Monday, August 31, 2009

What We're Reading: Brooklyn

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Fifteen years ago or so, when I read fiction more widely than I now do, I had come to the conclusion that the best contemporary English literature was being written by Irishmen: Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, Colum McCann, Sebastian Barry, and others. The younger writers have for the most part lived up to their early promise, perhaps none more so than Colm Toibin. He has twice been shortlisted for the English Commonwealth’s most prestigious literary award, The Booker Prize, the first time some years ago for the Blackwater Lightship, and more recently for The Master, his imaginative portrait of the life of the American novelist Henry James.

Brooklyn is his most recent novel. It is set in a small Irish village and in the European ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn in the early 1950s and tells the story of a young Irishwoman, Eilis Lacey who has emigrated to America to begin a new life. Her decision to leave Ireland is not very much her own; it is orchestrated by her older sister and widowed mother. Work is scarce in Ireland at the time and her brothers have already emigrated to find work in England. Her prospects for employment are not good, and her mother’s small pension is insufficient to support them both. In Brooklyn Eilis finds a job at a department store and attends night classes in bookkeeping to prepare herself for a better job. She meets a young man named Tony and falls in love. Then she must unexpectedly return home to Ireland for what is to be a brief visit. We are kept in a deftly played sense of suspense as to whether or not she will ever return to her life in America.

Toibin’s novel is a portrait of a young woman who gains her freedom and independence not so much by choice as through bitter constraint, as those around her both in Ireland and Brooklyn work their plans for her place in their own lives. His understanding of the ethnic Catholic social mores of the period is historically precise, his development of character is remarkable, and his sense of the tragic is classic and elemental.

Perhaps what resonates most with us however, is the exploration of the theme of emigration and immigration. We have those two words to describe the experience of a person who travels from one country to another. The people in the country he or she leaves call the person an “emigrant,” to the people living in the country to which the person arrives the traveler is called an “immigrant,“ each appellation applied by others and describing the traveler from their perspective. But what word describes the experience of both emigration and immigration that is felt by someone who leaves one country and goes to live in another, the sense of existing in two worlds and the dislocation that seems to make it impossible to tell which one is real or to know that our feelings are real in either of those worlds? There doesn’t seem to be a word for it, but this unnamed experience is the powerful subject of this novel, and it provides the complex and shifting background against which a coming of age story is told.

I am not one who thinks that in an age of multiple communication mediums some are to be bemoaned as inferior forms to others. Visual mediums, like those of the printed word, have both their strengths and limitations. The issue for me has always been how to best tell the story, what form might best convey both meaning and feeling. I have come to a simple test for good literature, not sufficient in itself, but an indicator of sorts. I think what I’m reading is more likely to contain “literary” virtues if my imagination does not automatically generate the affects produced by a visual medium, when I don’t imagine the characters, settings, sense of place and movement of the book with the frames, cuts and imagistic shorthand of a movie. We have all read books that are in fact movies written in words. For many of us, that has become the type of writing we prefer. In my test, to remain “un-filmed,” shall we say, the defining character of the writing seems to be that the focus is less on physical description and primarily on what only a novel can explore, something that I would call the sub-articulate, the twilight area between spoken words and the subconscious, the things that are motives and patterns of thought we sense but do not recognize ourselves as knowing. We allow the writer to articulate these “thoughts” of a character that would never otherwise come to words. A book of this sort is not that sort of self propelled artifice we refer to these days as a “page turner.” But then there are some of us still who for the sake of what literature can accomplish, its special ability to represent thought and create character, are willing to engage in the more deliberative process of turning our own pages. If you want to know what great literature is and what it can do that no other form of communication can do, why it is still important and necessary in our lives, well read Brooklyn. And don’t wait for the movie.

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