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  • Silent Noise:Narrative and Style in John McGahern's The Dark
  • Martin Keaveney (bio)

The Dark, a novel of an adolescent country boy, was first identified as a work worthy of textual study by Paul Devine in 1979.1 The narratological "pairing of characters and events" and the stylistic "sophisticated presentation" isolated by Devine are developed here, with the ultimate finding that absences are constructed as presences and vice versa.2 The elements are a present-absent dysfunctional father and an absent-present dead mother evoked within an absent-present bedroom scene, superficially inanimate but recalibrated critically as a highly animated, dysfunctionalized birth of the adolescent experience amid the boredom, fears, sexual confusion, and spiritual crises such experiences often entail.

The chosen section, a short scene in The Dark, is warranted by its overall narratological significance in the context of that novel: that is, the final stage of a bully father's hegemony over his son, its foreshadowing of the boy's onward progression/regression, and its overhaul via both narrative and style. This process can be demonstrated by comparison with a similar event in McGahern's late nonfiction book Memoir, handwritten drafts from McGahern's papers at National University of Ireland, Galway's special collections, and the first published version in X magazine.3 This analysis identifies a range of narratological devices in the sense of episode and event arrangement, and stylistic adjustments in the sense of sound effects, word choice, and dialogue tone manipulation, which depict a scene of emotional blockage between father and son.

Dermot McCarthy's full-length study of McGahern is the most conversant [End Page 59] publication with this comparative reading.4 However, he does not pursue the analysis to a textual-centred level that would firmly establish McGahern studies in this area. This approach seeks to address the subdued level of McGahern textual studies that has been somewhat overshadowed by contextual frames of reference, such as socio-political, intertextual, theological, and anthropological.5 The text of The Dark rather than the context is the focus here, even if the dynamics of father, son, and mother receive some warranted anthropological attention through this approach. As McGahern himself noted, careful readers eventually realize all stories are the same, and so it is the telling rather than the content that achieves primary privileging in this study.6


Chapter 3 of The Dark follows a humiliating first chapter that introduces the towering presence of a recently widowed father and his three children living in a claustrophobic rural home and a second chapter where the children try to placate the father's mood on a tense family fishing expedition.7

The chapter opens with young Mahoney awaiting his father in the bedroom they share. McGahern treats the atmosphere of the bedroom with a range of effects that exploit the torment of the adolescent and distill key aspects of the author's strategy of artistic embellishment: physical, visual, aural, and fantastical. To begin with the former, young Mahoney is in the marital bed with his father presumably because he is too old to sleep with his sisters. Yet, if his mother were still alive, a bed for him would have been made available. The logistic reasons for the boy not taking a room, such as the one he uses later when preparing for exams, are not dealt with. If the Mahoney home is partly based on the barracks where McGahern spent the second half of his childhood, the spare room was earlier occupied by the maid, judging by the description of the bedrooms given in Memoir.8 However, the narrative choice by McGahern to place the boy in the [End Page 60] marital bed ensures he will absorb the pure guilt at taking his mother's place in her absence, adopting the role of surrogate wife, and this also enables him to accept Mahoney's behavior. The ceiling, which was a focal point of the boy's childhood in Memoir (M 188), is a precursor to the visuals that will attract young Mahoney during the novel, whether it be fantasizing over a newspaper photo of a young woman or longingly gazing at the "unattainable" crowned heads of female...


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pp. 59-71
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