IN HONOR OF THE 89TH BIRTHDAY OF EDNA O’BRIEN, DECEMBER 15, 2019
THE CULTURE OF THE ABDOMEN
In her memoir, Country Girl, Edna O’Brien mentions a favorite book of her bilious husband, who was obsessed with poisons in the atmosphere and in food: The Culture of the Abdomen, by F.A. Hornibrook. Here is the sample passage she quotes: “One cannot live over a cesspit in good health. How much more difficult to remain well if we carry our cesspit about inside us . . . . Food is taken several times daily, often too frequently and too freely and of unsuitable quality; but, as a rule, one occasion only is permitted for the ejection of its waste materials. And remember that all the time this lagging tenant of the bowel is retained the conditions favoring evil are at work; heat, moisture, nitrogenous refuse, darkness and micro-organisms. The slow poison factory is in full swing, and its output is turned into the highways and byways of the body.”
In the same memoir, speaking of her therapist, the lover of LSD and psychoanalyst, R.D. Laing, O’Brien writes, “I owed him a debt; he had sent me packing with an opened scream, and that scream would become the pith of the novel I would write. It was called Night, the story of Mary Hooligan, in nocturnal lather, her mind raveled and excoriating, with all semblance of niceness gone. It was the dividing line in my life, between one kind of writing and another.”
Night (Penguin, 1974; Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1972, 122 pages) is a good title for a book featuring a febrile narrator in the throes of insomnia, her palaver-thoughts over the course of one sleepless night. But given the nature of Mary Hooligan’s Rabelaisian “nocturnal lather,” an equally good title would be The Culture of the Abdomen. Like her model, Molly Bloom of Ulysses, Mary thinks thoughts that run low: they wallow in sexuality, in the grossly abdominal and scatological.
Dictionary definition (Webster’s New International, Second Edition, Unabridged): “hooligan [after an Irish family named Hooligan, in Southwark, London] a loafer or ruffian, like the hoodlum or larrikin.” One thinks of hooligans, largely, as males, but Edna O’Brien specializes in female characters, and she has chosen to write about a female hooligan. One of her epigraphs to the novel reads as follows: “The original Hooligans were a spirited Irish family whose proceedings enlivened the drab monotony of life in Southwark towards the end of the nineteenth century.” … E. Weekley
The narrator and only main character of this short palaver novel, Mary Hooligan, is about forty, a native of the fictional town of Coose, West Ireland. Don’t know if “coose” is an Irish slang word, but it’s worth noting that the Urban Dictionary defines coose as an extremely obscene reference to a woman: “bitch, cunt.” Like Oblomov of Russian literary fame, Mary is in bed for a goodly part of the novel. Unlike Oblomov, whose temperament is phlegmatic, Mary languishes in the choleric/melancholic.
GUTS AND QUIMS, SCATOLOGY
The stream-of-consciousness narration over the course of one night describes “half a lifetime,” and quite a bawdy half it has been. The denizens of back-home County Clare were set back on their heels by O’Brien’s first novel, The Country Girls, with its frank depictions of female sexuality, but if any of these inveterate Irish Catholics had the temerity to approach the hot potato that is Night, you can imagine them slamming the potato shut and running with a shriek for their rosary beads.
Here is the narrator on the redemptive joy of a wallow in excrement: “Ah, to sink into it at last, to say yea instead of nay to the lambative stink and smear of it all.” Faced with the word “lambative,” my big Webster’s Second International throws up its pages in surrender, but the Internet offers these definitions: “(adjective, archaic) taken by licking with the tongue; (noun, archaic) a medicine taken by licking with the tongue; a lincture.” So, unlike that finger-licking world of Col. Sanders and KFC, the world of Mary Hooligan is “shit-licking good.”
Except that far from all of the excrement that comes into contact with her lips tastes good. Not in dear old Connemara, not in London, where she lives now, and not in her travels on the European continent. More on that later.
The book is rife with excrement, shat out by people and by animals, such as cows. According to Mikhail Bakhtin—see his wonderful book, Rabelais and His World, originally published in Russian as «Творчество Франсуа Рабле и народная культура средневековья и Ренессанса» [The Creative Works of Francois Rabelais and the Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance]—the expulsion of feces is one way we communicate most directly with the world at large, find pagan communion with earth and God. Another way is alimentation. We take the world, through food, into our insides and commune with it, make it part of our own being. Mary, as well as most of the other people she encounters, likes eating: “the thing I hanker after is custard, great soft glaubs of it in the mouth, not too sweet, but certainly with a dash of vanilla,” let it caress your tongue, then slide smoothly down your gullet, ahhh . . . check out the uvula, “then the juices easing their way down and the epiglottis dropping away nicely at the base of the tonsil.” The carnal primordial religion of flesh, gut and earth.
Another old pagan tried-and-true manner of making contact with Ultimate Reality is sexual intercourse. Mary takes an interest in men, all sorts of men, “A motley crew, all shades, dimensions, breeds, ilks, national characteristics, inflammatingness, and penetratingness. Some randy, many conventional, one decrepit. An old man . . . I could smell death and extreme unction off him.” O’Brien was forty when she wrote these lines. One wonders how she would view them at present, as she navigates old age, walking around behind some shambling pusher of a wheeled walker, who reeks of decrepitude and the viaticum.
Throughout the course of the narrative Mary indulges in twosomes and threesomes, and her sexual adventures are often tinged with comedy. She invites, for example, a “junior window cleaner” into her home and boudoir, but then is repulsed by his idiotic blather and the look of one dark fingernail: “I went right off him. The old quim went quite dead, dry as his piece of brown chamois.” Wheh. Dry quims. At this point in the book the reader yearns for, say, the description of an Elvis Presley concert in 1954, replete with shrieking mouths and dripping quims.
You wonder if Mary has ever come in contact with the Sheela-na-gigs, sculptural images on British, Irish and French Christian churches that date to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They depict leering female creatures, holding their huge quims open for the delectation of the world at large. See Anthony Weir and James Jerman, Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches (London, 1986). Ireland apparently has the largest number of surviving sheela carvings. Mary would take delight in the sheelas, for, whether she knows it or not, Mary Hooligan is an acolyte of the Earth Mother.
The observation about how the window cleaner has turned her off sexually leads to Mary’s notion that there ought to be “quim diviners,” like water-witch dowsers, blokes with forked sticks, walking the woodlands in search of fresh wet pussy. Here’s the passage: “I had a brainwave that there ought to be such a thing as a quim diviner, just as in the Barony of Coose there were water diviners. Right mohawks they were, nearly always afflicted, blind or maimed, always pockmarked, marauding around the fields with rods and wands, giving false hopes, true hopes, no hopes at all. Ferocious appetites. Loved victuals, ate heartily, then ate the scraps, the giblets, the gristles and the adipises. Bad for their stomachums. Sucked upon the bones . . .” More gross alimentation here, more sucking of God’s world into your guts and soul, making it part of you. Adipises? I’m guessing this has something to do with adipose fat (body fat).
“I used, for perversity’s sake, to slide my hand in under the dark swamp of a hen’s bottom, while the eggs were being hatched.” Mary Hooligan, who revels in the deep dark swamps of human nature, does a lot of things, it seems, for perversity’s sake. O the dank sticky emissions of our all-too-carnal life. After a disastrous copulation, which leaves her unsatisfied but with threads of sperm hanging out of her, “in loops, suspended,” she muses as follows: “I thought I would go home and masturbate, that was what I would do, but it was early, it was so early, so bright. The sales were on and there was fifty per cent off everything.” Comedy. Yes, Night is, among other things, a comic novel. And like all great comic novels it has a foundation cemented with deep sadness and grief.
A little girl experiences her first menstruation, and later that day she comes for the first time spontaneously, on a city bus: “she had to accompany her mother to a big store, to meet ladies for lunch, where she got cramps, then diarrhea, had to decline the lunch, was teary, but going home in the bus, with the street lights already on, she saw a man in overalls, who looked at her, right into her, and she had a sexual experience, the jellying, a womb wave, her very first, the first big dip.” So much for the innocence of childhood.
At one point Mary muses that she should have found a way to nourish the many spurtings that she has inspired in randy males. “Lately, I’m thinking that if I’d kept some of these emissions instead of squandering them so, that if I’d put them in a little jar or a test tube. I could have done a bit of experimentation, dabbled in the mysteries of botany. No knowing what might have emerged, a plant, gestation, a half-thing, a creature, nearly with animation, on the borders between animal and plant, no feet, moving by means of its cilia, always moving in the daylight, in the dusk, in the dark, with something of the phosphorescence of the glow worm or the ocean, a little wandering infusoria. I could have given it names, mused over names, the way expectant parents do, consulted a book. I forsook all that, the domestic bliss, spurned it.” The “domestic bliss” of having your very own creature, your sort of offspring made of sheer spermatozoon! Comedy.
Bawdiness upon bawdiness. Luckily for Edna O’Brien, she got this book into print after Joyce’s Ulysses had done all the down and dirty work of pushing obscenity in literature past the dour censors of the world, and after Nabokov’s Lolita had finished off what Ulysses began. But just imagine this kind of writing, emerging from the pen of a girl who once attended school in a convent, who grew up in a good Irish Catholic family with “prayers specially addressed to the stigmata of Saint Francis, that he may crucify the flesh from its vices” (from Country Girl). As for the Irish Catholics of Connemara, I’m guessing that even today they gag on the stark animality of human nature, as presented by Edna O’Brien through the intermediation of Mary the hooligan, who, unbeknownst to her, propagates the ancient gut religion of the pagan Earth Mother, a religion endemic in the scrotums, quims, wombs and souls of the Irish—long, long before upstart Christian Catholicism moved in and tried, unsuccessfully, to elbow it out.
“I am getting used to my own company,” writes Mary at one point, but the narrative suggests that this is a character long accustomed to her own company. She once had a husband, who is long gone, unlamented. She has a grown son, who is off traveling the world. She speaks of several acquaintances, with whom she has lived occasionally, fought with, bickered. Now she is alone in the dark of night.
On New Year’s Eve she goes out to a pub alone. As usual, she makes contact with fellow indulgers in carnality, but the overwhelming loneliness of the main character lays a pall of sadness over the book. The setting encompasses only one night. All of the action takes place in the thoughts of the main character. Mary is living alone, housesitting for a couple we know only as Jonathan and Tig, two characters who never come totally into focus. The direness of her situation becomes clear at the end of the narrative, when we realize they are about to return, and she will have nowhere to go.
WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
Other than her communion with the dank netherworld of the lower bodily regions, Mary has little to comfort her but words. In her autobiography Edna O’Brien stresses “writing and reading, those two intensities that have buttressed my whole life.” Mary Hooligan, it appears, is not much of a reader, nor is she a writer, but her author lends the character her own intense wallow in the joys of the English/Irish language. “Coose palaver arses me,” says Mary at one point, and I’m not sure exactly what that means, but there is no doubt that the palaver of her native Coose is at the heart of the book’s style.
Never have I read such a short book with so many unfamiliar words. Mary, we are informed, has been once to New York, where she has encountered incomprehensible locutions (“buggy, whatever buggy is”). She notes that Americans make do with a few repetitive phrases: among them are “Kiss my ass,” “Ohboyohboy,” and “Nope.” But an American reader (me, I’m one) in Mary Hooligan’s world runs into passages like this: (1) “They were intending to mitch,” this in reference to some schoolchildren Mary has befriended. Mitch: to play truant from school; (2) “the Count, who was stotious and overwrought by the various emotions.” Stotious: Irish slang for tipsy; (3) “in the full spall and frenzy of their capitulation,” describing a man and woman who perform sex acts while Mary watches; I Googled spall, no go; looked it up in various dictionaries, spall, “a chip, fragment, or flake, from a piece of stone or ore” (that won’t work). Could it be a misprint for spell? Not likely. Finally found, in my big trusty Webster’s Second International, that spall can be a variant of sprawl; (4) joxer; well, umm, in short, I never did figure out exactly what a joxer is. Coose palaver arses me too.
At one point Mary’s Finnish lover is described as follows: “Liked it all ways, somersaults, a maiden’s closed purse, the old podicum sursum, the romp, the wrangling brandlebuttock.” Huh? You take note of this concatenation of sexualities and think to yourself, Here I am on the cusp of old age, and just imagine all the things I’ve missed! But if you look up these expressions you get, largely, nowhere. The compendium of positions, omitting only the missionary position, appears to be all fabrication, a joke on the part of Mary, and her creator.
“The sea was in a right old tether, disgorging waves of such gorgeous brightness, only to be swallowed up and annihilated in troughs of black or indigo. The carousel, on the other hand, was utterly still, the white china horses with golden manes and tilted forelegs, riderless and pearled in dew.” There’s a passage written by a professional writer with high literary skills. It is in fact written by Edna O’Brien in her autobiography, but it could well be written by Mary Hooligan, for the author has lent her love of locutions and their combinations to the character. Unbeknownst to her ownself, Mary Hooligan is a writer.
In many other ways Mary, of course, resembles her creator. Take this passage describing children at play: “one summer Sunday a girl with ringlets lured me in for an ‘op,’ short for operation. It was quite dark, and we were hidden by the low-lying branches as we took off our knickers, then pulled up the stalks of the wild iris that grew in a swamp and stuffed the wet smeared roots into one another, begging for mercy. Our cries flowed together and were muffled by the drones of bees and wasps that swarmed in and out as we swore eternal secrecy. Then afterward, when we came into the daylight, her eyes were a queer, shiny black, the light making yellow slashes in her pupils, and she said she would ‘tell’ unless I gave her my most prized possession, which was a georgette handkerchief with a pink powder puff stitched into it. And so I did.”
Mary Hooligan could well have written the above description, but it was Edna O’Brien who wrote it, in Country Girl. Of course, writers always give their characters pieces of themselves. In the Country Girl memoir O’Brien describes a visit back to the homeland from her London life, where her irate father calls her, “You little shite.” Mary Hooligan ventures back to dear old Coose, to visit her aging father, and sees in him “the wild umbrage prevalent in all the men that I had loved, unloved, betrayed.” Upon parting, he says to her, “You shite you.”
GOOD LITERARY FICTION
How do you recognize good literary writing? Easy. The best creation inspires creation. The best stuff always has you writing down passages, then feeling them get embellished as they writhe in your mind. I recently went back to Toni Morrison, a writer I have never appreciated. I read one hundred pages of her novel, Paradise, and found myself writing down exactly nothing. It’s really quite simple: good writing reeks with good sentences. In reading Mary’s narrative I found myself copying down passages and embellishing constantly. One example, a description of the way dogs sometimes bark in a hesitant manner, not yet sure they should bark in earnest, with the italicized passage straight out of Night:
“I could hear the dogs starting up, not exactly barking, but in a rehearsal for barking, the way a singer does at a party while somebody else is taking the tasseled runner off the piano, doing scales, do re me fah arf, one meagre tenor arf, then a soft bass arf, then the whole insincere canine choir joins in, we’re not really yapping yet, folks, we’re not yet into the genuine thing, the arffest is, as for now, just a rehearsal, you know, like tentative? arf, arf, arf…”
U.R. Bowie, author of Sama Seeker in the Time of the End Times