Belinda McKeon's debut novel Solace was published in 2011 by Picador. It won this year's Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, as well as being named Bord Gais Irish Book of the Year, and it has also been shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Belinda lives in Brooklyn and currently teaches on the Creative Writing faculty at Barnard College. Below she discusses Keith Ridgway's The Parts.
Belinda McKeon on The Parts by Keith Ridgway
Keith Ridgway, whose third novel Hawthorn & Child has just been published to acclaim, is a writer I've admired since his debut, The Long Falling, back in 1998. A collection, Standard Time, followed two years later, and his very first piece of published fiction, a remarkable novella called Horses, initially appeared in a Faber anthology but was eventually published as a stand-alone volume. He's an uncompromising sort of writer: the best kind. He's brave, and, I think it's fair to say, visionary; I'm very much looking forward to his new book. I would have liked to write about it for this slot, when Norman Geras invited me to contribute, but, well, I still haven't read it: I'm under orders to read too many other things. So it's on the top of the pile, and I'm going to write about Ridgway's second novel, The Parts, instead. It was published in 2003 and it's a really interesting exploration of the complicated and often crushing relationship between the city and the self. It's set in Dublin, and as with any book set in that city, the shadow of Joyce's stories lurks; but if Ridgway's characters are sunk in a deadening paralysis, it's because they have chosen to sink themselves there, and their author isn't going to ease their passage out with anything like sympathy or gentleness or, god forbid, lyricism. Pick up the parts of yourself and get on with it; that could be the message of this novel, if it dealt in anything so ready-made as messages. But it doesn't.
Ridgway draws together disparate voices to form the narrative of The Parts, marking them out by different typefaces and symbols. It's a technique of the kind which always risks gimmickry, but which in this case succeeds by adding, in its self-consciousness, to the sense of so many voices striving to assert themselves against the clamour of a city that seems indifferent to their needs. On the outskirts of that city, Delly Roche, a wealthy widow, is trying to die in the mansion built for her by her husband and which she now shares with his adopted son, Dr George. Also in the house is Delly's lover, the blocked novelist Kitty Flood. Beneath them in the suburbs, Joe Kavanagh, a radio presenter, is struggling in the wake of his wife's departure, while his producer, Barry, is trying to come to terms with his sexuality.
All then, are trying: but what they are trying hardest to do is to forget. Ridgway gives to each of these characters the most Joycean of predicaments: their own history as a nightmare which tortures them, which slings itself mockingly around their necks. From her sickbed, Delly states this case with vicious intent: still guilty about her husband's death, she wants 'none of the rotten waft of her own history', of the 'galloping years... like pock marks in the trail'. Delly's desire for death is a desire for forgetfulness, for something 'clean and blank'. Kitty, too, longs for 'sleepy careless forgetting'; a writer who wants to create a book 'with the city in the grip of its teeth', she has grown lazy and unproductive in the shelter of Delly's wealth, and her physical obesity mirrors a private desire for spiritual purity. Joe Kavanagh also finds memory a difficult art: he resists 'finding a place... in his head' for the losses he has suffered. Barry, meanwhile, resists anything that binds him in a flow of continuity: 'community, society, state, family... they hurt him'. They make him feel, in fact, as if he has 'stepped in shit and slipped' - a metaphor remarkably close to Delly's description of music, which evokes memory as 'song with shit on its shoe'.
If Ridgway were to withdraw at this point, he would leave his characters in a world thoroughly familiar in Irish fiction from the time of Joyce's Dubliners on: a world in which progress, change and honesty of the self are burdened and blocked by memory, cast here as the odour and the dirt of the past. Even if he were to force upon his characters a confrontation with the burden of that 'shit', with memories that hurt, he would go no further than the barn of Samuel Beckett in his short story 'First Love', where the narrator, determined to face up to 'history's ancient faeces', inscribes in a cowpat the name of the prostitute who has been his lover. That is, he would have performed the act of rewriting and renaming - brave acts, but acts already accomplished by Beckett. Ridgway's achievement is to push further still, and to oblige his characters to confront something more complicated and more challenging than the duty of memory: the act of forgetting. In this, like Beckett, he does not shirk from the demands of the absurd, introducing the idea that Delly's husband, a brilliant scientist, invented an anti-memory drug which was appropriated, after his death, by governments keen to erase international recollection of a third World War.
Though it intrudes at first into his realist narrative like a strange dream, this is an idea which Ridgway, through sharp characterization and intelligent pacing, manages to plant deep in the reader's mind. It is carried chiefly on the strength of the most compelling of his characters, the young male prostitute Kez, who knows the city best - its moods, its grudges and its darkest corners - and who sees himself as a sort of channel through which the city's seemingly innumerable streams of life will eventually meet.
But Kez's comfort with the city is precisely what he must forfeit in order to grow: the journey he must take is away from memory, of which he has too much - too many pseudonyms, too many clients to remember - and towards the new start represented by oblivion. That he gains this only through suffering violence - when Dr George abducts him and forces him to act as guinea-pig for the memory-wiping drug - is perhaps this novel's most disquieting turn. Yet in George's own plea for understanding is the suggestion that only true suffering can merit oblivion: 'Imagine it. This drug. In Northern Ireland. Palestine. Balkans... This forgetting. Imagine it.' And in a city for which history is not 'the grime' of individual stories, not 'the clicks and squeals' of individual voices, but something larger, something 'generational', something too vast to bother with the 'day to day', the act of forgetting, of shaking off the grime and dust of the city, becomes not just a route to survival. It becomes the route to a sense of self, in so far as such a thing is possible at all.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]