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Contemporary Literature 48.2 (2007) 253-277

The Northern Irish Novelist in Ronan Bennett's The Catastrophist
Sarah Brouillette
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Northern Irish novel has often been read as a foil to the region's more politicized, often nationalist, poetries. Foundational figures like Brian Moore, Jennifer Johnston, and Bernard MacLaverty—who published their first novels in the 1960s and 1970s—are thought to have formulated their literary versions of liberal humanism in opposition to any identification with or support for parties to the sectarian conflict at the heart of the Troubles. In their writing, the ideal articulation of the human subject is, in Elmer Kennedy-Andrews's terms, the figure who "avoids extreme political commitment, demonstrating a realistic sense of the dangers of political utopianism, and of how such ideals can lead to violence, anarchy and fascism" (14); in turn, the Troubles are represented as "an irruption of irrational, aberrant atavism which threatens the sacred realm of private feeling and personal relationships" (17).

A newer generation of writers is not thought to have departed much from these forebears. Authors like Deirdre Madden, Glenn Patterson, and Robert McLiam Wilson ostensibly apply more postmodern techniques to the same task of denigration of nationalist projects, though they are likely to extend their scope to a global critique of all claims to foundational identities and tend to incorporate more self-conscious irony, pastiche, and parody of the Irish literary tradition. The critic Eve Patten, for example, celebrates authors who grew up amid the worst of the Troubles because they have used their works to express wariness about "perceptions of the writer as responsible for the registration of public sensibility" (130), and [End Page 253] because they have formed a "self-conscious relationship to an exhausted inheritance and to the pitfalls of provincial cliché" (146). Patten's sentiments accord with what Kennedy-Andrews considers the most salient features of post-Troubles fiction—namely, its challenge to "formal and conceptual legacies" and "resistance to, and liberation from, orthodoxy and ideology" (7). They are also in line with what Gerry Smyth thinks characteristic of recent Irish fiction more generally, especially as it has been written since the time of Mary Robinson's presidency: it seeks to "confront the formal and conceptual legacies of a received literary (and wider social) tradition"; and it expresses "self-awareness of the role played by cultural narratives in mediating modern (or . . . postmodern) Ireland's changing circumstances" (7).

For its detractors, however, the new generation's self-consciousness about things like the narratives of Irish nationalism and the writer's responsibility to society is simply the means by which it justifies its continued adherence to a firmly entrenched liberal-bourgeois bias. Now more than ever Northern Irish fiction privileges the emotional or social concerns of the individual over the political necessities of state formation, in part because it has ostensibly found its economic correlate in the transnational capitalization that has played no small part in hastening the Troubles' de-escalation. Thus Eamonn Hughes states that Troubles fiction still "takes the form of an outright and rather pious rejection of violence," involving either "an expression of distaste with the north as a whole or an effort to distance oneself from culpability" (85), while for Richard Kirkland recently successful fiction turns political commitments into "a site of ideology—understood strictly as false consciousness" (217), and it is against this that the text rebels.

My broad interest in what follows is how Ronan Bennett's 1998 novel The Catastrophist offers itself as a response to this image of the Northern Irish novel. Featuring a writer-protagonist who is deeply invested in his own self-conscious positioning, and whose introspection turns on the problem of his role as an observer of political events, the novel translates the critical reaction against liberal individualism into a fictional narrative that castigates its own focalizing perspective at every turn. In doing so, it offers its own formal strategies as an alternative to what the self-obsessed, self-lacerating [End Page 254] protagonist...


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