First off, that title. The Lesser Bohemians. Perfect in pretty much every way: smart, funny, revealing. And for quite a while, the book lives up to it. An 18-year old Irish girl comes to London to go to drama school. She falls in love with an established actor twice her age.
But why does he – his name is Stephen, although we don’t find that out till near the end of the book for reasons which are unfathomable (her name is Eily – same thing applies) – live in a squalid bedsit?
The blurb on the back says, rather prosaically, that Stephen is ‘haunted by demons’. This doesn’t quite cover it: Stephen’s demons seem more like the militant wing of the undead.
Back to Eily: to convey her dislocation, Eimear McBride uses highly distinctive tone and language in a Technicolor first-person narrative. For instance, Eily is not drunk, she is ‘enslithered by pints’, which is brilliant. He new friends have ‘a kind of liquid negligence I’d like to dab on the backs of my knees’. At an art gallery she desperately wants to appreciate the paintings but it’s ‘too soon and far to see’.
But by making us see everything through Eily’s eyes, McBride stores up a huge problem for herself. Two of the book’s pivotal sections – a startling, 70-page confessional and a shorter description of a meeting which stretches credulity throughout – happen to Stephen. But the only way we can find out about them is for Stephen to tell Eily what happened. This doesn’t work. That sort of thing died out with Wilkie Collins.
At a lunch with his ex-wife, Stephen hears a revelation which is tucked up inside another revelation; the sole purpose of these seem to be to end the novel satisfyingly. The dialogue turns to wood. It is all a far cry from the sometimes brilliant blank verse of the first long section of the book.
That’s not to say The Lesser Bohemians is bad; it is mostly very good. For one thing, it led me to seek out Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. And it’s certainly compelling – even if it contains large chunks which seem, puzzlingly, to be grafted on from a lesser writer’s work.