Tuesday, May 8, 2012

At Swim, Two Boys


Jim is a quiet studious young man. Doyle is a loud outspoken socialist. It's 1915 in Dublin, and things are heating up. When Doyle and his family move back to the suburb, he renews his friendship with Jim, and they make a pact to swim the bay by next Easter. But, the republic of Ireland is about to be born violently, and the boys must make a choice between their love for each other or their love for their country.

Sometimes it's hard to think of what to say about a work of art. The difficulty in articulation of criticism (positive or negative) can come from opacity, lack of appeal, confusion, or even too much praise. There's no point in me reviewing Ulysses or Lolita. We've agreed, culturally speaking, to consider some works to be untouchable. The only interesting positions are contrarian opinions that somehow manage to say something profound about why that particular piece does not work. Since I have nothing but praise for certain things, I haven't written anything about them, other than references to them, using them measures of quality. We know that I consider Ulysses to be the (technically speaking) greatest novel in the English language. That's my bar. Some critics espouse a system whereby a hierarchy is employed. That is to say, Michael Bay's Transformers films are not comparable to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. In order to judge those other films, not works of "real" cinema, every scant piece of praise is parceled out slightly, always framed in the same way: "Well, for a blockbuster, it's pretty good". I don't do this. My relationship to works of art is mostly empathetic. I am willing to forgive lack of logic or clumsy manipulation of theme if I am totally engaged emotionally with the work. Of course, it's not the situation that I empathize with, it's the emotions. This is why I can handle reviewing "high art" and "low art" at the same time. Because of emotional engagement. However, sometimes it's hard to articulate this emotional engagement beyond "I felt good" or "I felt bad". Such is the case of Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys.

O'Neill's novel is almost perfect. Maybe I should have started the review with this, rather than why it's hard to be a critic sometimes. But I wanted to preface my review of At Swim, Two Boys with the caveat that I might not be able to do the book justice because it's such a specifically emotional novel. When I say, O'Neill's novel is almost perfect, I mean to say that as an experience, it is almost faultless. As a novel, there are technical issues, such as an overindulgence in generic conventions and a plot structure that is a bit too neat. I will unpack these issues, but first I want to explore why I might have trouble articulating why this novel affected me so.


Firstly, it's a romance novel. Superficially, the framework of the Easter Rising is texture simply. One could imagine replacing the Easter setting with any other tumultuous time with violence and social instability. Some of the most celebrated romance stories unfold themselves under the looming shadow of precipitous violence. Gone with the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, The English Patient, etc are all films interested in two people navigating history's tumult. However, At Swim, Two Boys separates itself from the collective by using the setting in a purposeful way and by featuring two boys as opposed to a heterosexual couple. Immediately, one can anticipate a problem from the premise, but it's not insurmountable. Doyler is an outspoken socialist, and more identifiable with traditional "masculine" roles in terms of the romance genre. Jim is a scholar, quiet, deeply religious and confused about his identity and his social position. This would normally fit into the traditional "feminine" role in the skeleton of the romance. But At Swim, Two Boys resists this, and in order to resist this heteronormative structure, the novel places the boys in a specific location and time. That is to say, that Oscar Wilde had only been dead for 15 years, religion still had a spectacular hold on the public's consciousness and social system, and concepts of masculinity were being viciously exploited by propaganda and increasingly explored by poetry during the Great War. Jim and Doyler do not slot neatly into "woman" and "man". Of course, this is just pointing out one of the novel's minor strengths. I'm sure O'Neill's intentions didn't include challenging traditional heteronormative metanarratives through deconstruction of the discourse. I'm willing to bet that O'Neill's intentions were to honestly portray a love story between two people in a time where their love would result in jail time and social ostracism.

I suppose it's one thing that I don't really discuss at length in my reviews, like I do "story" or "economy" or whatever pet theme I'm harping on. Last year, I was entirely concerned with realism and saying something important. While I still think this is valid, I think that this preoccupation with articulation should be paired with real emotional honesty. Critics and writers and teachers of writing always reiterate advice that goes like this: no matter what you do, it should be in service to the story. In the case of At Swim, Two Boys, the setting, the generic conventions and even the heavy handed manipulations of theme are always in service of the story, which is to portray, honestly, the developing love between Doyler and Jim. If the setting had been merely backdrop, as I said in the previous paragraph, then it wouldn't have been honest. Writing a narrative isn't about playing a trick on the audience or simply engaging in a economic exchange (provide me with your cash and in return, I'll provide entertainment for x hours). Telling a story should result in an emotional connection between the work and the audience, whether that engagement be empathy, boredom, disgust, hatred, adoration. It doesn't matter. As long as the work is honest about its purpose of emotional engagement. This might sound like I'm advocating works of art should be on the surface and hold their audience's hand ("here, feel this emotion. Okay, now feel that emotion.") but my position is slightly more subtle than this. I submit to you that works of art should be honest to themselves about what emotion they want the audience to feel.

Let's take an extreme example first, just to illustrate, and then bring it back to O'Neill's novel. Christopher Nolan's Memento is a film that is endlessly fascinating and has hundreds of thousands of words dedicated to it. The film's conceit isn't that it's playing a trick on the audience in terms of emotion, but it's using the narrative trick to sell the emotion at the core. Leonard's wife is dead, we know from the beginning of the film. It's tragic and he's looking for her killer, but he can't do it as easily as he had memory problems. What makes it tragic is that his whole life becomes a series of mementos in order to remember his wife and make sense of her death. Okay, notice that I haven't touched the sujet of the film but rather the fabula if I might employ some Russian Formalism. Memento works because we understand that Leonard's journey is painful because we feel the same emotions, we empathize with how he feels rather than what he experiences. The film's narrative trickery is meant to a) be a gimmick and b) say something fundamentally honest about our relationship with death, how we experience death. Leonard's emotional journey is an extreme version of one everybody goes through when experiencing loss. We search for mementos and imbue physical objects with meaning in order to maintain a connection with that which is lost. Memento, as a film, is totally honest about its emotions.


At Swim, Two Boys is the same thing. Instead of telling a long 700 page story about two people falling in love during social upheaval, O'Neill is more interested in telling a long 700 page story about Doyler and Jim falling in love during the Easter Rising. Sounds the same? But it isn't. The obvious question is then, why is it different? What makes At Swim, Two Boys different than every other tragic historical novel? The characters are honestly portrayed.

If Memento is honest about its prime emotional engagement, then it is only honest because Leonard's emotions are honestly portrayed. Even though he's not been honest with himself, that means something in of itself. Leonard's desire to lie to himself says more about our experience of mourning than anything previously seen in the film. Our capacity for self-deception is infinite, and Memento simply shows us an extreme version of that capability. You see, there was a reason why I chose an extreme example of art, one seemingly dishonest with its protagonist and its narrative. However, Memento still engages with us beyond opacity and difficulty to articulate something totally fucking honest.

Thus, At Swim, Two Boys' characters are honestly portrayed and the text uses Doyler and Jim not as mouthpieces for gay rights or for Ireland's independence or for deconstructing romance paradigms. Because the characters are so real and so alive, they transcend the generic conventions and structures of romance. I totally fell in love with their relationship because it was so vividly and more importantly honesty portrayed.

This was a very long way of saying that At Swim, Two Boys is well written. Like I said earlier, it's an almost faultless experience. The emotional journey that the characters go on is true to their nature. Doyler and Jim are both given enough backstory to make their decisions in the narrative logical and relatable. There's something exhilarating about art wherein the principles truly experience life to its maximum. The emotions and thoughts of the characters are so intense. Both Doyler and Jim have gone through things in their lives that make their love seem so acute or concentrated.

Let me provide a one sentence review of At Swim, Two Boys. It will be a blurb you could put on the cover. Here it is: "Even though I'm straight, reading this novel is like literally falling in love with both characters". The reason for this has been stated, but I'll reiterate it. One falls in love with Doyler and Jim because of their honest portrayal, flaws and all. Doyler is a bit sanctimonious and a bit of a git. Jim is a little too sensitive and nebbish. I don't love them in spite of their flaws, I love them because of their flaws. If they had been a bit too perfect, or a bit too on the head, I would have revolted and not read 700 pages of them falling in love.

Part of the success of At Swim, Two Boys is the sort of kind of stream of consciousness device O'Neill borrows from other Irish novelists. The title of the novel is a reference to Flann O'Brien, but the prose owes a lot to James Joyce. Where Ulysses is a technically perfect novel, its emotional engagement isn't always successful (only the Ithaca and Penelope scenes are emotionally engaging). At Swim, Two Boys uses the stream of consciousness to really explore falling in love. There's no other emotion as intensely felt as falling in love. It takes over you and consumes you in a way that grief or terror don't. In order to convey that intensity, O'Neill provides access to the intensity of the human brain. Stepping into the head of another person so fully realized is almost sublime, and I mean that in the actual sense of the word. There's terror involved with falling in love and O'Neill captures that perfectly in both the characters and in the reaction of the audience to the situation.

There are other characters in the novel, and they are given time on stage, but like people in love often do, O'Neill ignores them for the two boys. Because as we all know, when you're falling in love, you feel like you're the only two people on the planet. O'Neill understands this and makes his narrative reflect this. The only other character given significant screen time is older aristocratic MacMurrough. His purpose in the narrative is to normalize homosexuality for Jim and Doyler by having sex with them separately, or at least trying. He provides some of the philosophical underpinning of the novel and because he's more educated and experienced than the boys, he contributes to discourse on freedom, a theme very close to the heart of the novel. Freedom from oppression, whether it be political, religious, economic or social. The novel is exhilarating in its intensity when exploring this freedom. It's heady and disorienting, like when you step out onto the balcony of a hotel in a city you've never been to. There's wooziness to the intensity of emotion, and that's probably what makes the novel so alluring beyond its beautiful prose, evocative setting, and intertextuality.

Obviously I loved this novel. So far in 2012, this is the best thing I've read. But it's somewhat hard to talk about, isn't it? I mean,, really, the novel is about falling in love, and without explaining exactly how I felt when I fell in love, it's hard to articulate. We have O'Neill to thank for so honestly portraying it. If somebody ever asked me what it felt like when I fell in love, I would simply point to this novel. That's honesty.

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