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  • Paper Ghosts: Reading the Uncanny in Alice McDermott
  • Patricia Coughlan (bio)

“May had pinned a paper ghost to the mirror above the sealed fireplace.”

(At Weddings and Wakes 63)1

Set among the New York Irish during the twentieth century, Alice McDermott’s novels At Weddings and Wakes (1992) and Charming Billy (1998)2 are widely acknowledged as works of great aesthetic and emotional power that also deliver exceptional insights into the character of ethnic culture and identity. In this essay I explore the role of scenes and motifs involving literal and symbolic haunting and uncanny effects in McDermott’s 1990s writing of ethnicity, with a primary focus on AWW and a briefer discussion of CB. In these, her two finest novels to date, McDermott skillfully combines symbolist and realistic storytelling, subtle management of viewpoint, and deft use of flashback and flash-forward to show the psyches of second-and third-generation Irish Americans born up to the early 1950s as a ground of struggle. An ever-present past reaches out to haunt possible futures with, in AWW, its burden of loss and mourning and, in CB, a constricting system of Irish and Catholic beliefs, psychological formations, and cultural practices, imperfectly modified in the process of integration. I argue that her writing of the uncanny, and in particular its gendering, constitutes a resistance to the dominant values of inherited Irish cultures and a way toward different futures. [End Page 123]

McDermott’s work is rightly admired both inside and outside Irish America. Fanning’s fine and canon-constituting The Irish Voice in America develops discerning and nuanced interpretations of her novels, according them high praise and incorporating them as the culmination of its own literary-historical narrative.3 However, McDermott’s work sits uneasily with any consolidating strategy simply to memorialize and valorize Irish Catholic ethnicity, creating a certain dissonance between writer and critics: she has herself often gestured toward universality in her aims, insisting that she wrote about the Irish of the five boroughs because this was the material that fell to her hand and sedulously disclaiming any intention to be the laureate of this ethnic group, still less to attribute exceptionalism to it.4 McDermott needs to be considered as a contemporary American novelist, not merely, perhaps scarcely at all, as a dutiful daughter of Catholic Irish America. Her work is indeed a sympathetic fictional realization of New York Irish worlds, but it is also a searching critique of a white ethnic group and its inherited values.5

McDermott has often in interviews defined the process of storytelling itself as a dominating concern of her work (see Osen 113–14). The primacy of storytelling also, albeit partly in a different sense, characterizes those major canonical fictions—especially by Emily Brontë and William Faulkner—which she repeatedly cites as important antecedents. A key feature of both is that within their fiction, different stories clash and contradict one another, so that no single verifiable truth emerges. Particularly relevant to CB is Faulkner’s interest [End Page 124] in passionate but subjective versions of the truth that make it a plural, not a singular category. This is both constitutively modernist and deeply rooted in his white Southern ethnicity with its constant backward look to fateful past moments. The nested but mutually disruptive stories narrated in Absalom, Absalom (which McDermott nominates as among her favorite novels) make it an important predecessor to her own project in these novels: “There’s nothing more passionate in that book than the relentless demand that the story must be told, again and again” (Osen 115).

Another characteristic is closely bound up with storytelling in her vision. If the classic project of the predominantly realist bildungsroman is the achieving of autonomous selfhood, McDermott directs attention, though far from uncritically, toward family and community as the crucible of individual identities. Such absorbing, often deforming, family milieus have their avatars in Brontë and Faulkner too, but the oft-alleged tribalism of Irish culture, so effectively adapted politically in America, is obviously relevant here.6 McDermott’s work is placed at the intersection of two largely incommensurate influences: New York Irish Catholic immigrant culture and the skeptical perspectives of...


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