Reading in the Dark | Critical Review by Robert Boyers

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Reading in the Dark.
This section contains 3,152 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Robert Boyers

Critical Review by Robert Boyers

SOURCE: "Identity and Diffidence," in The New Republic, Vol. 216, No. 20, May 19, 1997, pp. 33-6.

In the following review, Boyers traces the development of betrayal as the central theme of Reading in the Dark, explicating narrative implications about the political character of Northern Ireland.

Irish history is bad history. So says one character in Seamus Deane's first novel [Reading in the Dark], and no other character in the novel seems much inclined to deny it. In a land of "small places," as it is described here, people have too often made "big mistakes." They lie to themselves and to one another. They rely on old certainties when they might better have abandoned them. They carry around "stale" secrets and bitter resentments. Their courage is too often merely a willingness to absorb meaningless defeats and inflict pointless damage. For all their eloquence and their gift for storytelling, they are not, typically, much good at distinguishing truth from fiction, the past from the present. The language of feud and retribution, of shame and fatedness, is on every tongue.

Of course, clear-sighted Irish men and women can also see plenty to be proud of in their past, but all agree that the history of Northern Ireland contains every kind of motive for resentment, rage, and hopelessness. "The whole situation makes men evil," says one of Deane's priests, and "evil men make the whole situation." To live in a place like Derry in the 1940s and '50s, when Deane's novel is set, is to remember failed rebellions and to confront, day after day, British policemen whom one has learned to regard as intolerable, in their casual brutalities and in their unwelcome efforts at commiseration and intimacy. Most of what goes on in such a place has nothing to do with politics, as it happens, but always there is a sense of "the whole situation," and persons who might well have looked to themselves as the source of present difficulties are embittered and coarsened by the long sense of injustice that they have had to bear. The priests speak, when they can, of "an inner peace nothing can reach" and "no insult can violate," but the Irish refuse to forget the "cruel birth" of their country, and they suffer their history like a perpetual humiliation.

Deane's novel is no polemic. It presents no case for or against his countrymen, no brief for a particular reading of Irish history. It is mainly the story of a boy's coming of age, and it is told mostly in very brief chapters with titles such as "Maths Class," "Crazy Joe," "The Facts of Life" and "Sergeant Burke." The chapters mostly cover minor events: the boy encounters and engages with family members and strangers, with schoolmates, priests, and teachers. He goes to classes, gets in and out of trouble, and generally behaves very much in the way we might expect of a boy in such a time and place. The sequence is strictly chronological, and incidents are often "necessary" only in the sense that they convey the flavor of the narrator's experience.

The novel is haunted by the story of a series of betrayals, a story revealed in bits and pieces picked out of fragmentary confessions and intimations. The betrayals are personal and political, and, though they have the power to corrupt lives in Deane's little world, they never take control of the narrative. The boy at the center of the novel makes what he can of the fragments, understanding dimly, then more clearly, that members of his own family are implicated in the various betrayals. At times he is angry and confused, at other times he is overwhelmed by pity and tenderness. Alert to the deceptions of priests, policemen, and politicians, he is properly skeptical of traditions and myths, but he entertains no serious possibility of reversing deep-rooted customs or assumptions. Blindness, like love or hate, is a condition that persists, no matter the inducements to see or to change.

A reader who comes to Deane's novel without substantial understanding of "the troubles" of Northern Ireland will learn little from the narrative. It refers, vaguely, to early struggles and uprisings, but it offers no hard information, and its ideas are rudimentary. Dramatic encounters are briefly recalled. People refer, occasionally, to protests "at the founding of the new state" or to retaliation for a particular injustice, but the encounters as recalled are not especially important in themselves. The IRA gunmen on a roof are no more comprehensible than the policemen who surround them. Riots are just events that happen, like the death of a child or the infidelity of a husband. If people sometimes behave in particular ways for particular reasons, they are rarely good reasons, and acknowledging them leads nowhere. "There was a belief" in this thing or that, in this cause or that dark necessity, but it does no one any good, apparently, to persist in the belief or to abandon it.

Deane tells the stories of people's lives with a crisp lyricism, though it is not always easy for a reader to remain interested in characters who have few thoughts and little inclination to open themselves to sharp sensory experiences. People are said to live in silence, to feel hopelessly separated from one another, "trapped," desiring routinely "to be free of the immediate pressures." The regret for missed opportunities darkens every consciousness. My Father? "He would have loved…." My Grandfather? He "realized for sure the mistake he had made…." My own life? "Rehearsing conversations I would never have." To make something of lives so committed to the desultory and unconsummated is a challenge, and Deane is not always up to it.

Lacking the will to analyze and the appetite for metaphysics or morals, Deane is content to set things down as if they spoke for themselves. But often they do not say much more than "failure" and "regret." Deane's people are so inured to the facts of their lives that they are almost constitutionally averse to development. To his credit, Deane resists the temptation to claim for these characters qualities that they do not possess, but too often we feel that they are important to him for reasons that he does not know how to share. The work sometimes reads more like a memoir than a novel, in that people and events matter only because they were actually a part of the narrator's experience.

As if alert to the prospect that Deane's book will seem to many readers thin, lacking in ideas and development, Seamus Heaney has praised it as "sudden" and compares it to Isaac Babel. But Deane's book is not "sudden" like a Babel story, and it is without many of the virtues that make a Babel story distinctive. Deane's irony, only occasionally in evidence, is broad, more an irony of circumstance than of voice. We do not find in Deane the internal conflict—as between the physical and spiritual—that seethes everywhere just beneath the surface in Babel. Deane knows and accepts his people and his place as they are; he does not allow what he knows to raise in him the self-doubt that gives such edge to Babel's laconic fictions.

In Deane's book, we have the material for moral inquiry, but the inquiry is not pursued. Still, there are passages of exceptional vitality. The boy sits through a memorable "facts of life" session with the school's spiritual director and is confounded by unfamiliar words and concepts. ("Ask him, you stupid shit, ask him, that's what you're here for, but I couldn't do anything except stare at him.") The mother suffers a breakdown and begins to communicate long-buried thoughts in a language strangely suggestive and obscure. ("Paradise was not far away when I died.") The voluble police sergeant confesses that he has beaten suspects he knew to be innocent, since not to have done so "would have looked strange." Throughout the novel, often in unlikely places, things come suddenly to life. We remember that these people are more than the sum of their refusals and resignations. The mother, who absorbs several varieties of humiliation, is eloquent in repudiating the "dirty politics" of the British and the routine admonitions directed at those who struggle and resist. The father, hardworking and forlorn, is stubbornly faithful and resilient, and his aversion to posturing is so powerful that he chastises his young sons, on their knees in prayer, for making "a meal of it" and "trying to look like little saints."

Though Reading in the Dark is a first novel, Deane has been a literary presence since 1972, when he published the first of several volumes of poems. More recently he attracted attention as the general editor of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 550–1990, a massive three-volume compendium that presents not only an extraordinary range of literary voices but an abundance of "texts," from incendiary pamphlets to political speeches and historical accounts of public events. The controlling idea of the anthology appears to be that it is futile and misleading, at least in the case of the Irish, to isolate literature from politics. And Irish writers have been more or less unanimous in affirming this sense of their work. Yeats wrote that Irish writers were necessarily "maimed" by the "great hatred" that they carried around with them, and that his own meeting with the Fenian leader John O'Leary was singularly important in bringing "the poet in [to] the presence of his theme." Even those who did not choose to dwell on political themes, such as Joyce, were deeply absorbed with questions of marginality and identity. Deane himself has said that "the dominant public experience of my career has been the political crisis in Northern Ireland."

What is most remarkable about Deane's novel, then, is its refusal to permit the lives of its characters to be wholly swallowed by politics. Desultory their lives may be, but the presumptive causes are more various than any single-minded obsession with "the situation." And, of course, the novelist who, like Deane, immerses himself in various lives is always likely to discover occasions for verbal extravagance and merriment. Examples abound in this book. A classroom instructor in mathematics leaves an indelible picture of manic aggression and wit, unleashing a relentless verbal assault on the "brain dead" and "memory-less" among his charges. Is this a reflection of an inveterate Irish inferiority complex that can issue also in physical brutality and torture? Deane does not instruct us to read it that way. Does the instructor's emphasis on "corruption," and on the "evolutionary cul-de-sac" represented by especially recalcitrant students, not produce in them a resentment and defensiveness that can be fed and turned to violence by skillful demagogues? Deane charts no such consequence. His chapter on "Maths Class" offers, in place of diagnosis, the marvelous and the unaccountable, an expression of verbal playfulness that, in spite of his punitive sarcasm, requires neither justification nor relevance.

Where the political does take center stage in Deane's novel, moreover, it may well seem indistinguishable from the dissemination of propaganda. In 1956, an Anglican priest in British army uniform visits the boy's school as a part of the "battle for the hearts and minds of men" against the specter of world communism. The battle is represented by the genial priest as "a battle of faithlessness against faith; a battle of subtle wiles against manly freedom; a battle of cold atheism against the genial warmth of that Christian faith that has lit so many Irish hearts down the centuries." In the face of this battle, the disputes that divide Irish men and women are said to be "no more than family quarrels." A "traditional" society, whatever its internal dissensions, will wish to uphold "the eternal verities, says the priest; its people will know what is truly important to its survival and what is, in the long term, incidental.

The boys, of course, are mostly deaf to these appeals. Accustomed to hearing things that they know to be untrue, they rarely pay much attention to the particulars of the case presented to them. What they are likely to hear in the way of political discourse can be readily dismissed. It is encouraging to note how little susceptible to the priest's calculated pieties are the Irish schoolboys. Yet neither are these children on their way to anything approaching a mature grasp of political issues. At least Deane makes no such claim for them.

The best that can be said for the political intelligence of the adults in Deane's world is that occasionally they feel sorry for the troubles of others and reflect, in a spirit of resigned incomprehension, on the way that events elude their grasp. "It's a strange world," says the boy's father, moved by his own encounter with the father of a British soldier shot dead by an IRA sniper in the course of a street search. "I feel for him. Even if his son was one of those," the father says. No more comes from him on this score, no more is to be expected. His reality does not demand complexity of him, or a sustained reconsideration of old positions. The facts are what matter; the curfews, the street barricades, the armored trucks, "the avocado battle-dress of the soldiers," the intermittent gunshots, the routine humiliations of search, suspicion and seizure.

Does it matter that the story of these people is told from the perspective of a working-class boy? Deane wrings from the tale very little of the easy charm and naivete of the usual first-person child's narrative. No effort is made to simulate the familiar headlong rush of infant volubility, the childish locutions or fragmentary reticences intended to evoke innocence or embarrassment. Even where there is an immediacy in the language, in the contrivance of a retrospective present tense, the language belongs to an adult voice: "She would come down with me," he writes of his mother, "her heart jackhammering, and her breath quick … her face in a rictus of crying, but without tears."

Just so, where sequences are organized to make a point, we feel that it is a point elected by the adult novelist, who is at once inside the experience he narrates and well past it. "Was that house really a brothel?" the boy wonders, retreating from an open door and the painted face of "a young woman with tousled hair … What would it be like with her?" he wonders further, later whispering to himself the chastening words of St. Ignatius on the subject of mortal sin. But we stand always a little outside of this confusion, kept deliberately out by the poetic cadence and elevation of the writing, as in the following conclusion to the chapter called "Brothel":

And still the vision of that young woman drifted there, vague one moment, the next vivid, reaching for me, unloosing the clasp of her skirt that rustled down as I leapt back and came forward, blurring inwardly, making my election.

More important than the boy's perspective is his working-class background, however little Deane wishes to make it an issue. There are, in this world, few places to hide from the indignities that the boy comes to expect. The occasional beatings or taunts administered by local policemen are matched by the assaults of street gangs and the bruising insults of others alert to every prospect of inflicting abuse. Growing up among unsophisticated persons nursing their own memories of want and hurt, the boy has little chance of escaping the vindictive parochialism of his community. Sometimes, in Deane's world, it seems that the worst thing a decent person can do is to talk to a policeman, as if to do so were to sell one's soul to the devil.

As in other Irish works focused on betrayal, the central term in the lexicon of abuse here is "informer." To inform is to forfeit any semblance of self-respect and to sever irreparably one's ties to the community. Forgivable in principle, the informer is in practice regarded as grotesque and out of bounds. When the father utters, about a member of his own family, the words "he was an informer," the son can only beg him to unsay them. "Say nothing," he repeats to himself. "Never say. Never say," Members of families thought to have contained an informer are tainted, carry a curse and may expect at any time to be punished for the unhappiness that has befallen them. To marry into such a family is not only ill-advised, it is a breaking of "sacred laws."

Like everything else in Deane's world, his people may regret certain attitudes and practices regarding informers, but the attitudes are too deeply rooted to deplore or to reform. When the boy finds himself suspected of informing on a few street toughs who had intended to rough him up, he finds no support, even within his own family. Never mind that he gave no information to the policemen who questioned him. Never mind that no movement or organization was at stake, no oath violated. "Have you no self-respect, no pride?" screams his mother.

"Thank God my father's too ill to hear about this—the shame alone would finish him. A grandson of his going to the police!"

"I didn't go to the police. I threw a stone at them."

"Same thing in the circumstances…."

Nor is the usually more generous father more understanding. "Why didn't I take a few punches …? Didn't I know what sort of people the police were? Had I no guts, no sense, no savvy, no shame?" Tempted to mark up the entire demand system of the community to "stupidity," the boy concludes that his father and all the others are "right" but "wrong too." To live in such a place, it seems, is to accept that wisdom consists in learning to tolerate what in any case will not change. If it is stupid to be battered for no good reason, and stupid to regard as "informing" what is no such thing, and stupid to live perpetually in fear of disapproval by persons who are ignorant and malicious, it is also stupid to pretend that one can get along in such a place without making substantial concessions to the reigning shibboleths and expectations.

Of course, Reading in the Dark is a novel. What would seem contradiction in another genre is here variousness and complexity. Deane need not tell us that he disapproves of much that passes for the facts of life in Derry for us to grasp their awfulness and their sometimes terrible vitality. And, for all the stubborn blindness in many of Deane's characters, there is a tenacity that can seem almost wonderful. The situation of Northern Ireland, discernible here only in fragments, allows for a complicated communal life, however crippling its myths. Deane's novel is driven by an impressive power of remembrance, and by a conviction that the proper business of the novelist is to make ordinary lives in their own way eventful, so that possibility exists even where fatality reigns.

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This section contains 3,152 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Robert Boyers