James Lomax, review of Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson (9 April 2007)

Source: James Lomax’s webpage - online; accessed 09.02.2011. James Lomax is a Manchester-based photographer and graduate in literature and psychology with MAs in Creative Technology (2001) and Photography (2007) with a commercial address for the sale of his photo-works at LakelandPhotos.com. I have greatly abbreviated his introductory discussion of the attractions of the supposed topic of the novel - the Northern Irish troubles.

One of life’s minor but mentionable pleasures is discovering a new author that you like. I've done that with Robert McLiam Wilson because after finishing Eureka Street I know a writer of this calibre is someone I wish to explore further, that his talents will have crystallised into other compelling narratives [...] Why would I want to read a story about such profound human ignorance, the result of which is decades of world-famous bigotry, suffering and cruelty? [...] I don't want to read it – a tale about depressing human failure, whereby the core level of human civility is painfully absent [...] but the important thing, in relation to this novel, is that I found something very different [...]

The two central narrators on Eureka Street are Jake and Chuckie, who are Catholic and Protestant respectively. Neither of them subscribe to the ideas and belief systems of their city, which are the basis for the hatred and feuding. Jake sometimes pretends to be on the other side, and rejects the partisan arguments as tired, old and irrelevant bigotry; it’s time to stop it, and move on to a more mature and humanitarian position. The novel begins by describing a day-dreaming Chuckie wandering around working class Belfast, and his belief that he is about to be very prosperous seems most unlikely. In fact this becomes a narrative weakness because he does indeed become very wealthy, on the basis of various business and money-making scams beginning with a dildo-selling scheme where he takes payments for a fictitious product, knowing that women will not deposit refund cheques in the bank when he has stamped on them the words GIANT DILDO REFUND. Although Eureka Street undoubtedly refers to very serious matters, it is tragi-comic rather than polemic, and it glistens with humour. Chuckie’s success is unlikely, but it is in the spirit of slapstick rather than serious narrative.

Jake is the more sophisticated narrator; he initially appears to be no more than a thug, earning a living in the wretched business of debt repossession, with prior experience of door work hire-a-thug activity. Wilson’s prose is simple, direct and punchy, which makes you think Eureka Street is going to be a simplistic and rather macho tale. It isn’t; Jake is more sophisticated than his fellow thugs with a university education and the understanding that you can only enact violence when you lack imagination, that if you could imagine thus feel the effect of it – the smashed teeth, broken heads, snapped bones etc, you could not do it. When one of his colleagues turns a sick and elderly lady out of her medical bed – which has to be repossessed – it is the final straw in a line of work for which he is capable, but not wholly suited.

Jake has recently lost his live in girlfriend, and their two year relationship was a period in his life when he felt happier than any other time. When she leaves him, he drifts back into brutal Belfast ways and general hopelessness, driving round his city in aimless boredom. He is a philosopher – which is not entirely convincing given his violent former propensities. There is a beautiful section of Dickensian narration where Wilson characterises Belfast in terms of multifarious human stories. It is not Jake speaking, but this is the kind of viewpoint he has:

Belfast is a city that has lost its heart. A ship-building, rope-making, linen-weaving town. It builds no ships, makes no rope and weaves no linen. Those trades died. A city can’t survive without something to do with itself.

But at night, in so many ways, complex and simple, the city is proof of a God. This place feels like the belly of the universe. It is place much filmed but rarely seen. Each street….is busy with the moving marks of the dead thousands who have stepped their lengths. They leave the vivid smell on their pavements, bricks, doorways and in the gardens. In this city, the natives live in a broken world – broken but beautiful.

You should stand some night on Cable Street, letting the little wind pluck your flesh and listen, rigid and ecstatic, while the infamous past talks to you. If you do that, the city will stick to your fingers like Sellotape.

Whether in the centre itself or the places in which people put their houses, the city’s streets, like lights in neighbours’ houses, are stories of the done, the desired, the suffered and unforgotten.

The city’s surface is thick with its living citizens. Its earth is richly sown with its many dead. The city is a repository of narratives, of stories. Present tense, past tense of future. The city is a novel.

Cities are simple things. They are conglomerations of people. Cities are complex things. They are the geographical and emotional distillations of whole nations. What makes a place a city has little to do with size. It has to do with the speed at which its citizens walk, the cut of their clothes, the sound of their shouts.

But most of all, cities are the meeting places of stories. The men and women there are narratives, endlessly complex and intriguing. The most humdrum of them constitutes a narrative that would defeat Tolstoy at his best and most voluminous. The merest hour of the merest day of the merest of Belfast’s citizens would be impossible to render in all its grandeur and all its beauty. In cities the stories are jumbled and jangled. The narrative meet. They clash, they converge or convert. They are a Babel of prose.

And in the end, after generations and generations of the thousands and hundreds of thousands, the city itself begins to absorb narrative like a sponge, like paper absorbs ink. The past and the present is written there. The citizenry cannot fail to write there. Their testimony is involuntary and complete.

And sometimes, late at night, when most sleep, as now, the city seems to pause and sigh. It seems to exhale that narrative, to give it off like the stored ground-heat of a summer day. On such nights, you cross a city street and for a few golden minutes there are no carts and the very hum of distant traffic fades and you look at the material around you, the pavements and street-lamps and windows, and you listen gently, you might hear the ghosts of stories whispered.

And there is magic in this, an impalpable magic, quickly gone. It is at times like these that you feel you are in the presence of something greater than yourself. And you are. For as you look around the perimeter of your illuminated vision, you can see the buildings and the streets in which a dark hundred thousand, a million, ten million stories as vivid and complex as your own reside. It doesn’t get mote divine than that.

And the sleepy murmurings of half a million people combine to make an influential form of noise, a consensual music. Hear it and weep. There is little more to learn on the earth than that which a deserted city at four in the morning can show and tell. Those nights, those cities are the centre, the fulcrum, the very wheel on which you turn.

Sleeping cities and sleeping citizens alike wait upon events, they attend upon narrative. They are stopped in station. They soon move on, they soon start again.

And as the darkness beings to curl around the edges, the city shifts and stumbles in its slumber. Soon it will wake. In this city, as in all cities, the morning is an assault. The people wake and dress themselves as though arming themselves for their day. From all the small windows of all the small houses on the small streets of this little city, men and women have looked out on first-light Belfast and readied themselves to do battle with this place (215-217).

There is a section when a bomb explodes in the town, killing and maiming innocent people. Novels don’t often move me in this way, but I felt teary reading Wilson’s prose. He describes it with clinical detachment, yet detailing the various lives and what they are doing, thinking and feeling before they die. The bomb rips through an otherwise normal day in a street like any other, full of people like any other. Lives are decimated, damaged, snuffed out.

Jake is introduced to a Aoirghe, a friend of Chuckie’s new girlfriend, and they clash and argue. Jake dislikes her vehement political views, she despises him for failing to have any. They hate each other; you wonder if they will eventually get together. They do; after Jake endures quite a lot of abuse from Aoirghe he eventually explodes in rage after a young boy has been seriously beaten by the IRA . I enjoyed this moment; it is a narrative conclusion and a purifying consummation after you have heard the fearsome bigotry of Aoirghe go unchallenged. Jake becomes a philosophical and moral reference point; he will not accept any so-called political situation where young children are viciously beaten. Aoirghe finally gets her comeuppance, and you feel that the tough but sophisticated Jake gets a lot of his anger, frustration and despair out of his system. Shortly after this he opens a letter from his former girlfriend containing one word, which is central to Belfast politics and everyday human relations, as much as their failed relationship. As with the moment in the film Gandhi when the hero advises a bereaved Hindu to adopt a Moslem child who has lost his parents in the Indian religious feuds, Sarah advises him to Forgive. No one would suggest that battered Northern Ireland could or would become a peaceful place if everyone forgave everyone else – this is not a fairy tale – but clearly forgiveness has to be some part of whatever reconciliation might finally ensue. Perhaps it will develop in small scale situations, family by family, street by street, man and woman towards man and woman. Sarah’s recommendation is a perfect recipe for the incipient romance between Jake and Aoirghe; after he rages against her rancid politics in the hospital where the young boy lies, she breaks down in tears at the painful truth whereby no politics can indeed justify beating up an innocent and already victimised young boy (albeit one who was guilty of a little boyish naughtiness). The novel ends with Jake and Aoirghe in bed; the former feeling serene and content once again, no longer alone in a punishing city which has, nonetheless, a human heart where love, hopes and dreams can live. Best pal Chuckie has also found love in the form of his American girlfriend. Prior to this ending, Jake felt his friends were pairing off like couples in a Shakespearean comedy, while he was left on the sidelines. The novel finally finishes in this venerable manner not with unlikely melodrama or soppy romance, but a plausible happy ending after battle torn history.

 

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