The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
It might seem natural by now to compare Eimear McBride to James Joyce. To be glib, both are Irish, and both are difficult. To be less glib, both dive headlong into the depths of the human psyche, to the point where language itself fractures and splinters, and the stuff of human consciousness is revealed. It’s a comparison that McBride herself disavows, though, telling The Irish Times that “Joyce is centring his work in the middle of the world and going out into the universe, and I’m about going as far inside humans as possible.” The Lesser Bohemians is a book that goes deep, deep inside the body, down into the dusky worlds that exist where conventional language doesn’t—where the sentence breaks down and elongated spaces between words take the place of syntax. This is a language that situates itself in the midst of the body, in the midst of sex. Good sex, bad sex; loving sex, abusive sex. Sex is, in a very profound sense, the subject of The Lesser Bohemians, and McBride writes in a lilting, rhythmic language that has sex at its foundation. As Jacqueline Rose writes in the LRB, “What fucks up language is fucking.”
The Lesser Bohemians is a love story, in one sense. It’s the story of a young woman, Eily, from Dublin who comes to London to study acting. She meets an older man, Stephen, and, predictably, they fall in love. Both have been sexually abused in the past, in Stephen’s case, horrifically; they both carry the scars of this abuse with them. In Stephen’s case, these scars are both metaphorical and literal; his abuse is written on the body, in an alphabet of scars from decades of beatings and self-harm. His tale erupts into the fabric of the novel (such as it is), in what Rose calls his “confession,” one that lasts over seventy horrifying pages. This marks a fundamental change in Eily and Stephen’s relationship—and our relationship as readers with the text. It is only after Stephen “confesses” that we learn the two characters’ names. Before that, Eily is the “I” that narrates the text, so far enmeshed in her own bodytalk that we cannot catch sight of the surface, her exterior, and Stephen is simply “he”. McBride seems to be saying that, paradoxically, it’s only when delving into one’s deepest and darkest, most secret past, that we can communicate, that these selves cocooned deep within fleshy bodies can begin to reach out to one another.