Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, Faust and post-Celtic Tiger literature

I recently finished reading Claire Kilroy’s very enjoyable novel The Devil I Know. It’s a satire about the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, narrated by a man called Tristram and written as a testimony to a tribunal taking place shortly before Easter 2016.

One of the things that makes the book so enjoyable is that there’s a strong Faustian element to the story. Tristram finds himself back in Ireland after many years away, and reluctantly joins forces with a cute hoor property developer, in order to construct luxury apartments and a hotel in Howth – sometime shortly before the bust in 2008. He does so under the instructions of his AA sponsor and boss, the mysterious Monsieur Deauville, who only ever contacts him  by phone. Tristram soon realises that his boss may not have entirely benign motivations (and realises also that he may be mispronouncing the first syllable in his boss’s surname – “deh, not doh”). The crash comes, and – of course – everything goes to hell.

The inclusion of a satanic character – who is mostly off-stage during the novel but who exerts plenty of influence anyway – owes something to Flann O’Brien, I think. But for some time I’ve been very interested in answering a question that this book gives rise to: why is it that so many Irish writers who set out to tackle the Celtic Tiger do so by writing about people who sell their souls to the devil? Two of the best examples of this trend are Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus and Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, two plays that were actually written before the boom came to an end (I’ve written an academic journal article about both and it is online here). And internationally I’ve read countless articles that describe the credit-fuelled bubble that burst in 2008 as having occurred because people “sold their souls to the devil” – metaphorically, of course.

It’s interesting that the metaphor has such currency these days. I’m writing a book about this at the moment, so don’t want to go into too much detail (if I start I won’t stop) – but the Faust story has two elements that seem relevant nowadays. The first is that the Faust story conveys the idea of how wrong it is to apply a material value to something that should never be sold: this can be our ‘soul’ or it can also be things that we should value for their intrinsic worth such as love, national character,  loyalty to a cause, family relationships, or something similarly abstract but essential. For example, in Ireland, many people say that we ‘sold our soul’ by losing touch with many of the things that made us distinctively Irish, such as hospitality, humility, and generosity to others (I’m not saying that I agree with this – just noting that this point has often been made).

And the second is the idea that when you strike a deal with the devil, you will always regret it once the reckoning falls due. Much of the writing about the banking crisis focusses on this aspect of the Faust story.

I see a lot of different explorations of both of those ideas in popular culture at the moment – from things like Public Enemy’s brilliant album title How Do you Sell Soul to A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul to the growing number of TV characters who have (in some way) sold their soul, of whom the best example is, I think, Walter White from Breaking Bad.

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Anyway, I’ll have more to say about that in about two years when I get this book I’m writing finished….

But Kilroy’s novel is very good. When I started reading it, it reminded me a lot of John Banville, since it’s a first person narrative, delivered by an erudite and slightly snobbish Irishman who has fallen on hard times. So it seemed slightly influenced by The Book of Evidence (still his best novel, I think), and I wasn’t surprised to realise that Banville has written a blurb for the front cover of the book.

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However Kilroy’s novel soon takes up territory that is distinctive and fresh. The characterisation of property developers and politicians is well handled: the already overused phrases about the Celtic Tiger (“we all partied”, “the fundamentals are sound going forward”) do appear, but they’re placed in such a grotesque framework that the shots don’t feel cheap. Kilroy’s greatest achievement here is to write a book that features ghosts, the devil, resurrections from death, and similarly fantastical events – yet it is the real occurrences from the last days of the Celtic Tiger that seem unbelievable. So the most exciting thing about this novel is that the moments that place most strain on your suspension of disbelief are the ones that Kilroy isn’t actually making up. I can’t think of a better way of satirising the Celtic Tiger period than by showing how  it reads like a rather predictable horror story.

I do have to confess to having a slightly negative predisposition towards the many books, tv programmes, comedy routines, newspaper columns, and plays that are now satirising the Celtic Tiger. Many of them are in their own way very good – but I think the effect of such work can often be to confirm what we already know while creating the impression that the author is bravely attacking the status quo.

In fact though, in Ireland, the new status quo is that the old status quo was very bad. It’s not true that “we all partied”, but from watching or reading a lot of that work, I think that we in Ireland are now in danger of perpetuating the myth that the entire Celtic Tiger bubble was caused by Someone Else: property developers, bankers, politicians, public servants, Angela Merkel – take your pick: but It Wasn’t Me.

That’s not to say that the post-Celtic Tiger material that’s being written is bad – far from it. Some of it’s very good: I really loved Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, for example (and don’t consider it guilty of any of the criticism I mention above). And even during the boom, there were excellent novels that sought to come to terms with the consequences of the Celtic Tiger: Keith Ridgeway’s The Parts and Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies stand out, but there were others – and there were also films like The Tiger’s Tail and plays like Declan Hughes’s Shiver. All of those works set out to the challenge the orthodoxies of the boom when it was underway, and thus attempted the difficult job of confronting audiences, demanding that we ask questions about our lives and our society… But I think there’s a risk that some of the work now being produced to attack the Celtic Tiger is just confirming the dominant narrative that’s been built since 2008 – and the lack of dissent from dominant narratives was one of the problems that caused the excesses of the Celtic Tiger in the first place.

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All of this is just to say that there may be people who will dismiss The Devil I Know because they may worry that it is another one of those ‘closing the stable door after the horse has bolted’ critiques of the Celtic Tiger. I have to admit, I wavered before buying it myself for that reason. But it’s not that kind of work at all. Its central character is a recovering alcoholic – and if the addiction to alcohol is used as a metaphor for the Celtic Tiger’s addiction to the accumulation of wealth and status symbols, the reverse is also true. I mean, that is, that this is a novel about addiction first and foremost. The Celtic Tiger is the setting and context for the story, but the novel transcends the local or, more specifically, the parochial setting to create a story that could travel widely and survive into the future.

I think this is important. One of the best books I’ve ever read about what debt does to people is Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit – while Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock can be seen as having in some ways predicted what would happen to Ireland if the country ever became rich. In other words, the most relevant works of literature are those that tell us something about human nature – rather than recreating the events of one particular epoch in one particular country.

This is not to say that The Devil I Know is in every respect perfect.  There is a very under-developed female character, whose purpose in the novel seems uncertain (another link with some of Banville’s work, perhaps). But what I most admired were the varieties of style and sensations employed. The book is very funny, for example – but it’s also quite creepy. There’s one scene in which Tristram and the property developer drive in the middle of the night to an isolated rural farm – and the novel at that point is actually quite scary: not the kind of thing you’d want to read in a dark house alone on a windy night… So it is (to use one of its own repeated words) often uncanny and unsettling.

One last thing to say about it… It runs to about 360 pages, but because the novel is written in the form of a cross-examination by a barrister, there are quite a lot of ‘chapters’ that are no longer than a single sentence. In other words, it’s much shorter than it looks – it could easily be read in a single sitting (I read it over three days) and actually merits re-reading too.

So – worth a look.

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