On Women’s Coming of Age Novels and a Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. By Madeleine Watts
If you read Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, over a short period of time — a weekend, say, or a sleepless night — you might begin to have the distinct feeling that some noisily expelled Sibyl has commandeered the schoolhouse. She dismisses the rules as absurd. She regards good behavior with disdain. In a deluge of words that rail against every make-believe protocol for existing that teachers have ever taught her, she lays bare all she’s been asked to keep quiet, every slip in her sense of self-preservation. She collars you and she works at you with a fundamentalist’s persistence.
Consider, for instance, that she insists everything real — realism, reality, the attitude of being “realistic” — is a kind of blasphemy. And she draws you into your own mostly secret apostasy. That is, she wants you to consider a world of bad influence which is chaotic, yes, and darker, absolutely, but beautiful, richer. Worth the trouble. She spells out the question and answers it for you: “What if. I could. I could make. A whole other world a whole civilization in this this city that is not home? The heresy of it. But I can. And I can choose this. Shafts of sun. Life that is this. And I can.”
ACTS OF DEFIANCE
For the best part of the year that I was fourteen I walked home from school reading, often barefoot. The school mandated that we, all girls, wear a uniform of straw hats and boxy blue dresses. And everything about it — up to and including the lip-glossy, deodorant, clean hair smells of the other girls — created the sensation of being slowly caught in the amber of a world all composure, checked impulses and neat fingernails. A world that I had absolutely no interest in inhabiting. So once I had boarded the train in the afternoons and travelled the four stops down the line, I’d find a vacant bench. I would take a book out of my bag and replace it with my shoes, scrunch my school hat into a ball, untie my hair and let it fall well past my shoulders. I proceeded to walk the twenty minutes home from the station dodging glass, gumnuts and used syringes, looking up from the pages exclusively for traffic lights. It was just about my only real act of teenage defiance. I was too obedient to rebel in any serious way against school or my parents, although I wasn’t, at the time, crazy about either. I wasn’t the kind of teenage girl who climbed out bedroom windows and shimmied down drainpipes. Although something that felt similarly subversive was happening in my mind.
Fourteen was the age that I made a ritual of walking home in a corruption of my school uniform, and it was the year that reading took on a sense of purpose. I read constantly: in the bath, at the dinner table, when I was meant to be asleep. I became convinced that reading could function as a kind of spiritual panacea. Which I was looking for, because I thought I needed to cure myself of two different things: of being who I was and being where I was from. I wanted to cure myself of being from Sydney, which seemed a brash and arrogant and un-sophisticated place. And I wanted to cure myself of being a woman, or, at least, the kind of woman it felt like I was expected to become at school. It was reading as immunization, and reading as reassurance. Reading could propel me out of my reality and help me conceive of a new one. It drew me into my own apostasy, and it gave me a kind of mirror where I could find reflections of my own, mostly quiet, disorder. I believed that the more I read, the more effort I put into finding those reflections and mostly-hidden corridors, I might begin to figure out how to grow into the adult I wanted to be.
BENDING, SHAPING, COAXING, PLAYING
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing follows an insistently disorderly young woman from childhood through to her mid-twenties. The book has acquired the beginnings of its own literary mythology: it took six months to write and nine years to publish. The novel went on to win the Bailey’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize), after being published in the UK last year, and this autumn was published in the U.S. after being picked up by Coffee House Press.
While, formally, the book is difficult to compare to anything else, the language comes closest to the experiments of modernism. There are places where the writing resembles Elizabeth Smart’s disgracefully under-recognized novella, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, and there is an interiority to the writing that sparks at a quality I’ve found in Virginia Woolf and Clarice Lispector. But the closest and most cited comparisons are Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. McBride has in fact been very open about the influence of Joyce on her writing. In a piece for The Guardian she describes taking the London tube from Tottenham to Liverpool Street to the tedious temp job she worked at twenty-five, opening the first page of Ulysses, and feeling, by Liverpool Street, that the entire course of her life had changed. “Reading Ulysses”, she says, “changed everything I thought about language, and everything I understood about what a book could do.”
But McBride’s writing isn’t stream of consciousness; at least not in the way we conventionally use the term when we talk about Joyce and Woolf. Nothing flows. There is no liquid outpouring. Instead the language is jagged. Forceful. Hovering just this side of the verbal. And although it isn’t really the point, McBride’s language serves to demonstrate something that realism is completely incapable of. Which is that the language we have fails, so often, at representation. It buckles and strains under the weight of it’s own inadequacy. Grammar and punctuation encage thought. The only way to get something new out of language, to try and get to what feels like the nearest simulacrum of truth, is to bend and shape that language, to break it’s form and strain against it, to coax it into a shape, to play with it. To revel in the disorderly.
When I was a child, books could reflect my reality and help me understand it in a way no other medium could. Nothing else — not movies, not music, not painting — allowed me inside the consciousness of another person the way a book could, and can. And part of the rightfully justified praise for A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing is that it’s a novel that does something only novels are capable of doing — inviting you inside the mind of another person. In that sense it reaffirms faith in literature, for those who have felt it lost.
Which is all to say that A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing feels important at least in part because it articulates the things that novels — those that take as their subject the experiences of young women — tend not to explicate. To hint at only in their shapes and never make clear in the details. Instead, McBride’s writing gives you access to the nuances of individual emotional experiences that other kinds of language quite simply fails at containing. In doing so she disavows all the plotlines your mind is used to anticipating, and the book becomes the story of a young woman’s coming of age that I don’t think I’ve ever come across before. Not like this.
SEARCHING FOR GIRL CANONS
As a teenager, my reading took on a quality of perverse determination. I’m not sure how I knew what to read exactly — certainly nobody was guiding me. I remember my father steering me towards the Fitzgerald and Hemingway shelves of the Fiction section. From there I used one book as a stepping-stone to another. The thing is, so much of what you read as a teenager is circumscribed. The Kerouacs, Salingers, and Bukowskis have come to comprise a foundational pantheon. They are the Novels Of Your Youth. Writing by John Fante, Henry Miller, and Hunter S. Thompson still looms large in my imagination. They’re the kind of books you’re meant to stumble upon at sixteen, or eighteen, or even twenty, devour with a kind of maniacal fervor, then slam a halo over their pages and shoot them up into the firmament.
The thing is, those books are by and large about the experiences of young men, written by slightly older men. They are novels that fall into a genre that could loosely be called ‘Boy Canon’, a phrase coined by Dayna Tortorici in N+1’s ‘No Regrets’ pamphlet published early in 2014. They are novels about being outsiders, of growing up, of finding a sense of self and place. And by and large those stories are woven into and around the foundational experiences of young men.
Those Boy Canon books were the ones that I read throughout the years I was in high school. And, let me make clear, I have no end of affection for those books. They gave me a place to hide. They affirmed a reality that existed outside my school, or my family or the landscape of popped collars and misapplied eyeliner that gave shape to the topography of high school parties. The problem, in hindsight, was that those books helped me understand what it must mean to be a young man, and very little about what it meant to be a young woman. Instead, I developed a clear picture of the kind of woman I didn’t want to be, so that I could better attract the young men who I was reading about in books.
The problem came when I left high school and began university. I began to fall in love, and lust. And I needed to read about it, because that was the way I had always understood the world. When the realization came it was awful. And the realization was this: there is a part of young women’s lives that was absent in everything I had read. I simply couldn’t find books that explained what was going on with me in the way that I had before.
There were reasons for this. Books about the experience of young women tend to be written by other women, and for a long time history, culture and circumstance meant that many women weren’t publishing at all, let alone addressing anything that might have strayed into transgressive territory. While stories about young men from Goethe and Balzac onward have focused on male education and the accumulation of experience, for a very long time the path of a female character was dictated by an entirely different set of circumstances. Up until about fifty years ago, a female character’s progress in a coming-of-age novel was contingent on avoiding extramarital sexuality and successfully preventing experiences, which could threaten her future prospects or put her in danger from which there was little means of recovery.
It’s only relatively recently that circumstances changed. Young women, in the West at least, could move through the world with more freedom, a freedom that encompassed danger and subversion and ‘stupidity’, even if that behavior was held to different standards and tempered by inflexible advice about being ‘safe’, about having ‘self-respect.’ That freedom opened up space for female novelists to write about what it means and feels and looks like for young women to begin to grow up, and do all the things the boys have always done. Eventually, after frustrating searches through bookstores and websites, I found and read novels written by Helen Garner, Simone de Beauvoir, Siri Hustvedt, Angela Carter, Christina Stead, Chris Kraus. They became part of what I could begin to conceive of as the beginnings of an individual “Girl Canon.” But the reality is that, short of The Bell Jar, it was difficult, far more difficult than it should have been, and much of what I found didn’t help at all.
When people talk about sex and power they speak as if power were a seesaw occupied by two people controlling the thing with the incongruent strength of their calves. But power rarely works so simply — it would be easier if it did. There are gray areas, those in which power is atomized, and in which your sense of self can dislocate or fall out from beneath your feet. It’s the change of barometric temperature or velocity or cell metabolism or whatever it is that happens over the course of a night, or a year, which starts off with wanting and being wanted, and ends in the feeling that you’ve been treated like an unravelling glove, a used sock, a toy that’s hasn’t proved to be as almightily amusing as first believed. The reality is that these balances of power, and the way they can tip off the hinge without us noticing the shift in gravity, is not always easy to establish or identify. There are a hundred gray zones that lie between “self-respect” and “disempowered”, some transgressive, some dangerous, some mundane, and each one entirely particular to you.
That Eimear McBride is a writer of considerable power is clearest in her ability to break through the protocols and confront those gray zones as tabula rasa. The narrator of A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing has a number of experiences, of desiring and being desired, which aren’t much interested in self-preservation, or at least as the concept tends to be defined by others. That the outcome of the experiences is sometimes complex, occasionally not nice at all, is by no means evidence of disempowerment, of tipping off the shallow end of the seesaw.
For example: it can feel so good not being pure. When the narrator is sixteen, she begins taking two or sometimes three boys a day to the back of the bike sheds, and she goes down on her knees, hikes her school skirt up around her waist, examines their faces in the dark. A large part of why she’s doing it all, besides desire, is the motivation, the feeling, of “building numbers up”. Because it feels like learning. There is power to it. No shame in it. “Saying yes is the best of powers. It’s no big thing the things they do… I do not, will not be frying down in hell. My mind is blanket clear. It’s hot inside and not much breath but no one sees me where I am. It’s good not feeling pure.”
UNWILLING TO APOLOGIZE
In the early pages of A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, when the narrator is about thirteen, she overhears her aunt telling her mother about her cousins, nice city girls slightly older than her, “I hear my two are off to the convent. Not a ladder in their tights or a pain in their heart. Such brilliance. Unearthly. I snoot them. Aunt and uncle. Chintz for brains I hiss and think.”
We are given the distinct impression that the narrator is the kind of girl with ladders in her tights.
Laddered tights are one of those signifiers that alter as women age out of childhood. Where once you might be a little girl with jam on your chin and paint on your skirt and ladders all down your tights because you’ve been running and jumping and playing, at some point the ladders come to mean something else. You find out because other people tell you so. To you, they’re just tights. But they gradually become unseemly. Inappropriate. As though they might reveal something nefarious, disorderly, about your character. They are made to speak for you before you ever know what they might be saying. I sensed that when I was fourteen, walking home reading, tearing up my tights in the street. The ladders were the biggest blight on my pristine school uniform. And I would think about that at nineteen, twenty-three, waking up the morning after with an achey head and murky memories of smoky rooms and music and fumbling with keys at dawn, finding ladders all down the legs of last night’s tights. And finding that I preferred the ladders. That they were mine. Even if they were messy. They were more interesting somehow. Worth the trouble.
The narrator of A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing feels and desires things. For that reason the book is maybe the clearest and most heretically beautiful articulation of what it means to be alive and young and to want things. Actively want things. And the way that desire undoes us, can utterly unravel us all: “Like a nosebleed. Like a freezing pain. I felt me not me.” The thing is, a lot of egregiously ghastly things befall the main character. But there is a quality of unrepentance to the writing, an unwillingness to explain or apologize for the way it represents the disorder of the experiences and emotions. Because the disorder is honest. Disorder is a reality of becoming an adult, for many young women, men too. And if I had been able to read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing even four years ago, I would have slammed a halo over its pages and shot it up into the firmament. I am doing that, quietly, even now.
Madeleine Watts is a writer of fiction, essays and journalism based in New York. Her writing has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Lifted Brow, The Hairpin, Junkee and Griffith Review.