Dermot Healy: Sudden Times

I’ve been away from reading literature for a while apart from some poetry, Wallace Stevens and the like; I’ve been reading philosophy instead, and – as has happened in my life before – felt a distaste for literature and its accoutrements. My return was prompted by somebody slipping me a copy of this novel after having extolled Healy for a year. I read it in 24 hours and loved it. I’m certainly on my way to reading more of the Irishman, and want to retain some initial responses at this stage, and concentrate upon his formal elegance. I think too that a complete appraisal of the novel would require close attention to its narratives and hence retelling the story.

What may be said, however, is that there are two distinct narratives. You can think of all ‘flashbacks’ as being intertwined with the present but here there is something more complex going on. The book is ghosted from the protagonist’s mind wherein the narratives of self and identity shift and vaporise, where stability is unattainable, and memory is perception is memory. One is brought close into unease and it would be tempting for the overly sensitive reader to locate the instabilities within some secure classificatory scheme of pathologies such as paranoia, schizotypical or psychotic anxiety. A differently sensitive reader may share the prismatic dislocation of reality.

That ‘reality’ is of place, of relationships, of self incorporating all contingencies, and a removal of privileged perspective. At a naturalistic level the novel is largely set in shabby urban backroads, much on building sites, temporary structures, wastegrounds; signs predominate: shop signs, warning notices, advertisements; these sharply quotidian images are as fragmented as their counterparts in ‘mind’. The geography of the city becomes as a text or palimpsest, upon which the protagonist moves or reads for meaning, carrying his bare necessities, but carrying too the mazeways or palimpsests of the accidents and contingencies that  thicken to  weight the apprehension of some destiny beyond his control.

One is deeply sympathetic to this wanderer,  an innocent abroad enmeshed by circumstance. Loss is stark and brutal (there is some grotesque imagery in the novel, yet this too is seen refracted, not, as it were,  full on; certainly there is no appeal to sentimental or stock response techniques to evoke cheap horror) To some extent as the meshes and webs thicken and stick, response becomes numbed, muted, autistic, conventional. Relating to an other human being – full on – proves, after all, to be one of the most difficult tasks that face us.

Appropriately, there are several minor narrative discourses sliding over each other. In particular, a court room cross examination ironically represents transparent naturalism only to reveal itself in every sentence as an absurd distortion of the truth. On this last piece of theatre,  language is seen as crucial to the form of the novel. The shadows, fantasies, surreal elements of the protagonist’s encounter with the (imagined reality of) a ‘world out there’, have no words, no public, off the shelf, conventional containers of expression to shape feelings and perceptions. That there is no such thing as a private language is shown to be horribly true; in the outer theatre, it is the wrong word said at the wrong time which causes so much tragedy. Words are devestating. There is always the implication of a slippery disjunction between expressed language and what was thought, or what was nearly said, or what one wished one hadn’t said, or, most devestating of all,  between what was said as a mere necessity to say something while knowing that there were no words that could be said.

It would be good if we could read stories not in serial time but absorb them all at once, like a dream. What we can see taking this book as far as we are able as a whole is that it’s a powerful portrait, frozen like an image on the other side of a window,  of a mind, of a human being, whose past narrative and present narrative are not only related but are the same. This is a great novel,  possibly deserving to be called tragic.

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One thought on “Dermot Healy: Sudden Times

  1. Loved the review Adrian, I’ve started reading it again as a result! Never knew there was so much in it. I’ll dig out A Goat’s Song for you.

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