Review by Francesca Bratton
Given the importance of form in Rockadoon Shore (John Murray, 2017), it is curious that in a recent interview with The Guardian Rory Gleeson dismissed the experimental structure of the novel as ‘youthful folly’. He split the narrative into seven voices, he told Sian Cain, merely to ‘see if [he] could do it.’ Despite Gleeson’s modest disavowal, the structure of Rockadoon Shore powers this ambitious debut.
While ostensibly a novel about a raucous weekend, the primary concerns of Rockadoon Shore are subjective experience, observation, cultural and social clashes between youth and age, and rural and urban populations. Gleeson’s story is passed in relay between six undergraduates (Cath, DanDan, Steph, Lucy, Merc and JJ) on a weekend away from Dublin in, as the dust-jacket tells us, ‘the wilds of the West of Ireland’ and the elderly Malachy, who observes the group from his nearby cottage.
Gleeson’s fragmented narrative is shaped to avoid any slippage between the thoughts of his different characters, as is familiar in modernist experiments with polyphonic narrative where the ease of transitions between streams of consciousness often become markers of intimacy or alienation. In Gleeson’s novel these distinctions between characters are physically manifested on the page, with a partitioned layout; each slim chapter is headed by the character’s names, so each feels purposefully isolated from its neighbours.
The isolated quality of the individual narratives is emphasised by the novel’s mediation by a narrator – arguably an eighth voice, despite its transparency (the narrator has no discernible characterisation). The separation of these narrative sections, and Gleeson’s refusal to have the characters ‘retell’ the story, emphasise the extent of the interpersonal alienation of the seven protagonists, but the brevity of many of the chapters limits their scope as psychological portraits. These shifts between voices are, then, occasionally frustrating. Because he is allowed the most amount of space of the seven to develop as we return to his narrative most frequently, Malachy emerges as the most convincing character, despite his initial presentation as something of a stock figure: the rural farmer mending the old stone walls of the village, and muttering under his breath about ‘that fucking look’ of the group of city-dwellers. While Malachy develops over the novel, our six twenty-somethings struggle to move beyond their descriptions on the blurb: ‘Cath is worried about her friends…Lucy is drinking way too much and Steph has become closed off’.
Ignoring Gleeson’s ambitious narrative experiments, the dust jacket advertises this novel loudly as a kind of voyeuristic, Skins-esque romp through ‘the self-obsession of the young and entitled in this sharply observed tale of sex, drugs and Rockadoon Shore.’ Similarly, in her Guardian interview with Gleeson, Sian Cain described the novel’s characters as ‘the worst bunch of people I have ever met.’ The debauchery promised on the blurb strikes me as the least interesting thing about this novel (not just for its mildness…), and I failed to find the slight, and ultimately naïve, transgressions of our six undergraduates interesting enough to make them ‘the worst’. The real drama in the latter sections of the novel is, first, accidental, and, second, catalysed by Malachy, not the six. And, so, the eventual destruction of the Lodge is as much intended as a symbol of the clashes between the rural and the urban as it is emblematic of our group’s toxic interpersonal relationships.
As observer and symbol of generational and geographical clashes, Malachy catalyses much of the drama of the novel, and his reflection on his own ‘shame’, transgressions, and his ‘cruel and useless mind’ (which the six are not yet capable of) serve to add dimension to narratives of the six, which are, in the main, pointedly without introspection. It is Malachy’s sudden entrance into Rockadoon Lodge with a shotgun hanging off his arm that shifts the group’s tensions from being expressed through play-fighting and back-handed comments (‘Fucking needy, like’, Merc tells Cath). After Malachy’s entrance, DanDan and Lucy couple up, leaving a bereft Cath in their wake, and Merc abandons the group, deciding to ‘stink up the place’ by drenching the carpets with sambuca as he goes – with disastrous consequences in the last moments of the novel.
Through Malachy, this novel becomes as much about observation as interpersonal alienation. The majority of the group’s behaviour seems performative: each drink, pill taken, and sexual encounter appears as display, and is evaluated by each voice in turn. Gleeson draws a careful parallel between DanDan’s performance of his grief and Merc’s displays of masculinity. DanDan looks into his own eyes as they ‘slick over’ in the car, liking this view of himself as the melancholic ‘widower’; later he is also pleased to imagine that Cath ‘probably thought he was thinking about drowning himself’. Similarly, Merc gazes into his reflection in Steph’s sunglasses as he strips, ‘muscles twitching’, to the Cabaret soundtrack. Both DanDan and Merc praise themselves for the superiority of their emotional depth, with Merc smugly commenting on the ‘manic power’ of his ‘inner image’: ‘God damn it, he was so deep.’
The promise, and clear skill, of this novel emerges, despite his aversion to ‘retelling’, from Gleeson’s patterning of small details, mirrorings, and contrasts. These moments elevate this otherwise rather banal story of sexual intrigues, and flesh out the more two- dimensional characters. Malachy is most frequently used to create these correspondences and disruptions, and he operates almost as a vessel for the toxic outpourings of the group—both emotionally and chemically. This reaches its tragic conclusion when Malachy takes his own life at the end of the novel. His exposure to the group seems to have triggered an emotional breakdown, and his renewed ‘shame’ over the memory of his lover, Elaine, leaving him for Dublin. More magically, and intriguingly, as Malachy observes DanDan, still grieving the death of his ex-girlfriend, falling into the wet grass, and, copying him, he seems to have the younger man’s pain transferred to him: ‘The strange feeling he thought was just the cold stayed with him…knotted in his stomach’ and, apparently cured, DanDan flirts with Cath, then sleeps with Lucy. Similarly, it is Malachy who is affected after some of the group take MDMA. While the five take a night-time swim in the lake (where Malachy had also last seen Elaine, and where Cath ‘bobs in JJ’s arms’) Malachy’s ‘brain fe[els] sick, like it [is] overheating.’ And so, Malachy’s suicide can also be read as his attempt to cleanse the group of the ‘indignity’, ‘pain and brokenness’ that have afflicted him, tapping in to the parallels between Malachy’s romantic history and that of the six. As Malachy sinks to the bottom of the lake he seems to see himself taking the distress of the six with him: ‘One last fucking pain to take and it’d be done’.
While there are resonances between sections, Gleeson is equally interested in descriptions of events and character undermining each other. Lucy is described by Cath as ‘failing pretty dismally’ in her attempts to sing, but sees herself as ‘sultry’, performing with ‘the husky sort of voice Amy Winehouse had’. Elsewhere, Gleeson highlights the differences between the ways his characters see themselves, and the opinions of others. Much of his characterisation comes from contradictory appraisals of others, rather than the self-reporting of individual sections. This has the added effect of forcing us to constantly reappraise these characters as the novel moves forwards. Gleeson particularly seems to enjoy positioning us into judgements of his characters before he undermines our assumptions. Merc gets such treatment: he parades his masculinity, then flees Malachy in terror. Initially, reading Steph’s account, we slip into her appraisal of Merc as a ‘coward’ as he is cast out of the group. But, our sympathy is prompted as we shift to his own explanation, and we see him ‘wrecked… he can’t shut off his head’. These empathetic movements are almost facetiously drawn out in the final moments of the novel, when Steph, who we have seen ruminating on her inability ‘to give a fuck’ for three days, is told by Cath: ‘You just got lazy. You’re not cold, Steph. You just need to give more of a shit’ – Gleeson’s point, I think, is not to be trapped into equally ‘lazy’ appraisals of his troubled characters.
Rockadoon Shore is, at times, frustrating in its desire to complete the moves of its relay over sufficiently embellishing its characters. It is, however, also Gleeson’s ambitious formal experiment that leaves much to be admired in this debut; his careful patterning of details forces our constant re-appraisal of previous events and psychological motivations, leaving me excited for his next, hopefully equally gutsy and experimental, project.
Francesca Bratton recently completed her AHRC funded PhD on Hart Crane and the Little Magazine at Durham University. She was also an AHRC Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress for 2013-2014.