Irish fiction is, as Rob Doyle announces in his introduction to this new anthology, ‘currently enjoying a renaissance’: certainly here at Bookmunch we’ve been shouting about the likes of Kevin Barry, Lisa McInerney, Claire Louise Bennett and Colin Barrett for the last few years, and now we’ve got Mike McCormack enjoying his own renaissance, and – spreading the net slightly – Milkman nabbing the Booker. This generation, Doyle suggests, has helped lift the nation’s writing from the ‘parochialism and conservatism in which it was in danger of being submerged; it’s enjoying a ‘fecund internationalism.’ And what marks out the standard-bearers for this charge into the new is a ‘playfulness and genre-rupturing freshness’ from a crew of ‘outsiders who strain at the leash of convention’. So what Doyle has done is to assemble a roll call of these outsiders: ‘a sampler of work by authors celebrated or obscure’ who were willing to ‘expand the territory of our fiction’.
Now, I’m very much on board with this: out with the staid! Down with conservatism! I’m not, however, without my doubts. For a start, Doyle says he’s out not to create a new canon but to give an ‘alternative, refracted’ view of the existing landscape – but surely that’s something of an obfuscation? No volume of this type can distance itself from the agenda of canonisation: what is any list-making enterprise, if not a claim towards ongoing significance? And I’m guessing that this attempted distancing is linked to the editor’s claim that he ‘tried to seek out as many female writers as possible’, but only managed seven out of twenty-three. In light of these stats, if he called this a canon of the experimental, he’d be throwing up his hands and caving to the patriarchy. But here we are nonetheless: seven out of twenty-three, on a list that’s likely to be received as something approaching a definitive snapshot of Irish experimental fiction. Sure, fewer women will have been historically published and reviewed, and so the search won’t have been easy, but that’s the challenge: if the idea is to introduce an alternative tradition (the clue’s in the title), then producing a recognisably patriarchal table of contents isn’t enormously productive – particularly when some of those slots are reserved by Sterne, Swift, Joyce and Beckett: stalwarts of every canonical list, poster-boys for Literary Ireland.
However. It’s a very good book. As Doyle points out, it’s hard to pin down ‘the experimental’ – it’s a fluid and reactive concept at best – but he’s done an impressive job in assembling almost five hundred pages of Irish writing that entirely evades the farm and the Big House. Doyle presents it as an anthology, but it’s more of a reader: it’s a (long) taster session that’ll likely spur you on to pursue the back catalogues of these writers. Some of them you’ll already know: Sterne & co, as above, as well as Mike McCormack, Flann O’Brien, Phillip Ó Ceallaigh and June Caldwell (previously featured on these pages) – and there’s also the likes of Anakana Schofield, beloved of contemporary indie presses, but not well-enough known in the mainstream. A lot more, however, will probably be new names: writers long out of print, like George Egerton, Dorothy Nelson and Desmond Hogan; artists known for their work in other media, like Jennifer Walshe. Highlights for me included McCormack’s beautiful and Borgesian take on the crucifixion, ‘The Occupation: A Guide for Tourists’, and the excerpt from Schofield’s novel about a recidivist flasher, Martin John; Beckett’s ‘The End’, is, unsurprisingly, excellent, and Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s excerpt from his 1949 novel, The Dirty Dust, which pre-empts Lincoln In The Bardo to an extent that ought to make George Saunders blush – though he won’t redden as much as will readers of Caldwell’s piece about S&M bestiality role-play in rural Leitrim…
Any Cop?: A worthy addition to your Irish lit shelf; a definite expansion of that canon; a various and fascinating read. Like any anthology, you won’t like it all, but you’re bound to love at least some, and most of them are stories you won’t forget in a hurry.