Humour and Pain and Chaos

Alan McMonagle’s Ithaca

Susanne Stich

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Alan McMonagle is the author of two collections of short stories, Psychotic Episodes (2013) and Liar, Liar (2008), both of which were nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award. His debut novel Ithaca (Picador) was published this spring and longlisted for the prestigious Desmond Elliott Prize. I recently caught up with him at the Cuírt International Festival of Literature in Galway, the city he has lived and worked in for many years. Over the course of various conversations and an exchange of emails we explored a multitude of things, including giant ants and chameleon muses, hero worship, Tom Waits and that ‘distant place of light’, which Ithaca’s 11- year-old narrator can only dream of.

Susanne Stich: You started writing early, Alan. In a recent interview with The Moth you talk about a cleverly titled story you wrote aged seven, ‘The Ants Who Grew Into Gi-ants’. What was it about writing that first attracted you and ultimately drew you back after a period of silence? And, from your perspective now, has this changed much, or is there a part of you that still writes with the abandon of the seven-year old? 

Alan McMonagle: The realm of the imagination was a place I discovered when I was very young. And it became very precious to me. I guarded it with zeal, revelled in its possibilities, did not feel the need to let others in. I remember picking an anthology of Greek Myths and Legends off the bookshelves in our house. I devoured it front-to-back I don't know how many times. The Wooden Horse of Troy. The Labours of Hercules. The Quest for the Golden Fleece. I was in thrall to these stories. We lived in an end-of-row house that came with a long, narrow back garden that tapered to the dirt lane that crept along the backs of the houses. The garden was a scrambled jungle of a place with billowing nettles, bindweed and muckholes. It became my kingdom. And I enacted my own versions of these stories. I couldn't count the number of hours, days, weeks I passed in my own company making up stories and writing them out in my room. By the age of twelve I felt I had already experienced a complete existence. When I hit my teens I abandoned this realm of imagination for a long time, but crucially it did not abandon me. My early adult life was a parade of dithering, reluctance, false-starts, wrong turns and dead-end decisions. I knew there was a gaping hole in my existence. I began to talk to myself about writing like a madman. And for another stretch of time that was all I did. To misquote Don DeLillo, what we are reluctant to touch often seems to contain the fabric of our salvation.And then one day, Enough! I declared, and just sat down at a table with pen and paper. And when I did, I discovered I still had this young voice inside me, howling to tell stories.

SS: Some of the underlying themes in Ithaca also informed your earlier short stories, e.g. fraught relationships between children and adults, mental instability, a contemporary Ireland reeling with cultural, social and religious baggage. What was it like to switch to the novel form?

AMcM: I was writing these scenes, bite size chapters, every one of them with a heading. Each one had a standalone quality to it, and an exchange of dialogue or a little description, a tonal quality or an energy, something that I felt helped each scene earn its keep. I had a novel-length manuscript of these playful, edgy, oh-so tenuously and spuriously held together 'moments'. And that is exactly how some early feedback was worded: 'Alan, you have a batch of loosely related vignettes. Beautifully written vignettes, but that is what they are.' Great, I thought to myself, at the time. Not only am I not yet a novelist, I am no longer a short story writer either. I am a writer of loosely related vignettes. In hindsight, it doesn't sound too bad, but at the time, having immersed myself well-deep for the best part of twelve months in what I was sure was going to be my first novel, I had been hoping for a little more by way of affirmation.

The novel is a slow accumulation. A short story is a detonation, a glimpse, an arrow in flight. A novel wants to spend time with you, get to know you, be your lifelong friend. Friendship is the last thing a short story has on its mind. For all of these reasons and probably more, my transition took a while. I could hear the gears grinding inside me. For a spell of time, as madcap and unproductive as it was brief, I also entertained the idea of simultaneously churning out short stories while working on the novel. This was an ambition quickly abandoned – once I realised that the only likely outcome was going completely out of my mind. Ideas beget ideas I find. One short story leads to another, and another. This is probably why I lived with short stories for as long as I did. And I am still nowhere near the finished article. There is so much I feel I can still learn.

Once I felt my novel did what I wanted it to do, I knew I wouldn't stop until I felt it was time to abandon it. And as with the stories, so with the novel. Further ideas arrived. These are longer ideas, but I feel their time has come. They are howling to get out.

SSIthaca presents a first person, stream of consciousness narrative written in emphatic and often hilarious Hiberno-English. Voice is the driving force behind this book. Jason, its eleven- year-old narrator, soaks up the local lingo like a sponge. In the process, he reveals to the reader all kinds of layers and meanings. Here, for example, is the boy’s reaction to the suicide of a local man:


That’s what everybody called him. If you ask me, an arse-over-heels name for someone ending up fish food at the bottom of sludge river, but that’s the way it was around here these days.

Arse over heels.

Flukey of the top tips and big bets. Flukey of the latest get-rich-quick-scheme. Flukey of the lend-me-a-tenner-today- and-I’ll-give-you-back-a-twenty-next-week. (…) There would be no more tenners for Flukey, and no next week either.

He was broke.

That’s what they were saying drove him to it.

 Oh, boy.

I was broke. The crazywoman I lived with was broke. Everybody else was broke. Imagine the state of the river if we all went diving off Violin Bridge. The skin-and-bone fish quivering in the dirtwater would think they had won the lotto.’

In other interviews you spoke about being an ‘aural learner’, and how you see characters as plots. Leaving aside for a moment that this places you in an important (Irish) literary tradition, how do you go about creating voice(s) on the page while also allowing for plot and character development? Or, more simply put, what’s your process? 

AMcM: My writing life is a flip-flop existence. Any given moment of any given day, one minute, I am on top of the world. The next I just want the universe to go away. It's a two-edged sword. I become unwell if I don't get my writing time in. When I am immersed, a serial killer could be bludgeoning my nearest and dearest and I will not blink for fear of skipping a word I need to get down. At times I feel I have just-this-instant been anointed with an idea that will sustain a novel-length narrative. Other times I show up at my desk fully primed – at least I think I am – and several hours later I realise I have a blank page in front of me, or maybe a few words or phrases to show for the time. This throws me into an instant tailspin, and what's left of the day and, for that matter, the rest of the week, is a one-way trek into the abyss. Why do we sign up for this? It is a question that has no answer.

My muse is a chameleon. I don't always recognise her. Sometimes she approaches quietly, whispering. Sometimes she's loud and clunky and doesn't seem to care that I am not in the mood for company. Sometimes she turns up unexpectedly, when I am with someone else. Or she might turn up when I am out walking by myself or freewheeling towards a red light. If I am not there when she turns up she doesn’t like it and becomes a hootin' tootin' Medusa, a prodding needle inside my head. And then, miffed, she leaves again and promises me she won't be back. Be there when I show up. That's all she ever asks of me. Like the numpty I often am I can't always honour this simple request.

I also read a lot. I probably spend more time reading than writing (or trying to write). I read aloud and I listen to stories. I hear some stories better than others. Certain voices chime more than others. As do the tone and atmosphere and energy of certain stories. These become my tuning forks if you like. Then I pray that my antennae is in receiver mode. At the most rudimentary level, listening to stuff that chimes for me puts me in the mood to write. On slow days, in particular, I take down and re-read favourite passages, listen over and over again to the same stories and voices.

Sometimes later in the day is better than earlier. And later in the week is better than earlier. Anytime is better than afternoons. Sometimes I feel if I didn't have to eat or sleep I could go on forever. Sometimes I wish I could get a good night's sleep in order to feel somewhere approaching human all over again. Sometimes I am producing fine sentences with little or no input from myself. Other times I do not even want to look at a piece of text. DeLillo again: May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.

SS: Do you write longhand, or do you go straight to the keyboard?

AMcM: I have a wonderful selection of notebooks, a mix of gifts and souvenirs and novelty buys, every one of which I am terrified to deface with my indecipherable scrawl. That said, I am on the hoof a lot and I do keep little spiral notebooks handy. At home, especially on the slow days, I might doodle in longhand. If it's firm, I will go straight to the laptop.

SS: In recent years the 2008 economic crash, which is at the heart of Ithaca also, has informed a wide variety of internationally successful Irish fiction by authors such as Sara Baume, Mike McCormack, Danielle McLaughlin and Donal Ryan, to name but a few. 

Considering theme and style, Pat McCabe, who I believe taught you at school for a while, is another name that comes to mind when talking about Ithaca. How did this ‘echo chamber’ of other writers exploring similar subjects impact on the novel?

AMcM: The 2008 economic crash provides me with a plausible backdrop. It allows my characters to behave in the manner they do, gives them permission, if you like, to lash out, and in the only way they know how. We meet Jason, my narrator and central character, at a time of uncertainly and confusion, chaos even. People are literally having their livelihoods ripped from underneath them. The town, the country, the entire world really, is in a state of flux and this filters down all the way, and reaches deep inside my protagonist. When we first meet him he is already aware that, as far as his domestic situation goes, matters are not quite as they should be. What he is not aware of is that he is not coping. And so he lashes out in the only way he knows how – at himself. This is the crucial difference between Jason and say, Francie Brady from McCabe’s The Butcher Boy. Francie wants to have a go at everything external to him. The only thing or person my little fellow is a danger to is himself. He literally wouldn't harm a fly.

SS: Let’s stay with the idea of an echo chamber, though. With the eponymous Greek island representing Odysseus’ home and the final destination of his journey, there is a connection not only with Homer’s Odyssey but also Joyce’s Ulysses. In Ithaca fragments of myth are picked up on by Jason and his friend, a mysterious girl he meets at the local swamp, who throws sweet wrappers into the river as offerings to the gods. Expressing themselves through graffiti and self-harm, the two kids cling to myth like a means for survival. What motivated the inclusion of myth?

AMcM: It was always there. My own early reading has always stayed with me – although, while I was drafting the novel, I wasn't aware of how steeped I was in it. I have a wonderful first reader. Aoife herself is remarkably well read, and it was her reading of early sections that highlighted my own immersion in the myth. There were several moments she pointed out. The early scene where the neighbourhood bully-boys rip Jason's runners off his feet and chuck them in the Swamp. In the myth Jason's nemesis, the evil King Pelias, is told to beware 'the one-sandaled man'. Later, the 'Happy Hour' bar scene sees the neighbourhood women out on the town, and after a suitable intake of alcohol they have great fun chastising the various men in their lives. In the myth, the first stop for Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece is the island of Lemnos, a women-only inhabited island (the reason being that the women have killed all the men!). There are other such parallels. I was not setting out to deliberately mirror the events of the myth, but here it was, happening all the same. It was so trippy.

SS: On your website I came across a fascinating interview you did with Edward M. Gómez for in 2013 when your collection Psychotic Episodes was published. Reading it now, it struck me how a reference to Edna O’Brien’s essay-memoir Mother Ireland (1976) still resonates with much recent Irish fiction, including Ithaca. In the piece O’Brien pointed out how the old cliché of the Irish being ‘allocated […] the tendencies to be wild, wanton, drunk, superstitious, unreliable, backward, toadying and prone to fits’ contrasted with the writer’s perception of ‘a whole entourage of ghosts resid[ing] in [her or him], ghosts with whom the inner rapport is as frequent, as perplexing, as defiant as with any of the living.’

Ithaca is full of mystery. Absences contrast with ghost-like presences. Leaving aside Jason’s missing father, a classic trope in Irish literature, the novel features various other ‘missing’ people, i.e. people who are anything but grounded in reality, including Jason’s emotionally unavailable mother, the girl and, most of all, Jason himself. It’s interesting, though, how the boy is at ease with this, and almost prefers the absence of people to their presence:

‘And I thought: People. Around here some of them are like clouds. Once they clear out of sight, it’s a beautiful day.’ 

AMcM: I think this points to the kernel of the story. Jason wants to feel alive in the world. This is the reason for his self-harming and the kind of relationship he develops with the girl and the imaginative leaps they take together. These all serve as a reminder to Jason that he exists. And although the novel is populated with quite a large cast of supporting players, Jason requires something more. He is haunted by his father. He is fed up with his mother's antics.

At the end of the Bertolt Brecht play Life Of Galileo, Galileo's friend says, 'unlucky the man that has no heroes' and Galileo says, 'lucky the man that needs no heroes.' Like it or not, my little guy needs a hero, and in his case it involves a journey that is a mix of humour and pain and chaos. A journey that involves a search for something that may remain elusive. And I think what the novel is trying to do is convey the measures Jason is prepared to take as he begins to realise that who or what he is looking for is possibly a lot closer to home than he initially believes. 

SS: Regardless of its ghostly undercurrent, you’re depicting a very real world in Ithaca, an Irish town in the midlands with pubs, shops, housing estates, a river running through it, nature surrounding it, the residents reeling from the economic crash. And yet, some of the characters act like absurdist stage players who remain hermetically sealed off from each others’ humanity. Jason’s movement, his frantic running around and acts of self-harm, contrast with the stasis of many of the supporting characters. On top of that, the bleak locations seem like alternative versions of your characters’ disturbed minds. At times all this reminded me of Samuel Beckett.

AMcM: Yes, Beckett is an influence. The repeating scenes, the one-on-one banter, the mordant humour, the leafless ditch tree. Harry Brewster and Fergal Flood are my Laurel and Hardy. Brains and No-brains with his hat of dangling mini-weapons. These are characters straight out of the silent era of movies, an era I like to think influenced Beckett. The theatrical vibe and moments of melodrama are deliberate. I always enjoyed the way the American short story writer Flannery O'Connor set up her own comic universes, peopling her stories with archetypes and caricatures, only to flip this and turn the tables on these characters and the reader. I have tried to do something similar. Harry and Fergal running the country from the safety of their fifth or sixth stout. The bullies, one more dangerous than the other. The busy-bee, Lily the Nose, wanting to know everybody's business. The infatuated, yet sympathetic, cop Lawless. To a certain extent they are all cartoon characters, constantly immersing themselves in their own little sagas. They have been let down by forces, political and socio-economic, greater than they can know or understand. As I've mentioned already, when we meet them it is almost as though they have been given permission (and carte blanche at that) to lash out. Ultimately, however, I feel their humanity shines through. By the novel's end we see that they truly care, and this is conveyed in how they, by turn, interact with Jason. Even the bullies back off, declining the opportunity to strike when it is presented to them on a plate.

SS: Let’s look at the females in Ithaca. Jason’s little world is full of them, and they do fascinate him. In the ‘Happy Hour’ scene, which you already mentioned, he watches the women of the town arrive in the pub:

‘In no time the place was full of women. They arrived in all shapes and sizes, a steady parade of them, all perfume and make-up and handbags, and I didn’t know where to look. Some arrived together, chattering over each other like a haggard of sparrows. Some came in pairs, and so quiet they sat themselves down without anyone noticing. Some came alone.’

The two central female characters, Jason’s mother and the girl, are markedly overbearing and unpredictable, qualities which, when it comes to women, are still relatively unusual in the Irish literary tradition. Perhaps we can start by looking at Jacinta, the mother. At almost 30 years old she loves joyriding and routinely deceives the authorities by telling outrageous lies about her son’s health. I thought your observations of the impact she has on Jason were among the most poignant and moving sections of the novel. Here’s a quote illustrating their relationship:


I couldn’t figure this woman out. One minute she was in great form, dragging Mario up the stairs into her room, cooing away at Paris promises, throwing money my way. Next thing she was smashing up the place, telling me where to go, ridiculing my time with the girl. Now I could hardly get so much as a peep out of her. If she was thinking about anything it was impossible to say. Her face was a blank page, a folded-up map, an empty place.

It was a sea-saw time we were having together, a flip-flop shoe of an existence.

Who knew what was going to happen tomorrow?’

His mother’s behaviour brings out various coping mechanisms in Jason. Beside causing him to self-harm, it makes him an inventive loner who tidies the house after she wrecks it. And while his own description of her, ‘more cockroach than witch. Indestructible,’ is rather discerning, it is also shocking.

The girl is roughly the same age as Jason, and another neglected child. They become secret confidantes, but she is also sexually precocious, which ultimately jars with Jason’s prepubescent self.

How did you go about writing these females?

AMcM: I had three significant insights or imaginative breakthroughs in the writing of the novel, two of which relate to the major female presences in Jason's life. Initially I didn't know what to make of this mother character. Right from the get-go she was swinging from the hips, spinning around in cars that don't belong to her, entertaining various men, positing increasingly perilous stories regarding her son's health. She is neglectful and flawed and at times quite childlike. But she is also fearless and sassy and, when it comes to it, someone you wouldn't mind having your back. Her age is also important, twenty-nine pushing thirty, so it seems perfectly reasonable for Jacinta to harbour her own dreams and ambitions, and by extension, her own disappointments and frustrations. When we first meet her she is lashing out – again in the only way she knows how. And, to me, this renders her a very human character.

For a stretch of time before all of this, however, I wasn't sure I wanted her to be around by the novel's end. Then one morning I recall showing up at the kitchen table ready to churn out another morning's work and there she was, sitting at the other end of the table, pouring herself a glass of vodka and offering me a look that proclaimed one and only one thing: if you even think about killing me off in your dreams you better wake up and apologise. After that, I knew I was dealing with a natural born survivor. And I came to have a grudging admiration and respect for her. In certain ways I think the novel belongs to her.

The girl is there to light up the novel, or at least provide an attempt at this. Jason has his playful moments and his humorous banter with the various neighbourhood folk. Ultimately, though, he is a melancholy character, one given to solitude and levels of introspection one would not wish upon one so young. It sends him to dark places. The girl acts as a conduit, a constant prod to Jason that he is very much alive, that he exists in the world, and that his world is extending with each passing day. She informs Jason's knowledge, imagination and desire to stake his claim in the scheme of things. And so, just as with the mother, she has a crucial role to play. Without this pair of significant females I feel that Jason will sink, and a lot faster than he or anybody else thinks.

SS: There is much discussion of the dystopian element in recent Irish fiction, and Ithaca certainly fits with the concept. Despite the wildly humorous dialogue and Jason’s ultimately tender nature, you’re telling a very dark story in which psychosis becomes a dubious lifeboat:

I stared at where I’d cut, saw the blood gather in little bubbles, held my arm to my mouth, tasted grit and rust. Closed my eyes and cut again, and then again and again, each cut rushing giddy waves through me, taking me further and further away, until at last I was floating beneath that clear sky and blue sea, my boat gently bobbing and caressing the friendly water, and the sounds of dripping oars and lapping tide, and the high sun lighting the way before me. And the girl’s voice was coming through again. Keep going. Don’t stop. And so I dipped my oar and pulled, and with every stroke could feel myself getting closer to that distant place of light.’

Is there an attainable ‘distant place of light’ for Jason, an Odyssey-type homecoming, let alone for any of the other characters?

AMcM: The ending, I suppose, is left to interpretation. Upon reading a more-or-less completed final draft, Aoife, my first reader, and Ivan, my agent, were very much of the same opinion: it doesn't look good for Jason. Not good at all. That is to say, this 'distant place of light' alluded to in your question could well prove to be a leap too far for my protagonist. Two further readers (editors, actually) were of a totally different mindset: they could see a sliver of hope for Jason. I, myself, vacillate between the two opposing viewpoints, though that probably says more about me than the novel's ending. I think I have left the ending deliberately ambiguous. For me, a novel isn't done until the reader as well as the writer gets through it. And, should he or she wish, my ending leaves a deliberate gap for the reader to fill in. How and what he or she chooses for 'filler' is beyond my control.

As for the other characters, Jacinta, I feel, has demonstrated her ability to endure. Where she stands vis-à-vis Jason by the novel's end will possibly contribute to his fate. At the conclusion of the story, she is by no means a reformed character, nor is she completely unaware of her child's vulnerability. To a certain extent I wanted the story to carry on after the writing stopped. Again, this is probably more a hallmark of short fiction than the novel, but to me it felt like a natural way to remove myself from the narrative.

SS: Telling of life in a globalised world where the characters have little to gamble with but their emotions, Ithaca resonates well beyond the Irish context. At times I was reminded of George Saunders’ story ‘The End of FIRPO in the World’ from his collection Pastoralia. The many references to popular culture, e.g. Marlon Brando, Badlands and The Sopranos, called to mind for me the writings of Argentinian writer Manuel Puig. I was also intrigued by your epigraph, a segment from Tom Waits’ song ‘Time’ featuring ‘[pretend] orphans’, ‘mamas boys’ and the line ‘So just close your eyes, son/ And this won’t hurt a bit’, all of which connect poignantly with the novel.

How did these references come about, and where will you go from here?

AMcM: Movies, songs, television shows. I think they partly pertain to that antennae I alluded to before. Early into the novel I started watching The Sopranos during my (supposed) downtime. I became quickly addicted. At one point I sat through eight episodes, pausing only for some coffee. Brando's movies – the early ones – are seared into me. The lyrics and music of Tom Waits, weary and wry and wise, had that tonal quality I was chasing (and am always chasing), just like those haunting, poetic voiceovers in Terrence Malick's early films Badlands and Days Of Heaven. I suppose these references helped me find a way into the world of the novel. And the fact that these are popular references provides just enough of a foothold to ground the narrative in a here-and-now that travels well beyond the claustrophobic horizons of its hinterland, which is something that the myth (with its oblique references and network of allusions) could never hope to achieve.

As to where I will go from here I often think of a remark attributed to a number of  writers: There only are two stories to tell, ‘a person goes in search of something’, and ‘a stranger comes to town’. I have done my 'search' story, so maybe I will now have a go at the 'stranger comes to town' version.

SS: Here is my final question. Usually, at this stage, I like to ask about a favourite recent read, but there is a sub-theme in Ithaca that stuck with me, Jason and the girl’s conversations about prisoners’ famous last meals. What would be yours, Alan? (And, by the way, if you have a reading recommendation, please go ahead…)

AMcM: I find it heartbreaking that I won't have enough time in my lifetime to get to everything I want to read. So when the moment arrives I am going to skip my last meal, and instead ask for more reading time. Then I am going to ask the devil and god the same question – how many books can I take with me, and whoever of these demented lunatics answers with the higher number is stuck with me for eternity.

My final reading choice would be Waiting For Godot. Or maybe Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais because I intend for it to take a long, long time.

SS: Thank you Alan! It’s been fabulous having you on board. Best of luck with whatever comes next.