31 DECEMBER 1994, Page 25

Less than meets the eye

James Simmons

Ifound myself unable to finish two of these books. This review tries to solve the mystery. Many years ago when Night in Tunisia first came out, I read it with excitement and thought, Here is a short- story writer in the great line of Joyce, O'Connor, McGahern. I was wrong. The excitement came from a vivid portrayal of local and familiar things. That I couldn't quite see the point of his stories made me think Neil Jordan was cleverer than I was.

Now the short stories strike me as very Promising apprentice work. O'Faolain absolutely overrates them, perhaps because he shares some of Jordan's weaknesses. It is the novels that are hard to read. In them Jordan seems to have contracted an Irish disease that I associate with late Beckett, Higgins and Banville, stylists with very little content — 'poignant, beautifully controlled and underrated,' writes Richard Raynor. Maybe underrated because nothing is going on but the weather, atmosphere and hints at historical or symbolic significance. Perhaps some readers are afraid of sub- stance, don't want books to get too close to them — or are they impressed (as I once was) because they are puzzled? What thrilled me in the title story in Jor- dan's first collection was his interest in music. I am interested in understanding the mystery of playing and listening. Most of the story is taken up with images of adoles- cence, of young frustrated boys in a holiday resort talking shit about women; but the hero's father is a dance-band musician who wants his talented son to buckle down and learn an instrument — competent but mediocre dance-band father is distressed that the talented son plays rock 'n' roll for his contemporaries — to fit in. The son, who finds the dance-band standards dull, is suddenly turned on by hearing Charlie Parker's music, and I longed to have that triangle worked out, of values passing from one generation to the next, family resent- ment and appreciation; but Jordan doesn't care to develop that theme, leaving us with a few tantalising possibilities bedded down in the cliches of adolescent sexuality.

Now knowing that he has become a cinema director it is easy to see how every- thing prepares you for films, which on the whole is a bad thing. Films are more startling and immediate, and can blow you away with vividness; but the mind clambers back and says, 'No, that really had no sub- stance, I don't want to watch it again.' Jor- dan's prose is far too visual.

The Past is his first novel. The writing seems skilful, but by chapter six I had no desire to go on. I didn't believe in any of the characters, and its echoing of historical figures and history did not say anything more than that Jordan knew a bit about the period. I felt his delicate discriminations about postcards and palm trees were mere- ly tricksy. Nothing carried its own weight, not the dialogue with the grandmother, not the pregnancy or the love-affair on the beach, not the Michael Collins father, or the bad actress mother who became a nationalist icon. The prose was subordinat- ed to the visual, and the visual didn't con- vey much.

The same stylistic faults were apparent in `this inspired surrealistic novel' (according to the Los Angeles Times), The Dream of a Beast. Given a book to review I can usually get through it, if only to receive my fee. Surely if a writer doesn't take you with him in the first three chapters he should rewrite? Of course the crunch is that other people have read and enjoyed these works; they are quoted on the covers. Is it possible that literature can be good for some people and unreadable for others equally intelli- gent? Or can I actually prove the writing in 'Until I met you, Roger, I'd no idea which writers, painters and the like to sneer at.' The Past is bad in some objective way? I offer an example:

The function of tracks is to lead the train from one point to another and the tracks themselves she knows are neither arrival nor departure, just partaking a little of both. But the soft wood of the sleepers and the frogspawn always doubling itself tells her with every footfall that she is here. And seen from behind, she knows, her walk would always intimate arrival, a bundle of static moments somehow thrown through time. You are here, the tracks say to her, and she holds this message as she would a towel to her bare breasts, her head bent downwards, knowing that somewhere beyond her the tracks do indeed meet.

I can't think of any way of introducing this passage that would make it clearer. The 'action' takes place around Howth and there is a little railway or ski-lift to the summit and they have passed frogspawn in a canal. It might be interesting to hear from readers who respond to this.

Jordan's latest novel, Sunrise with Sea Monster, however, is much clearer, less pre- tentious and obscure, and the cutting from past to present is neatly done. Again the book is dominated by description and atmosphere, but the sense of living in a seaside resort is vivid and haunting. The look and feel of the characters leap out from the page, but not their inner life. It is hard to care about cynical young Donal, whose mother died young and whose father is uncommunicative, although one sees them vividly setting out nightlines on the beach time after time in all weathers. The father hires a music teacher who encour- ages the son's talent and lets him explore her sexually. This is vivid but not very inter- esting. Then the teacher marries the father and the son goes off to fight for the repub- lican side in the Spanish civil war in order to hurt his father. When he comes back the father is paralysed, apparently a vegetable, and the son resumes his liaison with his step-mother, but their feelings of guilt or happiness seem to be turned on or off arbitrarily by the author.

During Donal's captivity in Spain (also quite vivid, but weightless) he was asked to make contact with Irish republicans sympa- thetic to Germany. He gets drawn into this in a few scenes that read like pastiche Graham Greene. This allows the author to hint at a theme of 'multiple betrayal'. We hear that the father was involved in politics, and the blurb suggests that the novel illuminates 'the lunatic world of wartime politics in the Irish Free State'; but it doesn't. It doesn't illuminate anything except Irish weather and landscape. Never- theless it has some vivid and surprising scenes. But isn't that the best you can say about The Crying Game? It sets the plot of O'Connor's Guest of the Nation in the pre- sent day, makes the British soldier black and surprises you with the revelation that his 'girlfriend' is a boy. It is vivid and atmo- spheric, but it has not much heart — and no mind.