Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
Here’s an example of the first formative assessment (it’s not marked but it’s compulsory and we get feedback on it) of the semester for Contemporary Fiction. I thought it would be helpful to show you the kind of work that’s expected from you (in this case, not much at all — close reading is really the most basic thing in literature studies and we’d vaguely answered most of these questions in the lecture and seminar).
I chose to work on The Gathering because it is probably my favourite novel so far in this module or even for the semester or whole year. Anne Enright did an amazing job at writing about trauma, family, secrets and at dealing with contemporary Irish history. I will review this book soon but it’s hard to talk about it properly without spoiling the story (because I loved it so much) so I need to think about it more.
Offer a close reading, of approximately 750 words, of one of the following extracts. You should aim to establish the character of the prose and to suggest how the writing works within the context of its respective novel. Does a particular element of the writing mark it out as a piece of contemporary fiction?
And here’s my piece:
Enright’s Irish novel The Gathering deals with loss, memories and trauma. The novel begins after the protagonist, Veronica, has learnt about the suicide of the brother she was closest to, Liam. The striking extract under study establishes the main themes and concerns of The Gathering. This piece will therefore study the character of the prose and will tackle the notion of contemporaneity with regard to this novel. The opening line indicates a first person narrator with the promise of a confession made to the readers: ‘I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine’. A connection can thus be drawn between this novel and confessional writing or autobiographies. One question arises: is contemporary still synonym with the novel – now an old form? Narratives of the past decade seem to suggest that the contemporary novel is a hybrid form, often oscillating between fiction and non-fiction.
The narrator continues and introduces doubt, confusion and the problematic of memories with ‘but I am not sure if it really did happen’ which is one of the central themes of The Gathering. Her confusion is reinforced by the repetition of ‘uncertain event’ and ‘uncertainty’ later on. Here, the boundaries between past and present or fact and fiction are blurred: Veronica wants to tackle the reliability of her own memories and rewrite her own story in order understand her family history and to move on. This strong desire (her ‘need to bear witness’) is presented to the readers as the only way out for her and a parallel to murder crimes is made, using vivid images, in order to stress her trauma and its impact on her life: ‘crime of the flesh’, ‘bones’, ‘clean white bones’. Moreover, the events she hints at that ‘may not have taken place’ and that are “roaring inside her”, a clear manifestation of her traumatic past, are compared to burdening physical remains – ‘all my clean, white bones’. Paradoxically, the testimony she is about to give is not a factual account where reality is left unquestioned.
As seen previously, doubt inhabits Veronica and reality and truth are unstable notions: ‘I don’t even know what name to put on it’, ‘you might call it a crime of flesh’ and, ‘I do not know the truth, or I do not know how to tell the truth’ characterises her inner turmoil and the loss of contact with reality. Enright thus introduces a disjunction between fact, history and the unreliability of our own memories. Her style mirrors the disjunction and the notion of fragmented memories or self. Enright’s spare, broken and oral prose mimics Veronica’s thoughts. Similarly, the repetitions are used to show and accentuate her bewilderment.
These stylistic and formal elements mark The Gathering as a piece of contemporary writing. Enright borrows some characteristics of post-modernist writing and plays with the notion of pervasive self-consciousness, performance and metafiction. In the opening of the novel, the narrator is aware of it and subverts what ‘the truth’ might mean before declaring all she has are ‘stories’. Equally, the final sentence of this excerpt plays with performance and the careful construction of a narrative, with her memories being laid out ‘in nice sentences’.
What also marks this novel as a piece of contemporary fiction is her borrowing concepts from twentieth-century psychology and Freudian theories on trauma. One of Freud’s influential theories is that individuals who underwent trauma develop what he calls a ‘repetition compulsion’, the compulsion to replay traumatic memories over and over again to the point that they do not live in the present moment anymore, like Veronica. This tendency is also echoed in Enright’s repetitive style. Similarly, ‘false memory syndrome’, a phrase coin in the 1990s, is here conveyed by the narrator’s use of modal verbs (‘may not have taken place’, ‘you might call it’) and by her constant questioning of ‘the truth’ and of her own knowledge (‘I do not know’).
To conclude, this extract demonstrates that the form and the contents of Enright’s prose are closely linked and reinforce the central themes of the novel. Moreover, the use of recent psychology theories, her engagement with post-modernist techniques and her spare prose indicate a filial relation with contemporaneity.