals. Ireland became a cesspool for deranged life.
Then, I suppose, we stumbled across a business plan–an economy–that worked: sell what people won’t admit they want. Fadinghead. Herbal. A tasty plastic dish. A kidney. A perfect genetic specimen. We became the crooked nation.
Like Conrad or Ballard, Denton (via the ruminations of an old copper in a ‘Bit from WORD OF WARD’), considers water as a destructive element, parallelling the rogue weather that mutates aquatic life with a defective and unstable political economy. The consequences? A gangster state under the dominance of the Earlie King. The vision is freakish, but the selective observation of detail in reporting the mounting pathological state of a nation gives it a real, immediate value.
Interviewed, the author has ominously raised the spectre of a devouring ‘Digital/Information Age’ that has ‘swept up almost of all humanity in it’, costing us our souls, and adds the hope, or article of faith, ‘that myth-making and story-telling will be one spiritual form of redemption.’ That’s a wish that goes back at least to Matthew Arnold. Here, it has certainly fuelled a novel of appreciable energy and wit, one that will offer serious, thoughtful enjoyment, and may even alleviate the undoubted distress of present circumstances as a collection of ‘fragments to shore against our ruins’ – the literary imagination is always good for that, and Eliot’s beaky presence is saluted in Denton’s work. Whether it can help save our souls is a postulate I find myself painfully doubting. I inevitably wonder how Irish readers might take this book, embroiled as they may be in the farcical negotiations over Brexit, which seems to promise a real-world apocalypse doomed to generate myths of its own in some horrifying, indescribable future. Sarah Gregory, reviewing it for the Irish Times (here) was enthusiastic.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible
Danny Denton, The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow (Granta, 2018). 978-1783783656, 355 pp., paperback original.