John has “inarguably placed himself in fucking Ireland again”. Travelling through County Mayo in 1978, his attempts to get to his small island off the coast are constantly thwarted.
Whether it is a country pub in the wee hours, or a derelict hotel inhabited by a screaming sex guru and his young followers, the meandering distractions drift through John as if only half-experienced. Nothing ever truly breaks into his inner dialogue, which endlessly cycles through the same subjects: scenes from his adolescence; haunting pieces of lyric and melody; and the repeated thought that he is “so many miles from love and home”. The result is an equally passionate and sombre novel about art, celebrity, and life.
The story has a delicious way of revealing its secrets through subtle hints rather than direct explanation. The gradual unravelling of the inner mysteries is gorgeously orchestrated, perfectly balancing the reader’s desire to guess for himself and desire to know more; one of the biggest questions, of course, being who exactly John is (you can ‘Imagine’ who it is merely from the title). On some level, the narrator’s surprise interruption towards the end of the book ruins that.
By being made aware during the climax of the story of its artifice and the laborious research that went into writing, the revelation becomes jarring. Why couldn’t, one might ask, this be included as an appendix rather than right in the middle of the plot?
However, this question grants a new perspective with which to read the end of the book. Fully made aware of its fictionality, why is it important to keep reading? What can the story offer rather than a guise of realism? Barry’s abnormal structuring asks these questions and more.
Many of Barry’s stylistic choices are inventive and thrilling. The end of each section gives no indication that the next will be as written as a play, or alternatively change form from pure description to light dialogue. At times this can feel schizophrenic, as if the novel itself cannot settle long enough to pick a single style or form. John’s spoken voice even sounds drastically different from his thoughts, making the latter indistinguishable from the narrator. However, this gives a feeling of scattered thoughts and contributes to the idea that all the characters are not themselves distinct, but experiencing the same things to the point where a simple, “Well?” is enough to make them understand each other.
Amid the references to 70s pop culture are allusions to the Irish literary tradition within which Barry is working. The wandering aimlessness of John as he exposes himself carelessly to the harsh Irish landscape shows him as a kind of Molloy (from Beckett’s Trilogy), while also linking him to the hippies of the 60s who toured the west coast in search of enlightenment. This intelligent combination of popular culture and ‘serious’ literature, filled with expletives along the way, opens the book up to a huge range of interpretations.
Beatlebone is a deceptively simple book with an audible rhythm behind every word that sweeps its reader off their feet.
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (Canongate, 2015)
Photo courtesy of Canongate