The Gathering – Anne Enright

27 September 2008
Chapters 1-10…
…about a quarter of the novel. I’m re-reading it after reading it last year; then, I remember thinking that the title might have something to do with an old meaning of the word: a gathering is a suppurating swelling due, presumably, to some sort of infection. I couldn’t remember why I thought that – but now I can. The first-person narrator is infatuated by the physicality of the world. There are at least four parallel narratives going on, covering different time-frames (tell you later) and in all of them she’s there, locked in the corporeality of births, marriages and deaths. In 60 or so pages we’ve had references to her mother’s giving birth ‘like shitting‘, the way her own child is ‘unsheathed‘ and the ‘aromatic rush’ of the return of her own sense of smell afterwards. We’ve had descriptions of at least three erections, her grandfather’s hand on his wife’s pubis (referred to twice) and their contraceptive arrangements, the sounds of the parental bed, her older brother’s flamboyant pissing into a fenced-off lake (referred to twice), the feel of a fat man’s clothed belly bearing down on the narrator’s miscreant childhood self, the metabolic effects of alcoholism, the look and feel of at least two corpses…. I could go on. I already have gone on.

That’s only one thread, the insistent background noise (and feel, and smell) of a childhood spent with what feels like dozens of siblings in a house that was never big enough however many rooms they added. At the start of the novel she’s in the now, in the overextended house where her mother still lives, breaking the news of her alcoholic brother Liam’s death. We don’t know he’s alcoholic at the start, but we will: Anne Enright (or Veronica Hegarty) uses the given time-frame of the hours and days following that moment to – what? – tell the story of this dysfunctional, loving (and not loving), clever stupid caring thoughtless family. Provocatively, she begins her memories, or not-memories, with details of her grandparents she couldn’t possibly know. And I mean details, like the sexual tension in the air between her grandmother and the best friend of the husband she hasn’t met yet as they wait in a Dublin bar like characters in Ulysses.

After that she ranges amongst her own memories – which she sometimes re-drafts midstream as she is reminded of other details – and, apparently remembered just as vividly, the stuff of family folklore. It’s multilayered and disorientating at the same time, the details of the blond swirls of her grandfather’s body-hair as intensely real in her mind as the habits of her brothers when she was six. We wonder where this stuff comes from, how much of it really is based on family stories. Veronica describes herself as the most straightforward – as in, least dysfunctional – of the Hegartys, and yet… we don’t know how much of it to believe. Like, when her mother forced her as a child to look at her dead grandfather’s disfigured foot, her brother (the one who’s now dead) was there as well. We get the picture. Oh, but her younger sister must have been there as well, she remembers, and she must have behaved like – what? – like she always did. Fine. And, but, wait a minute, the person sitting with the dead man in a sort of vigil was the friend whose sexual arousal decades before in a Dublin bar we know all about….

All this, so far, is told in the context of Veronica’s journey to England to identify Liam’s body and make the funeral arrangements. It’s a kind of postmodern variant of stream-of-consciousness: the chaos of a grieving sister’s thoughts as she tries to come to terms not only with how he could have died – although we get plenty of that – but also with the much broader story of how he could have ended up as the sort of person who would die like that. I can remember from when I first read the book that there is something in their shared childhood for her to try to fathom. And now I’ve remembered that much.… Does it account for all the sex, real or vividly imagined? Her focusing on the embarrassing bulge in the trousers of the man on the train, her memory of a flasher when she was on holiday in Italy? Does it – in yet another narrative timeline – account for the sexlessness of her own marriage a month after her brother’s death? Hmm.

8 October
Chapters 11-21
Now, as the memoir thread moves on to the student years, we get a lot more of Veronica’s take on sex. Good sex with the Jewish Brooklyn guy, who shows how it can be a relaxed business, and not so good sex all the rest of the time. In the now thread, some weeks after the funeral, the dysfunction is total. We know from earlier on that after a quickie on the night of the wake Veronica now knows how to just say no without opening her mouth – one of several orifices alluded to in this section at various pitches of disgust. In Chapter 20 (I think) her husband is asleep next to her with a tumescent monster of a penis weighing him down. She tries to imagine the ‘thing’ he’s fucking in his dreams, and wonders if the thing is herself. And it’s all a bit like that: the line between reality and Veronica’s repelled take on it, the reduction of all physical activity – particularly this one – to sordid and disgusting bodily functions leaves us in no doubt that Veronica is emphatically not Anne Enright. What we’re witnessing is some sort of breakdown.

Liam is there, or not there, in all the threads, bringing the disparate narratives. In her imagination he’s there at her side on her journey to identify his body in England; he’s at university with her before he drops out, shares sordid flats with her until he moves on. And he’s always there in the childhood thread, especially at the time (or times) when they have to stay with their grandmother Ada. It’s Liam she mooches about with as they wait for Ada, visiting her son in the asylum on their trip to the seaside, Liam who gets into bed with her to keep her awake talking when he can’t sleep. And, obviously, it’s Liam she watches on his slide to alcoholism and death. Some of the chapters in this quarter of the novel seem to have a more straightforward element of memoir about them: this is what they did at university, or in the summer they spent working in England.

The other character who figures very large is Ada. In some chapters it’s Ada’s imagined past – imagined by Veronica – particularly the one when we see Ada choosing Charlie and not ‘Lamb’ Nugent, the man in the bar in that chapter near the start. At the races they all go to, she could have chosen either of them but, for no particular reason I can remember, the one who will become the Hegarty children’s grandfather is Charlie. Why does Veronica go on about Ada and her men? Dunno. She’s a constant presence in other chapters as well, described as though she’s the key adult in her grandchildren’s lives: there’s literally hardly a mention of their parents. And there’s more….

In Chapter 21 we get to hear about one of Ada’s chaste tea-and-biscuit sessions with Lamb – which, suddenly and uniquely, isn’t chaste at all. It’s bang (as it were) in the centre of the novel and Enright makes a big thing of it. These two, now middle-aged, find themselves on the floor, with Lamb’s penis (yawn) inside Ada, and fluids doing what fluids do in this book. Or do they? Veronica makes it perfectly clear that she’s making it all up. They’re characters in a scene she’s creating – she even refers to the page she writes – and she offers a fork in the road for them that they might have taken – but almost certainly didn’t. This longed-for culmination of decades of distant intimacy is, as both Veronica and Anne Enright tell us, like everything else in this book. Believe it, we’re being told in a the no-nonsense, sensibly postmodern way of some current fiction, or don’t.

Fork in the road break. Charlotte Bronte does it at the end of Villette, offering the reader the choice of believing what we want to believe or believing what’s patently true. Fowles does it, ground-breakingly, several times in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. McEwan does it in Atonement. Comedy shows like Scrubs do something similar in those scenes where the main character does whatever he does, gloriously or ignominiously – and then realises it hasn’t really happened at all. I bet there are plenty of others.

15 October
Chapters 22-30
Ah. In Ch 22 Veronica finally gets round to telling us what she saw when she came home to Ada’s once: Lamb Nugent being masturbated by Liam, aged about 9. And guess what? Liam’s death was suicide: the old stones in the pockets trick. As we go through the chapters in this part of the novel – culminating in the first day of the gathering in Chapter 30 – Veronica makes it absolutely clear that she traces all Liam’s problems, right up to the suicide, to what she saw him doing as a child. At the gathering she screams it at her mother… except she doesn’t. It’s one of those What I might/could/should have said moments you get in comedies and novels like this; in fact, she’s as polite to her mother as everyone in the family always is. So: no catharsis. She’ll have to live with the guilt for a while longer yet.

In these chapters between the revelation and the non-confession we get something of the family. Some of it is disappointingly predictable: Enright, in what strikes me as a cop-out, has Veronica citing someone from a different huge family about how there’s ‘always’ a drunk, ‘always’ one who makes piles of money, ‘always’… etcetera. And – wouldn’t you know it? – they have mad blue Hegarty eyes. And the mad uncle (the one Ada visited in an earlier chapter) who’s a mathematical genius. And the brother who’s always routinely described as psychotic. And the priest who’s lost his vocation but hasn’t told anybody yet…. These are the people who gather for Liam’s funeral in the hugely extended Chapter 30 – extended so we can see how they get on / don’t get on – and I find it one of the least engaging bits of the novel so far. Frankly, as though Enright had been warning us earlier on, they do seem like just about every other large (fictional) family.

There’s been a lot of other water (etc.) under the bridge. We get a bit more about her shared/ not shared adolescence with Liam. We get a lot more about the conventional, loveless marriage she’s stuck in with Mr Boring. And what links these two is Veronica’s – what? – acute sexual neurosis. When Liam is taken in by the cops as a teenager she asks him (eventually) if he was touching up the local, underage, sexually available nymphet. He is appalled. In another thread she screams at her husband that there is no line drawn in his sexual fantasies. Who wouldn’t he fuck? Her husband thinks she’s gone mad – and she thinks he‘s right. In the weeks after the funeral she thinks of the car’s passenger seat and headrest as a safely dead male companion, and she takes him for long nocturnal drives. She spends a night in a hotel for no reason – except to prove that she can. She stays up all night drinking, possibly to avoid any chance of sex. Except… one day when hubby comes in from work she gives him a blow-job just to keep him quiet….

She knows she’s barmy, her husband knows she’s barmy, and so do we. And the unspoken outburst at the funeral, which we only learn about after seeing her floundering about for a month, turns out to be about her inability to reconcile herself to having the knowledge of the trauma in Liam’s childhood – and not doing anything about it. Enright seems to make this clear – or as clear as anything ever is in this book – in the juxtaposition in these two narrative threads: her inability to tell the others at the funeral what she saw, and her post-gathering madness. She’s mad because she has appalling knowledge and she doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s turned her in on herself, and in her dark, alcohol-fuelled nights of the soul the only constant seems to be unremitting disgust.

It also accounts for another motif in this section: her attempts, both before and after the funeral, to retrace some of her childhood steps. Particularly she wants to find Ada, as she has from the beginning of the novel. On the plane from England she looks for the asylum on the coast; she drives there with her sister, and to Ada’s house on her night travels. None of it works, as we’ve seen: she’s only recently fully remembered the childhood scene, and answers to the questions she asks herself aren’t going to come from geography. On the way back from England with her nearly alcoholic sister she tries to retrieve shared memories with her. That doesn’t work either: the permanently half-drunk Kitty isn’t bothered.

All she gets is ghosts: constant half-glimpses of Liam, his half-heard voice commenting just as he always did. And Ada, physically real at the vigil and… no help at all. Veronica, as she seems to be realising, is on her own. Except: there’s a whodunnit moment as she discovers Ada’s rent-books, kept in a box for decades by her mother for no particular reason. Somehow they are a link with Lamb Nugent: someone has told Veronica earlier in the day that he was Ada’s landlord. They are kept until… 1975. Is this significant? After that was Ada offering something instead of rent? We remember the fact that in an earlier chapter Veronica described Ada as a prostitute, and we remember the (real or imagined) sexual encounter between her and Nugent a few chapters back. Or, reader, does Nugent’s unspoken contract with the 9-year-old Liam have something to do with it? Did Ada know?

It could all be a red herring, the product of Veronica’s neurosis. We’ll see soon: less than one-fifth of the novel to go.

19 October
Chapter 31 to the end
Everything gets sorted out and everyone lives happily ever after. As if. After the attenuated Chapter 30 the chapters are short, choppy. Veronica leaves the wake early – that is, she doesn’t stay up all night drinking with the others – and goes home for the shag we already know about. But, this being the novel it is, that’s only described in a later chapter. And then there’s the surprise guest at the funeral: Liam’s son, the one he had with the personality-free woman he brought to meet Veronica and her family a few years – and a few chapters – ago. So it’s redemption time? Course not. Besides, we’ve had chapters and chapters about the weeks of misery Vero goes through after the funeral. In fact, I’m not quite sure what the nephew is doing there at all….

What else? There’s more on Ada, inevitably, and more on Veronica’s memories, both unreliable and selective. And invented, possibly. Like now, after all the dredged-up stuff about Liam and Lamb Nugent she remembers – as in, realising all the time that it’s almost certainly a false memory – that she was also the one with her hand in Nugent’s flies, and that Ada saw this and wasn’t fazed. As with the slightly less controversial story of Ada and Nugent’s attack of sexual passion in the middle of the novel, she knows it’s almost certainly not true even as she tells it. What she’s doing is… what? Sorting it out in her own head? Testing out possibilities? Giving herself the opportunity to suck it, so to speak, and see?

There isn’t any redemption as weeks turn into months after the funeral. She’s still not interested in sex, she’s still going for aimless nocturnal drives, she’s still hating the family she grew up in. Ok, Liam’s son has the Hegarty eyes, and for a few minutes or hours at the funeral she’s obsessed by his resemblance to her dead brother – but it’s not enough.

Near the end she decides to get on a plane. If we think, Ah, some action at last – well, we’re being premature. Because she flies to: nowhere. In fact she flies to Gatwick… and stays in the airport like the Tom Hanks character in that film where he stays in an airport. (The Terminal, 2004: I just checked.) I wonder if Anne Enright heard about that movie – I’m sure she wouldn’t have gone to see it – and thought it offered a neat ready-made image, better than the old fork in the road, of how Veronica has got to choose where she‘s going. Out of her present life? If so, where to? As she sees the names of destinations coming up on the departures board, at first they’re meaningless patterns…

…but she notices the intentness of the people around her, thinks of the families most of them will be travelling to or from – and she begins to re-engage. There’s a particularly Gatheringesque image of skeins of blood encircling the world as she begins to realise that she’s involved too. The daughters who we’ve failed to get to know all through the novel – at one point it’s only the responsibility for their day-to-day care that their parents ever talk about, according to Veronica – take on a more significant meaning. She’s got to go back to them because – why? – because they‘re the next generation, I suppose, and they need looking after better than she and her siblings were. That‘s why Liam‘s son appears in the novel when he does – and I‘ve just remembered how Veronica also realises during the gathering that Mossie the psychotic brother’s quiet, self-contained daughters aren‘t odd… they‘re happy. (Mossie is no psychotic either: he was just making his way in that ridiculous family.)

So. If the gathering really was some sort of boil, well, it’s burst now and at last she can start to live without it. In Gatwick Airport she‘s realised it‘s not about the family she grew up in, it‘s about the one she‘s in now. She buys a ticket back home and finishes with perhaps the most hopeful words in the novel: ‘I have been falling into my own life for months. And I am about to hit it, now.’ Strong word, hit. Physical, like so much else Veronica’s told us about. But that particular impact isn’t for this novel – which, it turns out, has been about getting to the end of round one. Not redemption, then. Survival. Which is more than Liam managed and, for Veronica, is some kind of victory.

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