In 1989 the young writer Robert McLiam Wilson surprised the literary world in London, Dublin, and Belfast with a highly original first novel: Ripley Bogle. The novel was praised as "one of the most precocious debuts of any modern writer" (Smyth 132) and won the Rooney Prize (1989), the Irish Book Award (1990) and the prestigious Betty Trask Prize (1990). Together with fellow writers Colin Bateman and Glenn Patterson, Wilson was hailed as one of the promising new voices in Northern Irish fiction.1 Keen to place this new writer and interpret his novel, reviewers and critics compared Ripley Bogle with Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers (1973), J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).2 They detected references to Dickens, Beckett, and Flann O'Brien and read the novel as a parody of the Bildungsroman and the "growing-up in exile romance" (Jackson 229).
Moreover, given Robert McLiam Wilson's personal background as a Catholic Northern Irish writer, born in the troubled working-class area of West Belfast, Ripley Bogle was also read in the context of the conflict dividing Northern Ireland and scanned for concrete traces of the author's ideological stance. Yet Ripley Bogle's comic, ironical, and highly idiosyncratic fictional memoir cannot easily be contained within any one fictional or aesthetic model, nor can it simply be reduced to a specific political message or meaning. The novel's peculiar [End Page 460] combination of narrative unreliability, self-conscious narration, and a complex layering of irony and satire successfully eludes any straightforward interpretation and continuously frustrates the reader. Drawing on new theoretical approaches to narrative unreliability by critics such as Ansgar Nünning, James Phelan, and Dorrit Cohn, this article proposes to dissect the different levels of irony in the text and to discuss their effect on the political and ethical content of the novel as a whole.
Robert aka Ripley?
Ripley Bogle is the account of four days in the life of the eponymous hero-narrator, just before he turns twenty-one. Ripley is living on the streets in London and elaborates in great detail on the bodily effects of hunger, cold, pain, and a craving for cigarettes. He gives an equally detailed description of the streets and hide-outs of his city and relates his meetings with tramps and other people. In between, he also narrates his poor childhood and difficult youth in Belfast and his brief period of fame as a student in Cambridge. In the final chapter, Ripley gives his narrative a surprising twist when he corrects a number of lies he told the reader. The overall tone of Ripley's narrative is comic, arrogant, and highly satiric as he sets out to ridicule almost all things and people he encounters. In particular, his dismissive statements about the Northern Irish situation have arrested attention in the existing, mainly political, readings of the novel. In a perceptive reading, Gerry Smyth argues that the novel "constitutes . . . a scathing attack on the calcified and disabling discourses of identity foisted onto young people by their forebears, living and dead" (132). Indeed, Ripley Bogle leaves the reader in no doubt as to what he thinks of the Irish and their Irishness: "What is it about Ireland that the Irish love so? What makes them guff on so endlessly about their country? Is it the pain and the poverty, the death and danger? Is it the spite, hatred, treachery, stupidity, vice, inhumanity or the comfortless despair? Whatever it is, we can see that the Irish have a lot to be grateful for" (Ripley 190). He denounces "all that Gaelic, nationalist, Celtic superiority bollockspeak" that his friend Maurice falls for and records clashes with "sectarian villains" from both sides of the conflict (101, 47). Ripley rejects the different political explanations of the violence in Northern Ireland. He locates politics "in the realms of theory—polite, debatable and not actually hazardous to life" and sets it apart from "the practical side of things, the fatal side of...