Smile – Roddy Doyle

[I decided to read this novel in three sections. I wrote about each section before reading the next, so I never knew what was coming next.]

5 November 2017
Chapters 1-6
There’s no urgent need to stop here, but why not? This is one of those novels I can’t ever forget is a novel as I read it. Why is the successful novelist in his late fifties writing, in the first person, as a man almost the same age and from the same part of Dublin, who was only ever an also-ran? (And yes, I was wondering from page 1 how reliable this narrator would be, and whether he’s really the loser he presents himself as – and seems to believe he is – from the desperate opening sentence onwards.) And why has Roddy Doyle set at least two time-lines running, so that when Chapter 2 opens we don’t realise for the first few lines that the desperation he is describing is from over 40 years ago? He’s now back at secondary school – it has to be one of those schools run by a band of sadistic or just plain sad Christian Brothers that we all recognise from Irish fiction – and he stays there for the rest of the chapter. There are occasional flashbacks or flash-forwards to other moments in his life… or another time-line entirely might open up, so we begin to understand why the working-class boy might drop out of university because he thinks he’s going to be a writer.

The narrator is in a pit of self-loathing or self-pity (you decide), and wants to describe how he got there. We don’t know yet whether he’ll be able to move on from wherever he is – literally, from the cheap flat he’s renting after his marriage has apparently ended, or emotionally – and… what? I hope Roddy Doyle makes it more interesting than I’m finding it after six chapters. Everything so far is dingy, and I’ve asked myself (because that’s what I find myself doing with a novel like this) whether this is Doyle’s way of offering an insight into our man’s state of mind. For someone suffering from depression, everything is drab – and everything you’ve ever done is second-rate.

So when he wants to decide which pub should be his local, he presents the way he goes about it as cack-handed. ‘I stayed up at the bar a few times, but I didn’t want the barman to think that I needed someone to talk to,’ goes that opening sentence, and we’re off and away into the embarrassment of the reluctant outsider. He was brought up in this part of Dublin, but that isn’t helping him at all. Having left a long time ago, he’s a fish out of water – another trope that’s been around the block more times than anyone could count – and he’s clueless. Maybe he should never have tried to go back. Well, duh. But while we’re still in this first chapter, and still in this time-line, something happens. A few days or weeks after he’s been on his first trip to shop for groceries, an overbearing local, acting friendly, comes over to make conversation. Our man’s already made a sad little joke about being ‘too old to be gay back’ to the barman who might be gay and interested, but this bloke in his shorts is after something else. He recognises our man as ‘Victor’, who was in his class at school. Several chapters later, our man’s still finding it almost impossible to remember him – perhaps he’s blocked the memory out, like so many other things from that time at school – but he does remember his sister…

…and we’re off and away, again, this time at the opening of Chapter 2, into the testosterone-fuelled agony – but not only that – of adolescent life. He went to the Christian Brothers school for five years, ‘and I had an erection for four of them.’ Trope number… how many is that now? I still remember that aspect of Angela’s Ashes with a sort of chill. And Roddy Doyle, who knows about school-teaching, has decided that Victor’s school is going to be ‘savage.’ It’s his word, and it’s a good job that Victor (or Roddy Doyle) is such a good writer that we begin to believe completely in the mind-set of double-think, betrayal – and sly rejoicing that it’s someone else who’s getting ‘slaughtered’ this time.

Victor, for a long time nicknamed ‘Queer’ because one of the Brothers tells them he ‘can’t resist’ his smile – you can imagine the playground beating that comes out of that, although it’s mild as things go in this world – only survives by being verbally cruel. He finally gains a kind of acceptance by getting the other boys to see that the Brothers are either zombies or cunts. He comes up with this as they wait for the Brother who has terrified his ad hoc choir into learning an Irish mass – the auditions, for every boy in the school, were a ritual humiliation for most of them – and he makes him the first butt of this joke. He dares anybody to ask him which he is… which nobody needs to do for Victor’s triumph to be assured. Maybe they’ll stop calling him Queer now.

We only discover this after a chapter featuring the low-level music journalism that gets Victor believing in his own writing ability. He writes gonzo reviews in the style of Hunter S Thompson, but what marks him out is his cruelty. His first two reviews show us the style: a long one praises a particular band. Beneath it, in eleven words – he’s counted them for us – he turns the ambitions of a different band to ashes: ‘See review of’ – whoever – ‘above, and place “not” before every verb.’  His trademark sarcasm gets him a name, of a kind, in the tiny world of Dublin rock fandom. He writes for an NME wannabe without any of its post-punk cool, but it works for him for a while. In Dublin, you can get by for two, or three – or more – years on the back of a single minor success, and it makes Victor believe for a while that he’s made it. But he doesn’t enjoy the hurt he causes when he has to come face-to-face with it: one singer he’d been a smart-arse about is in tears some months later when they meet in a bar.

And something else turns up, that makes it believable that the middle-aged Victor might be mistaken for a success by men like the one in shorts who’s insisted on talking to him in the pub. He tells Victor he hasn’t read his book – he never reads, he says, pretending not to be proud of it – but he knows people who have. Victor knows plenty of people who say they have read the book he meant to write but never did, however much he might have talked about it. He had become well known at first for his notorious appearances on the radio – but later, mortifyingly, for being married to the woman who soon becomes much more famous than he is. Ah. Rachel becomes a household name. He doesn’t.

His rise in journalism seems to have come about by chance. Other writers on the paper had moved on from music and were now interested in politics. Victor tells us that he couldn’t care less at the time… but he thought he had better not turn down his boss’s request for him to do an interview with a young woman, a member of the Irish parliament. It’s the making of him. The boss had already told him to expect an exclusive, and she offers him two. This is the time of the abortion referendum, and she tells him she had had an abortion in London. That isn’t all. She doesn’t like politics, only agreed to stand for election in her dead father’s safe seat through a kind of mispaced loyalty, and plans to leave Ireland soon after the broadcast. She’s a Londoner now, she says. Fine. Our man has his exclusives, and… and Chapter 6 ends with what might or might not be directly linked to his feature. Five months later, she’s dead.

One last thing. He cares nothing for the man in shorts, is appalled by his familiar tale of making a million during the house-building bubble Ireland went through while it was a short-lived tiger economy, and… makes no moves to avoid his company the next time he goes to the pub. And the next time. The man is called Fitzpatrick, and seems to want to bring back the laddish schoolboy camaraderie that never existed for Victor. But he goes along with it – neither he nor the reader really knows why – and it’s Fitzpatrick who becomes the first person outside a small inner circle that Victor tells about his break-up with Rachel. This happens while Fitz is eyeing up the group of 40-something women who have turned up, on their way somewhere else, and the story distracts Fitz for a while. But the women are still there as Victor finishes his sad story, and… we don’t know what’s going to happen yet.

7 November
Chapters 7-11
It becomes easier to keep track in these middle chapters. Doyle leapfrogs, but each chapter – very short or very long – comes neatly packaged. Now (short). Meeting Rachel (long). The school’s Head Brother briefly feeling Victor up (just over a page). Rachel and Victor in love, settling down etc. (long). Now (long). I’m mentioning the formatting because Doyle is starting to play some games with the narrative now. He even has Victor, in the present time-line, writing a sentence or two that we remember from the first long chapter dealing with Rachel. What was I asking when I first started writing about this novel? ‘I was wondering from page 1 how reliable this narrator would be,’ and now Doyle is making us ask the question all over again.

I was already asking it before, while reading the long chapters about the relationship with Rachel. I found it hard to believe anything about her, because she sounds like every man’s fantasy of what a lover and wife might be. I won’t go into details, but think about any woman you really like – you don’t have to be a heterosexual man to do this, although it probably works better if you are – and think of any faults she might have. Rachel is that woman, without the faults. Not jealous, not selfish, not moody, not a player of games… and for every fault she doesn’t have, she has a bunch of good points. She’s every possible thing a man would want, in other words, and Victor’s relationship, for decades, is entirely unproblematic. Even five years ago, he says, she wouldn’t be sarcastic if he mentioned his writing ambitions. She must have the patience of that woman in the Chaucer tale. Griselda.

So who is really presenting us with this stuff, Victor or Roddy? And is it a coincidence that Victor’s life has always been about how he presents himself to other people? This is now becoming clearer, in the present time-line, as he calculates what he will need to do in order to truly become one of the lads, the group of three or four men who meet in the pub. It had been Fitzpatrick who let Victor in to the group, but not because he’s a member of it. He uses what he knows about Victor – Guess who this cunt’s married to, or words to that effect – to gain entry himself. But the others don’t like Fitz any more than Victor does, and he doesn’t turn up the next time that Victor meets them.

By the end of this proper session – a round each, so that’s four pints – he’s well on the way to being accepted. He’s going to have to be very careful how he builds on his success, he thinks. He’s clever enough – or, at least, he is in the narrative he’s presenting to us – to decode the meanings of the throwaway lines that blokes use between themselves. Roddy Doyle is good at this stuff – see Two Pints – and the way he has Victor unpack it makes our man implausibly perceptive. Except Doyle, perhaps, wants us to believe that it’s easy for anyone who came of age in a Christian Brothers school. He makes this explicit when he has Victor remark, at least once, that it’s just like being back there – he might not have had male company of this kind for over thirty years, but there are some things you don’t forget. And he decides, among other things, that he’ll need to get Sky TV so he can get up to speed with the football.

He also decides, and this is when we start to get those metafictional games, that there’s a novel to be made out of these experiences. As early as the evening after his first introduction to the other blokes he’s writing those lines we recognise about Rachel – specifically, about a particularly erotic thing she does during sex – but that’s not what the lads will get from him. A novel is one thing, but pub talk is something else. After his four-pint session he’s going to write down the banter… but not on the nice paper he’s got for his novel. Roddy Doyle couldn’t make it more explicit how Victor compartmentalises his own persona as he gets him to look for a notebook he knows he has somewhere. Rachel gave it him. He is tempted to text her that he’s got a novel and some short stories under way, but decides to hide the phone so he can’t. Good move. But, just before lying down on his bed, he picks up the phone… and that’s where we leave him at the end of Chapter 11.

There’s other stuff. Fifty pages – nearly a quarter of the book – is taken up by his meeting with Rachel, the story of their implausibly problem-free existence together, and her success. As Victor tells it, her success in guiding what begins as a catering business from a one-woman operation to national treasure status doesn’t make him as envious as you might imagine. For five years, up to the present time-line, she’s been one of the two main presenters on a TV show about whether would-be entrepreneurs can make it in business, and… it’s another improbability. I’m really hoping that Roddy Doyle is going to let some of the air out of the tyres of Victor’s story. Like, how come the status quo – her success alongside his continuing loser status – lasts for something like 30 years? A lot of ups and downs happen in real relationships in that amount of time. I can only believe that a marriage made in the fantasy heaven of Victor’s imagination could survive so long.

Victor and Rachel both grew up in families. I haven’t said anything about Victor’s lovely, hardworking mum or Rachel’s pompous right-wing git of a dad. Rachel loves her but hates her own father. The way she gets on with his mum makes Victor jealous, but he agrees with her about her father. He hates Victor, whose claim to fame in his early 20s is his habit of saying shocking things on the radio. The hatred is mutual. Victor was still at school when his own father died – we get a riff about the stilted formality of how the Brothers convey bad news – and is he an only child? Or does he have a sister too, one he never mentions, or am I getting confused? Whatever, she might as well not exist. Rachel has three or four siblings, and, in the scene when Victor meets them they seem sort of ok in a way he doesn’t quite get. How could he?

As for the Fitzpatrick thread…. I doubt that we’ve seen the last of him. In the short chapter set in the present day, a barman has been assuming that they are brothers. It’s an idea that Victor finds hard to laugh off, and I’ve been trying to work out why this unlikeable, needy no-hoper with a toe-curling line in offensive banter is in this novel. Maybe the barman’s mistake is a clue, especially when he tries to explain it by describing his own brother. ‘We were ringers for each other when we were kids. We’re not now, like…. But people who don’t know us still know we’re brothers. When we’re together, like.’ Ah, Roddy. Say no more. At some level, Victor and Fitzpatrick are… no, surely not.

9 November
Chapters 12-14 – to the end
Ah, Roddy, I said. Say no more, I said. But you had to go and say more, didn’t you? As I feared, Victor and Fitzpatrick are Tyler Durdon in Fight Club. Fitzpatrick has to beat the truth into Victor that they are one and the same person. Which means that the only way that this novel can be read is as a metafiction, the top-to-bottom invention of whoever is really writing it. How reliable is this narrator going to be, I was asking from the beginning – a question I came back to when it dawned on me what was going on. Answer: well, now we know.

The problem for me is not that Roddy Doyle signals the existential revelation so early that we are quite likely to guess long before we get there. There are more clues than I’ve mentioned, which makes me think that Doyle was expecting some readers to do just this. For instance, Fitzpatrick only appears at crisis points, when Victor is agonising over the next stage in his efforts to present himself as a ‘Dub,’ a normal Dublin bloke: finding a local, getting in with a group of mates, and the one that brings on the final catastrophe – bringing a woman back to his flat. And, perhaps to make the revelation somehow more plausible, Doyle has Victor mention that not a single thing ever changes about Fitz’s appearance. Despite the change in the weather – the heatwave at the beginning of the novel is long past – he still wears exactly the same shorts and gaudy shirt.

So if that isn’t the problem, what is? For me, it’s that the machinery of the plot doesn’t work. The final chapter only makes any sense if we think of this book not as a novel but as something else, a ‘what if?’ thought experiment. And even then, the different elements don’t hang together in any satisfying way. There’s a story of marital success that turns out to be delusional, or simply wish-fulfilling: the narrator really had met and made a date with the attractive woman, but he never turned up for it because… well, we find out why. Meanwhile there’s another story, the one about the working-class boy estranged from his roots through the social mobility that his education has brought him. And there’s that other one, the Fight Club trope of the narrator’s new friend – Victor finds himself almost liking Fitzpatrick before the final showdown – who is, quite literally, the same person as him. He’s real, other people see him, but he has no existence beyond his alter-ego role. How on earth can that possibly mesh with the other stories? Answer: it doesn’t. All that can really explain the existential mess Victor is in is one of the most well-trodden tropes of recent literary fiction. The sexual abuse of a child – and I’ll come back to that.

Then there’s that hole in the chronology I was complaining about earlier, the 30 years in which Rachel offers unconditional love to a man who seems to offer nothing but sex in return. (I never believed in the sex. Does any reader?) He’s a kept man in that scenario, looking after their son, and the fact that it’s actually a fantasy accounts for the implausibility. But what has he really been doing? Has he been in an asylum? If he really does text anybody about starting writing again, is it his care worker, overseeing his return to the community? No. It isn’t a possibility Doyle ever even hints at, so there’s no reason to think it.

And what about Fitzpatrick? He can only exist in a virtual world, one that relies on readers simply accepting that since we know that none of this is real, anything can happen. It’s the most impossible scenario of all for a reader to accept, as bad as ‘I woke up and it was all a dream.’ It means that Doyle doesn’t have to explain any inconsistencies, any holes in the plot, or how an alter-ego can exist in the novel’s created universe. This universe only makes sense if Victor has made up every last bit of it – the new flat, the pub, the conversations with his new friends. Fitzpatrick explains to Victor how he is an invention, with a made-up surname, a Christian name Victor himself suggests by guessing it, and a sister Victor only remembers because Fitz plays a manipulative little mind-game with him.(Maybe the sister of his own that Victor mentions in these chapters is also an invention. Why not?) Aside from the loss of a few teeth and a horrible paunch, Fitz is physically the same person, with the same catastrophic experience. And it isn’t of being felt up by the Head Brother. It’s a series of  rapes, over weeks and months. It’s Fitzpatrick, the truth-teller in the final chapter, who reminds Victor that he hasn’t had an erection since. After an experience like that, nothing is real any more, even sex. It’s all a dream.

Victor realises that Fitzpatrick is the person he might have become in a parallel universe. If he had made his way in working-class Dublin instead of going to university, dropping out and spending an unfulfilled life, might he have made and lost millions through the Irish building bubble? And spent his evenings alienating other blokes in pubs with his needy, cack-handed attempts at banter? It’s possible… but what life does this imagined one run parallel to? The imaginary one in which Victor has a long-lasting and fulfilling relationship that has only recently come to an end? Or a mysterious other one that Doyle makes no attempt to describe, the life that Victor must really have lived for the last 30 years?

This doesn’t work either. Doyle pulls the rug from under us, telling us that the most important thing in Victor’s life is a fantasy. But he never asks us ever to imagine another, ‘real’ life. Has Victor spent all the time since he briefly met Rachel, but didn’t go out with her, pretending that his relationship with her has just ended? It’s a question that would only have any relevance if Doyle had chosen to obey any rules of narrative logic. Instead, he asks us to accept an overturning of reality, while offering no valid alternative. He offers no plausible scenario of the marginal, unfulfilled existence that Victor would have led, scratching a living from articles and radio appearances. Even in his fantasy, Victor doesn’t pretend this could really happen, and Doyle chooses not to get us to think about it.

The thing that convinced me that this book really is just a ‘what if’ thought experiment is an interview with Roddy Doyle that I read online after I finished reading the novel. There are a lot of important details in Victor’s story that correspond to Doyle’s own, to the extent that I can’t help thinking that there’s another parallel universe at play – that of Doyle himself, the boy from the wrong part of Dublin who didn’t get raped, really did get married, and became one of Ireland’s most successful writers. A Brother told him, too, that he couldn’t resist his smile – leading to months of ‘slagging’ from the other boys… but nothing worse. Doyle has been married for 30 years – an aspect of life that is the main ingredient of Victor’s fantasy – and he has a group of friends just like those in Victor’s new local, men he has known since childhood. (It’s where we get the dialogue of this novel and Two Pints.) So…

…I find I’m answering a question I asked near the beginning: why is the successful novelist in his late fifties writing, in the first person, as a man almost the same age and from the same part of Dublin, who was only ever an also-ran? Fitzpatrick might be Victor’s alter-ego – but Victor is Roddy Doyle’s. What if his, Doyle’s, experience at school hadn’t only been the unfortunate focus of a teacher who liked him? What if he had been repeatedly raped, could never have sex, could never relate to a bunch of friends, and… and so on? What if everything Roddy Doyle has had in his life had been denied to him, as the trauma denied it to Victor? What if, ultimately, the best that Victor can do is invent a life for himself that might not involve success as a writer, but does contain the one thing the trauma has permanently denied him? He can have a loving sexual relationship with a woman.

It’s terribly sad, made worse by the fact that the Head brother knew that Victor’s father was dead. He chose his victim carefully, knowing that he would never tell his mother about the rapes. These revelations are far more important than the alter-ego non-bombshell. But. But, but, but. There’s so much commotion from everything else competing for our attention that the clever things that Roddy Doyle has done with this main thread get drowned out by the background noise. Victor’s most shocking radio appearance had been one in which he had told the story of that short earlier chapter in which the Head Brother fondles his genitals. The broadcast immediately becomes notorious – but, of course, it isn’t even half the story. Right until the last chapter, this is all we ever know for sure has happened. We don’t know the rest because – and he hints very early on that he’s prone to this – Victor has buried the memory. It takes a figment of his imagination to make him face an appalling fact, for the first time in his life.

But, as I say, it gets drowned out. The terrible pathos of the life-changing trauma – compare, say, the revelation about one of the siblings in Anne Enright’s The Gathering – simply doesn’t come across. I’m left making sarcastic comments about how it’s a trope, to go alongside all the others. Roddy Doyle has missed a trick through forgetting that sometimes, less is more.