One Man’s Troubles

The Ghosts of Belfast is the American title of Northern Irish writer Stuart Neville‘s debut novel, The Twelve, which was first published in the UK in 2009. I picked up a copy when I attended NoirCon last fall. I got to meet Mr. Neville briefly and he signed my copy and posed for a picture. You can see my write-up of that here.

Northern Ireland is a peculiar place. Whether it is a province or a country is a matter of perspective. It lacks a national flag, for example. Its citizens are British, yet can claim an Irish passport. It is about the size of Connecticut and home to 1.8 million people, a third of whom live in the greater metropolitan area of its capital and largest city, Belfast. It has long been part of the British Empire and British citizens—primarily Scots—were transplanted to the Ulster province centuries ago in order to secure the land from its original Irish inhabitants. This of course sowed the seeds of future conflicts, the most recent being the decades-long reign of violence and terror known as The Troubles. The loyalists to the British crown, i.e. unionists, were pitted against Irish nationalists, i.e. republicans, in a split along both ethnic and religious lines. All conflicts have casualties and one of the biggest is Northern Irish identity. Some see themselves as British and subjects of the Queen. Others see themselves as displaced Irish, culturally if not actually part of the Republic of Ireland to the south. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 put an end to most of the fighting and began the process of establishing a new government with hopes of ending the sectarian divide.

Like all places attempting unity after a long struggle, blanket pardons and amnesties were offered to many former combatants. Jails were emptied and past sins legally forgiven. Men who were once criminals and terrorists walk the streets. The Ghosts of Belfast begins with one such character, Gerry Fegan. Released from the infamous Maze prison as a result of the peace treaty, Fegan’s former republican bosses keep him on the payroll as a reward for his past devotion to the cause. They now serve in Stormont, the Northern Irish assembly, and know that the Gerry Fegans of the world are anachronisms. The fragile politics of the new order means the old warriors have to be shown the door. Fegan is well aware of his obsolescence and has no intention of returning to the fold or serving the cause ever again. In fact he is so wracked with guilt that he buries himself in the bottle and makes himself generally useless. His former colleagues no longer respect him but still fear him as his reputation as a stone-cold killer was well-earned. A chance encounter with the mother of one of his victims sends Fegan off on a dark and twisted path of vengeance and, he hopes, redemption.

The first thing we learn about Fegan is that he is never alone. The ghosts of his victims—twelve in number—haunt both his dreams and his waking hours. He realizes he will never be at peace until he exorcises those demons and the only solution he comes up with is to kill those who ordered him to kill in the first place. The Ghosts of Belfast, then, is a serial killer novel. Generally I hate serial killer stories but this one is different. For one thing all of Fegan’s intended victims are not innocents. They are hard men like himself. In their own eyes they were soldiers, fighting the good fight. They don’t have the empathy for their victims that is Fegan’s burden. It’s that empathy that makes Fegan sympathetic. He is genuinely remorseful about his part in the past violence. Second, The Ghosts of Belfast is really about victims, not killers. The ghosts are there to remind us that The Troubles bloodied swaths of the population. The dead left behind loved ones, families, and friends. They are gone forever but the echoes of their passing haunt the living every day.

Neville paints a rich picture of the machinations required to keep a fledgling state from collapsing. As Gerry Fegan drops more bodies the book reads like a spy thriller as the panic creeps further up the food chain. What we find out is that peace is hard. The deals that have to be made to keep the settlement from falling apart open old wounds. The conflict at least made friend and foe easier to identify. Fegan’s twisted quest for atonement lays bare all the bullshit that the politicos use to patch things together. In the end Stormont survives the crisis but the old men who once held sway over the population with their guns and bombs have to face new realities and learn to serve the needs of an emerging generation.

The Ghosts of Belfast is a gripping read. Fast-paced and suspenseful, its three hundred-plus pages fly by. It helps a bit to know a little of the history but it’s not necessary as the tension and atmosphere of the story are sufficient to keep you hooked. Gerry Fegan is a cast-off, a man without a place, but his struggle to save his soul is universal. The world is big, bad, and crazy and all of us stumble around in the darkness trying to make sense of it. Like Fegan, we seek to be whole, much as the reconciliation process in Northern Ireland seeks to bring unity to a divided people.

The Bret Pack

Bret Easton Ellis was just twenty-one when his debut novel Less Than Zero was published in 1985. I picked it up for a buck at a library book sale in 1998 and got my first taste of his particular brand of noir. Just last week I picked up another effort from Mr. Ellis—Imperial Bedrooms—for two bucks at a thrift shop. Imperial Bedrooms was published in 2010 and is the sequel to Less Than Zero. Both book titles are references to the music of Elvis Costello. Ellis was tagged early on as a founding member of the so-called literary “Brat Pack” which included Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney. It seems we can’t just read books—they have to be properly packaged and marketed or we won’t know what to think about them.

In Less Than Zero the protagonist and narrator Clay is back in LA after a semester of college back east. He wants to be a writer but no one takes him seriously. His classmates and childhood friends, like him, are from very wealthy families. None have to work and they spend their time partying. Most have ambitions to be in the movie business or the music industry. Clay drinks a lot and snorts coke and smokes weed but none of the drugs seem to affect him. He sees a shrink that his family pays for but the doctor is too self-absorbed to help him. His best friend Julian gets in trouble with a drug dealer named Rip and Clay tries to help but is unable to and instead leaves LA and goes back to school. Imperial Bedrooms takes place decades later. Clay, middle-aged, is a successful screenwriter living in New York. He comes back to LA to help cast a movie and reconnects with his old crowd. Julian is now a recovering addict but Rip, more evil than ever, is still around and Clay once again gets caught up in their struggle. This time the consequences are far greater.

Less Than Zero has a peculiar diary-like style. The prose is lean and generally brisk but emotionally flat. Clay, it seems, has a hard time feeling anything. And when he does, it comes in violent waves of self-pity that seem to confuse him even more. The stream-of-consciousness technique is used a lot and has a disturbing toneless quality to it. Clay is not simply detached from things—there’s a deep emptiness at his core. Much was made of the nihilism that pervades the book on its release. Somehow it was assumed that Less Than Zero was autobiographical, and Ellis was painted as a callous, spoiled rich kid who slapped together his journal entries into a gossipy Hollywood tell-all. I found the book to be, instead, carefully constructed and a sensitive and insightful portrayal of a man trapped in his own alienation and amorality. It’s a coming-of-age story for existentialists. Instead of growing and learning from the crises he faces Clay simply retreats further into his angst and loneliness.

Imperial Bedrooms is even darker as Clay discovers that despite his feelings of helplessness he is entirely capable of creating any life he wants. The realization of that power, instead of liberating him, sends him down a darker path of self-loathing and betrayal. In the first book Clay is mostly passive and watches things happen. In the second he is active, but the activity is entirely self-centered and he mostly feeds his appetites for drugs, sex, and violence. The two stories are cleverly connected by the opening of Imperial Bedrooms where an unnamed “author” has written a book about Clay and his friends and they go to see the movie. The characters in the first book get to react to their own story as it is quickly summarized by the author and the film. Invisibly the story-teller, who is at first not-Clay, re-emerges as Clay, and then the new story unfolds. It’s a bit of slick misdirection that both links the two novels and allows the second to stand on its own.

It’s a bleak, insular, and repellent world that Ellis has created, but like a highway wreck we still crane our necks and stare at the carnage. Like Albert Camus in The Stranger and Jim Thompson in The Killer Inside Me, Ellis is interested in what makes us do bad things. And more to the point, why we persist in having a moral code in the face of the universe’s indifference. Ellis has received his share of criticism for seeming to glorify debauchery and violence, but I think that misses the mark. I think he looks at the world and sees the depravity and wonders how we can stand by without reacting to it. By making that the central focus of his art it forces us to see it better and thus respond to it. He strikes me as a writer deeply concerned with human values and, in particular, how we let them slip away so easily as we chase more temporal pleasures.

I can’t say that Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms are fun books. Despite their brevity and the crisp, spare style they are not light reading. But they are both well-crafted and cut like a scalpel. You don’t feel the blade going in but the blood comes gushing out anyway. Ellis has kind of hypnotic power and you find yourself entranced by a bunch of people you hope you never have the misfortune to meet. I know I’m going to try a few more of his books.

 

Noir-omancer

Neuromancer by William Gibson is one of my favorite novels. It was published in 1984 but I didn’t get around to reading it until 1990. By then its companion novels in the “Sprawl Trilogy” (Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) were out and those I gobbled up straight away. While the book is best known for popularizing the term “cyberspace” and for its playful and inventive speculations on computer technology and artificial intelligence, it also, like the brilliant 1982 film “Blade Runner”, works as neo-noir. For one thing the plot is an elaborate crime caper not so different from a Donald E. Westlake heist story or a John le Carré espionage tale. For another, the protagonist Case is a dissolute drug addict with a criminal past. Molly, his eventual partner in the escapade, is a freelancer doing muscle work for a variety of shady underworld types. Both characters are fatalistic and world-weary, willing to take on a dangerous task for the chance of a big payoff. Noir, ultimately, is about outlook and atmosphere and is concerned more with motive and character than action or plot elements. Case and Molly are a classic noir duo—loners thrown together through no choice of their own, sexually but not romantically involved, secretive to the point of paranoia, and willing to sell out their employers if something better comes along. The dystopian near-future so beautifully rendered by Gibson’s dazzling prose (“Blade Runner” achieves the same thing visually) infuses the whole story with an atavistic longing for better times.

Re-reading the novel these last few weeks, twenty-five years later, I’m struck by its vividness, clarity, and penetrating insight into corporate branding, advertising, media saturation, and propaganda. Gibson’s vision of a vast world-wide interconnected computer network which he called “the matrix” and his description of cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination” are still surprisingly fresh despite the intervening decades. Much of the tools of Case’s trade—keyboards, data disks, electrodes, adapter plugs, etc.—are anachronisms but they don’t spoil the effect. The language is amazingly supple, particularly the imagined street slang (reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’s “Nadsat” in A Clockwork Orange) and the fanciful hacker or “data cowboy” argot. His vision of weakened governments kow-towing to an international corporate elite, shared by many post-modern writers, only gets closer to reality with each passing year.

Literature may be from a particular time and place, but if it’s good, it will still work years later. No one goes whale-hunting in sailboats any more, but Moby-Dick‘s foray into madness remains relevant. Armies don’t fight with swords, shields, and spears these days but the Iliad‘s probing of the nature of heroism still resonates. Gibson’s debut novel was the standard-bearer of the short-lived “cyberpunk” movement, but his themes of alienation and the loss of individual freedoms will never go out of style.