By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008
NEW YORK -- One of the ways life has changed for Irish writer Anne Enright, who beat long odds last fall to win the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, is that loads of people now want to talk to her about her work -- specifically her winning novel, "The Gathering."
The bad news is that far too many of them employ the word "bleak" to describe it.
This puzzles her a bit.
It's true that her narrator's brother Liam has killed himself by filling his pockets with rocks and walking into the sea, and it's also true that the narrator, Veronica, a 39-year-old mother of two, is having an extremely hard time dealing with this. Here she is, gazing at the beach where Liam died:
"I look at my hands on the railings, and they are old, and my child-battered body, that I was proud of, in a way, for the new people that came out of it, just feeding the grave, just feeding the grave! I want to shout it at these strangers as they pass. I want to call for an end to procreation with a sandwich board and a megaphone."
"Oh, yes, it's grim," Veronica's creator concedes with cheerful irony. "But she isn't feeling her best."
More important, Enright thinks, is what happens in the long run, when this complex, family-haunted novel achieves "a hard-won happy ending."
No one would call Enright herself grim or bleak: She's far too sharp-witted and engaged.
A short woman of 45 with close-cropped dark hair, she is scrunched down in a chair in the offices of her American publisher, Grove/Atlantic. She's here as part of an extended post-Booker victory lap that will have her reading at Politics and Prose in Northwest Washington today.
The Booker goes to what its judges decide is the year's best novel by a citizen of the British Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland (Americans are not eligible). It can be transformative for a writer like Enright, whose work has tended to generate more praise than revenue.
Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin politely describes the sales of Enright's earlier novels as "extremely modest." This is why he decided to publish "The Gathering" as a paperback original, with a first printing of 8,000 or so. The hope was that skipping the hardback stage might cause the sales curve to at least start trending upward.
Not a problem now. "We're at 230,000 already," Entrekin says.
"The Gathering" tells the story not only of Veronica and Liam but of their whole 12-sibling tribe, the Hegartys, whose survivors come together to mourn their brother in what turns out to be revelatory fashion. Over the novel's course, Veronica both remembers and imagines corrosive family secrets. Lashing out in pain and anger, she comes close to blowing up her semi-satisfactory marriage.
It's almost always a mistake to label a well-written novel as being "about" something, but it's tempting to say that "The Gathering" is about a whole bunch of things. There's family, marriage, sex, death, anger, memory, blame and -- well, you get the idea. So does Enright, who mutters something about there being an actual kitchen sink in there, too, when this list of "abouts" is suggested to her.
One of the seeds of the book, she says, is something the poet Seamus Heaney once said, which she heard secondhand. The gist of it was "that the family is celebrated in Ireland, and rightly so," but that it can also be "a very lonely place."
"A family gets locked into this thing where everyone has a label, everyone is described in a certain way," she says. The Hegartys are no exception: Veronica repeatedly refers to one highly functional brother as "Mossie-the-psychotic" and there is a laugh-out-loud, expletive-filled scene at Liam's wake between a sister who customarily cleans up after meals and one who doesn't.
Yet somehow, as they wrangle and mourn, the Hegartys "start to fight their way out of those boxes."
As for marriage, there's more to Veronica's than Enright chose to spell out in the book.
"The guy she's married to," she says of the below-the-surface part of this spousal iceberg, is "a prestige-led sort of person." Driven to get ahead, he "drinks his whiskey and thinks he's a failure." He likes his furniture just so and his wife to look nice, but the worst thing about his depressive insecurity, from Veronica's point of view, is that there is "an undercurrent of hatred in his love for her."
Veronica deals with this, in the midst of her Liam-inspired near-meltdown, by deciding she has likely slept with him for the last time.
Ah, sex. "The Gathering," as Enright acknowledges, focuses almost exclusively on the sexual dark side. It gets way worse than merely bleak.
But she's quick to point out that "I have been very much on the brighter side as well." Take her previous novel, "The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch":
"The whole first chapter of 'Eliza Lynch' is one incident of coitus. I had great fun with that," she says -- though her motivation was "partly political" as well. She doesn't think there is enough writing in which women are "the subject rather than the object of sexual experience."
Veronica, unlike Enright, is not political at all in the feminist sense, and this is just one of many differences between them. Still, readers tend to make assumptions about authors and first-person narrators, especially when both are middle-aged Irishwomen with young children.
After "The Gathering" was published, Enright sensed flickers of anxiety among acquaintances in Bray, the Dublin suburb where she lives.
They had thought she was "sort of easygoing," she says, laughing. Now they had to wonder if "some Incredible Hulk moment might happen" and an angry Veronica might burst forth.
For the record, then: Enright has a happy marriage (to theater director Martin Murphy). She has a mere four siblings, not 11. She has lost friends, but no one close to her has killed himself. Veronica is someone she made up!
Yet -- not entirely.
"We admire an actress onstage for the amount of herself she brings to a role. It's a kind of artistic generosity," Enright explains. "But we know the role isn't her. It's very similar with my work."
She was born in 1962, at a time when there was still a cultural consensus about women's roles. "You'd go from lovely Irish girl to martyred Irish mummy with very little fun in between," she says. "I wasn't interested."
She had ideas about working in theater, but ended up in television instead, mostly on a "productively chaotic" comic show called "Nighthawks" that aired live three times a week. Her TV life involved ferocious adrenaline rushes, drinking way too much, trying to write fiction on weekends and eventually having something that's been labeled -- for lack of a more specific term -- a "breakdown."
"Whatever it was, I was in distress and was not functioning," she says.
But the upside of breaking down and recovering is that "you make your decisions. Are you going to live? How are you going to live?" In Enright's case, part of the answer was: "You're not going to waste your time working in television anymore. You're going to write your books. Even if they're no good, you're going to write them anyway."
They were good, though -- as those Booker judges have now confirmed.
What's next? Enright, who says the post-Booker fuss has left her somewhat scattered, isn't sure she wants to say.
"I have sort of gone through two novels since 'The Gathering,' " she explains, meaning that she's walked through two ideas in her head to see if they might fly. In the past, she couldn't do this, and she still doesn't know if the process will really work, "because actually what happens is I write a sentence and then the sentence requires another sentence."
"And I like a sentence to be interesting. And I like a surprise. I like to go somewhere new."