Producer and presenter Ian Maleney writes about his acclaimed Lyric Feature documentary, The Fractured Voice - listen to it above.
We applaud writers when they manage to capture something true about the world, when they say something which we knew but perhaps had never thought. But what happens when a writer comes up against something which cannot be said?
In The Fractured Voice, I take a close look at the work of four Irish writers — Kevin Barry, Claire-Louise Bennett, Eimear McBride, and Mike McCormack — and uncover the more experimental traditions and ideas which run through their books. Why are their sentences so strange, their language so far from that which we normally use to communicate? What are they trying to do?
It's quite remarkable to me that all these writers have significant links with just three counties in the west of Ireland: Sligo, Mayo, and Galway. This is either where they grew up, or where they live now. Most importantly, they set their books in these counties, and the atmosphere of these places hangs over their work. I wanted to figure out why these remote parishes and small towns were throwing up such a rich vein of fearless modern writing.
The books do, however, share more than a location. These are stories told from an intimate and revealing position within the mind of their narrators. They use something like a stream-of-consciousness – or, in McCormack's case, a stream-of-post-consciousness – to capture the interior monologue of the mind in motion. From the time of Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, this method has allowed writers to represent the direct thoughts of their characters on the page.
The result is a sort of intimacy between reader and narrative voice which allows the author to push their story into dark and complex corners of existence. To me, these writers are each trying to articulate something which lies beyond the realm of everyday life; something unstable and ambiguous which is nonetheless recognisable, something inchoate which demands our attention. They're fascinated by the notions which cross our mind – sometimes slowly, sometimes in a flash – before stopping us in our tracks altogether, casting our normal life in a new and different light. Kevin Barry calls such sensations 'moments of pregnant arrest' – I think all these writers are constantly seeking out these transformative thoughts and ideas.
To do that, to capture these incomprehensible experiences and sensations, a new approach to language is necessary. This language has to be rediscovered each time, constructed on the spot, with little or no regard for the pre-existing rules. The language itself is experimental because it seeks to say something which hasn't yet been adequately expressed. This might be a personal trauma, but it could also be something kind of vague, fuzzy, and abstract; something overwhelming and unspecified which, nonetheless, needs expressing – love, grief, failure, a sense of home or a sense of self. The experiment these writers embark upon can encompass joy and laughter just as naturally as the more melancholy states; it isn't the style or even the subject matter which defines the experimental, but the willingness to linger in perplexing places, paying attention to the inexpressible aspects of our lives, and trying to find the words anyway.
The Fractured Voice tries to get under the skin of these writers and their books, these works which appear so different on the surface, and to find the risky, experimental threads which bind them all together.
The Lyric Feature, Sunday, 6 - 7pm, RTÉ lyric fm - listen back here.