Hil List 2016: Books

Lots of reading done this year. Yes, lots of time on my ass, but also lots of time doing something I love and getting paid for it so there. Here’s a small handful of highlights. Blurbs/links where possible.

 

Non-fiction

The Lonely City – Olivia Laing (Canongate)
“Art can’t bring people back from the dead, she concludes in the final chapter, nor can it mend arguments between friends or cure Aids. It does, however, “have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly”. One could argue that brilliantly rendered non-fiction can perform a similar feat.”
Full Irish Independent review

I’m Not With The Band – Sylvia Patterson (Sphere)
“One would devour this bulky tome in a couple of days were there not so many intermissions needed to put the thing down and emit a bellylaugh for a few minutes before reading on. Patterson’s patter, assembled from those absurdist days tracing Bros and Kylie in Smash Hits, is as full of rhythm, melody and crescendo as the very acts she was charged with covering. And every bit as entertaining too.”
Full Irish Independent review

Play All – Clive James (Yale University Press)
“If this is to be James’ swansong – and pray it is not – the only spoiler alert worth mentioning here is that Play All will be a reminder of what the world will be deprived of once the sword of respite falls from Ibrutinib’s tofu-like hand. This snug body of writings will enrich your appreciation of TV drama’s big hitters, and help elevate discussion on them to a level beyond the pub chat.”
Full Irish Independent review

The Battle – Paul O’Connell with Alan English (Penguin Ireland)
“The earthy but fiercely proud and determined Munster disposition is rife. He’s opened his soul to English, the obvious trust between the two perhaps an unexpected symptom of the added years the project kept taking on. What has come out the other side is a psychological profile that is almost shocking at times in what it reveals about the bloody single-mindedness of the competitive gene.”
Full Irish Independent review

 

Fiction

Minds of Winter – Ed O’Loughlin (Riverrun)
“O’Loughlin doesn’t so much pan back as leap about, threading together an extraordinary tale that warps actual history into something conjoined, poetic and thrilling. At the epicentre of these interlocking narratives, these living and breathing jigsaw parts, is a McGuffin that sings with intrigue and a historical riddle that has never been solved.” Full Sunday Indo review

The Pier Falls – Marc Haddon (Jonathan Cape)
“This first foray into the medium by the 53-year-old is a nine-strong assembly of compassionate, engrossing, often hard-edged tales of isolation and hunger (for love, safety, food itself). A housebound obese man and a local tearaway forge a touching friendship without a hint of mawkishness. On a tiny island, ancient Greek mythology and the stark cruelty of nature combine as a woman is abandoned and left to fend for herself. Scenes are constantly scorched into your mind with Haddon’s dexterous linguistic branding iron.” Full Sunday Independent review

The Lonely Sea and Sky – Dermot Bolger (New Island)
“Whatever about the timely ways this extraordinary novel will speak to a nation currently undergoing a mature reassessment of its epoch-defining insurgency, this story of selflessness, duty and a young lad’s emergence into manhood via his actions is a universal hymn that will chime with anybody who understands that while good and evil are nebulous concepts, right and wrong are not. That it does this without sermonising is testament to the lofty skills of this national treasure.” Full Irish Independent review

 

Crime

Lying In Wait – Liz Nugent (Penguin Ireland)
“It is remarkable for a thriller to toggle between freezing the blood and sweating the brow without the use of blades, bullets or bloodletting.”
Full Irish Independent review

Trouble is our Business: New Short Stories by Irish rime Writers – Edited by Declan Burke (New Island)
“Crime fiction lends itself especially well to the format, you feel, due to the breadth of styles and tones that it can employ. The 20 authors here were given free rein with the brief, and the variety of styles, backdrops and registers that duly winged its way back to Burke is this superb collection’s strongest card.”
Full Sunday Independent review

Woman Of The Dead – Bernhard Aichner (Weidenfeld and Nicholson)
“Woman of the Dead beats with an immediacy and tangibility that is frankly rare” Full Sunday Independent review

 

 

 

 

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What a piece of work

A bonkers premise, perhaps, but McEwan really pulls off this tale of an unborn foetus witnessing a murder. 

***

Nutshell
Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape
RRP: €19.99

DECIDING upon a starting point for a protagonist to begin their arc can be tricky for an author. Unless we are to go the route of some Russian epic, a key frame within the lifetime is probably best. As far as Ian McEwan, an author never seemingly constrained by the boundaries of normal fiction writing, is concerned, the foetal third trimester is as good a time as any to give voice to a main character. Why wait around for the first breadth, the first kiss or the axial crossroads of an adult life? It might as well be the birth canal itself that puts the “passage” into “rite of passage”.

The child inside the womb of a scheming ex-wife is for sure a novel voice and one that will guarantee that this 14th novel from the UK storytelling overlord has a place in many literary discussions this calendar year, and perhaps beyond.

At the start, it feels too much to witness an unborn contemplate fine wines snobbishly (“You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta”) or reel at the state of the world it is about to join and the nasty geopolitical and environmental ruin in the post. All this discernment, all this age-earned wisdom and reason has been gleaned from late-night radio documentaries received via the bedside dresser. McEwan has gone too far, you initially suspect.

And then it slowly happens. The outright absurdity of the premise falls to the side. The voice grows gills and begins to bite into Nutshell’s narrative course. Strong whiffs of Hamlet, unhidden by way of paternal ghosts, treacherous mothers and even Danish cuisine, are softly blown your way by McEwan’s mischief. This is an omnipresent but not omnipotent narrator, one that can contemplate and emote in its own way but is more or less powerless to intervene with anything other than a well-timed kick to the uterus wall.

Like the Prince of Denmark, “the mother” and her influence looms large. Trudy is heavily pregnant but still engaging in heated and wild bedroom activity with Claude, the brother of ex-husband John. John is the father and scrapes a living as a diligent small-time publisher of poetry. Claude, meanwhile, was always second best growing up, and like Claudius himself, rises to power via the demise of the brother. He is dull, shallow, trite and speaks in meaningless cliché. He is, however, an expert swordsman in the battlefield of lovemaking, as detailed in frankly hilarious passages of description from inside the hostess (“Not everyone knows what it’s like to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose … This turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing”). The dim and mundane has cuckolded the noble and literate, McEwan notes of the modern world, and it very much takes two tango, might he add.

The London house they are in, the former marital abode, is worth a few bob, money that Trudy and Claude want to get their dirty hands on. John arrives to the house with a girl who is that bit too pretty, and the murderous seed muttered over by Trudy and Claude germinates into something real and very determined. The lodger in Trudy’s womb, privy to all her changes in blood pressure and mood, despairs at the prospect of his father dying at the hands of both his grunting, illiterate uncle (“when will he learn to speak without torturing me?”) and the person who means more to him than anything else in the universe.

Nutshell would be a harder sell were it not for its straight-up crime fiction DNA which gives a superstructure and builds to a very tastefully rendered crescendo that finds the foetus doing the only thing that it can in order to try to foil the plans. It also provides recesses for the child to consider what kind of world it will be entering and the dilemma that might be thrown its way should it succeed. A foster family or a life imprisoned with Mother Dearest could be inevitabilities of its determination to avenge the father and punish the mother. Hamlet had it easy by comparison.

Understandably, if you’d call it that, matters existential loom large and preoccupy the child’s bemusingly succinct thoughts. A long and thrillingly percussive rant about the ills of a “weak” Europe, the Middle East (“fast-breeder for a possible world war”), China (“too big to need friends of counsel”) and population explosion (“the urinous tsunami of the burgeoning old, cancerous and demented”) are concluded in this tiny brain as the product of humanity’s “twin natures” that it can relate to all too well – “clever and infantile”. “It’s dusk in the second age of reason,” McEwan’s homunculus drily concludes. Then, with tongue slightly in cheek (as it feels throughout this little delicious swagger of a novel), the author riffs from within about how we “excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels and movies … Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived?”

At 68, McEwan has earned the right to use whatever mouthpiece he chooses to take aim at a world falling down around him, one populated for the most part by idiocy and greed to the point that even a child, unborn, unseeing and yet to take its first breath, can perceive it. The greatest trick he performs here is making it seem like the best vantage point there is.

First published in the Irish Independent

The Feel-bad Hit of the Summer

Liz Nugent has gone straight to No.1 here in Ireland with her second novel, Lying In Wait. If you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be kept up til all hours turning pages and trembling, look no further. Here’s my Irish Indo review.

***

Lying In Wait
Liz Nugent
Penguin Ireland
€17.00

LIZ NUGENT’S time as a writer for RTE soap Fair City must surely have fared her well in her new life as a crime writer. Lying In Wait, her second novel, displays not just an excellence at sculpting, managing and voicing her cast of characters, but it also makes great use of the kinds of curtain-twitching coincidences and path-crossings that only a tiny city like Dublin can credibly get away with. In Nugent’s Dublin, a decidedly “unfair city”, monsters and their prey will meet sooner or later.

And what monsters she creates. Her award-winning 2014 debut Unravelling Oliver, charted the anatomy of a psychopath via a chilling gestalt. She spins a similarly dread-inducing web here in another eerily recognisable Dublin, only this time, the horror is taken to the leafy 1980s suburbs of the South County. Here sits a large Georgian mansion that by the time of this tale’s truly unforgettable denouement, feels like a predator in itself. Its name is Avalon, and as the name suggests, it is somewhat cut off from the world around it.

Justice George Fitzsimons, his wife Lydia and their son Laurence live here. Their affluent lifestyle has been severely curtailed after a close family friend and accountant vanished with their savings. There’s also the small matter of the judge and his wife killing an inner-city drug addict called Annie Doyle and burying her in a flowerbed in view of the kitchen window. A mysterious contract had been agreed between the couple and Annie, and when she refused to play ball, rage and tension resulted in her murder.

Laurence, obese and incessantly bullied at his more affordable new school, is initially unaware of the slaying but notices some particularly strange behaviour by his parents. Shortly afterwards, when George dies of a heart attack, Laurence is adamant to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. Why was his father obsessed with news stories about a missing prostitute before he died, and why had the gardai appeared at the door one day? It would be nice to say that he carries out an amateur investigation and brings justice to the dead girl and her working-class family but Nugent’s is no fairytale world.

Instead, what plays out before us is a wonder of the novelistic dark arts, a three-way circling of the evil via first-person chapter-by-chapter accounts from Laurence, Annie’s determined sister Karen, and Lydia. The multiple-narrative structure is nothing new but inside Nugent’s nightmare they toy with perceptions and perceived motivations excruciatingly well.

The great coup here is unquestionably Lydia, the manipulative and obsessive mother who drips tiny clues to the blackness of her dysfunction from the very opening lines, almost in passing; the childhood death of a twin sister; the unmannered lack of sympathy for Annie’s parents; the creepy way she keeps referring to “daddy”. That her pathology is constructed so cleanly and logically by Nugent only makes it all the more shocking. Her wants are simple to the point of primitive, and the idea that a mother’s love is the purest there is will be of little comfort. Get ready to tremble at one of the greatest villains in contemporary thrillerdom.

Laurence is another gem of characterisation by Nugent’s hand, his smothered existence and juvenile weight issues playing beautifully towards his increasing obsession with the fate of Annie and the efforts of Karen after the case has gone cold. Karen represents “the other Dublin”, hard-working, humble and oppressed, either by her fiercely jealous husband Dessie or her ultra-Catholic mother (this tale’s other dangerously zealous matriarch).

There are themes to be considered all along the path. There is Ireland’s two-tiered justice system, starkly different for the privileged classes than it is for the proletariat. The changing place of women Irish society is exemplified by Karen’s emerging modelling career and Laurence’s brassy ex-girlfriend Helen (the source of some very choice and immaculately placed humour). A special kind of snobbery exists in this land, we’re reminded, without the need of establishment schools or a political peer system.

The great overriding feeling, however, is that Nugent is commenting on the dangers of isolation. Although set during a time when a thing like the internet would have been the stuff of make-believe, it grimly ponders the erosion of compassion when the wider world is scorned in favour of a controlled, contained existence without face-to-face socialisation, much like today’s screen-obsessed generation. The home-schooled Lydia is too good to step foot in a society that she deems beneath her. Avalon is her fortress, and the man on the street can burn as far as she is concerned, precisely because she has never met him. “I like to think I did the girl a kindness,” she says of Annie at one point, “like putting an injured bird out of its misery. She did not deserve such consideration.”

It is remarkable for a thriller to toggle between freezing the blood and sweating the brow without the use of blades, bullets or bloodletting. This is as physical an experience as reading can elicit, where Nugent’s steady-handed tightening of the ratchet is designed to be soundtracked by recoiling gasps and sighs of disbelief. The weaponry is of the mind and the mouth as these three characters collide in a way that you simply won’t see coming.

Nugent has said in the past that she doesn’t do “rollercoasters” in her professional life, preferring to play things safe when she can. It is an interesting metaphor for this new queen of Irish crime fiction to use. Speed and swerves are all very well, but it is often the halls of mirrors or haunted houses, those attractions that require you to step into them of your own volition, that can be the real white-knuckle rides of any fairground. Avalon is such a place.

First published in the Irish Independent

Lonely are the brave

Expect to see Olivia Laing’s latest in the end-of-year lists of 2016’s top non-fiction titles. My Irish Independent review hopefully lays out an argument why.

***

The Lonely City
Olivia Laing
Canongate

LONELINESS may seem like the lot of modern day urbanised lifestyles, where people exist through bandwidths and answer work emails long after they’ve clocked off. The truth is that it is a reality of human existence, and all sorts of things may provide relief – a relationship, a pet, a subscription to a club or society.

For author and columnist Olivia Laing, a move to New York City amplified her feelings of solitude in ways only a huge and bustling metropolis can. She turned to the arts, a harvest which New York has (or “had”, depending on your view of the cultural sanitisation of that once fecund hub) always counted among its most treasured gifts to the world. It became clear that the state of being lonely had fuelled some of the city’s most prized exponents of visual and performance art.

This collection of interconnected essays sees Laing range through the elements of loneliness, taking the work and lives of particular artists as a cipher for her own feelings of isolation. With striking emotional intelligence and a heightened awareness of the therapeutic potential of creativity, she goes exploring. What she discovers is told in language that is accessible, bright and endlessly thought-provoking.

The nocturnal urban scenes of Edward Hopper are less voyeuristic, she argues, than replicating “one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure”. Andy Warhol’s muted speech and obsession with “sameness” signal to Laing his own isolation as a shy immigrant outsider, despite eventually having the city’s artistic community hang on his every move. This seam of “outsider art” crops up continually in The Lonely City, whether it is David Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud-mask series of photos, the troubled universe created in secrecy by Henry Darger or the compulsive hoarding of street photographer Vivian Maier.

What marks Laing out as a commentator of exceptional heart and voice is how she frames these outputs within her own struggles. She drifts in and out of her discourse, doing what so much artistic criticism is unable to – giving life, blood and breath to the discussion. When her focus turns to technology (a charged chapter that sees her decamp to a squashed bedsit polluted by artificial light from Times Square), she deconstructs social media and “its pledge of connection, its beautiful, slippery promises of anonymity and control”. What was simultaneously “a community, a joyful place, a lifeline” to her could also seem “insane, a trading-off of time against nothing tangible at all”.  Screen addiction is well debated these days, but here Laing somehow makes it an evolutionary branch of Andy Warhol’s obsession with recording machinery.

There is little of Alain de Botton’s pop-philosophical finger-wagging in this splendid volume. Nor is there the spectacle-pushing self-regard of high-brow arts reviewing. And nowhere, thankfully, does The Lonely City become some kind of self-help guide for life in the 21st Century.

Instead, this is a paean to the functioning human heart, to dreamers and lovers and beautiful souls who quest for more from life. It also emerges as a love letter to New York, the city that made Laing experience acute loneliness but also provided her with a vocabulary to deconstruct it so elegantly. Art can’t bring people back from the dead, she concludes in the final chapter, nor can it mend arguments between friends or cure Aids. It does, however, “have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly”. One could argue that brilliantly rendered non-fiction can perform a similar feat.

First published in the Irish Independent

Playing its cards right

Erika Swyler’s debut works a treat for any one looking for a bit of magical realism. Irish Indo re-voo down below. (Warning: Contains feisty Russian tarot-card readers). 

***

The Book of Speculation
Erika Swyler
Corvus

SIMON WATSON’s life has been eroding underfoot for years. Nature has taken a toll on his family, consigning his mother to a mysterious watery grave when he was a child before grinding his father’s life away through subsequent heartache. Even their family home, a crumbling pile perched precariously on a Long Island clifftop, is being gradually whittled away by the elements.

Simon is a librarian. His sister Enola, meanwhile, did what any right-minded individual would do under such circumstances and ran away to join the circus. She was drawn there by a family affinity with phantasmagorical performance arts – she inherited both her mother’s ability to hold her breath under water and read tarot cards. Bookish and apologetic, Simon is nothing like her and begins to struggle with impending jobcuts at his local library and the mammoth repairs the groaning house requires. Distraction arrives out of the blue in the form of a strange antique book he finds on his doorstep one day.

The handwritten and illustrated volume recounts the saga of a travelling circus two centuries ago, in particular the romance between two of its most arcane performers – a “wild” savage mute called Amos and a mermaid called Evangeline. Around them are forces, both spectral and tangible, that become woven into the fabric of their fates; the kindly and camp circus manager called Hermelius Peabody; Madame Ryzhkova, a formidable Russian seer to whom Amos is a tarot assistant and son figure; a dark secret that brought Evangeline to the circus and into the hands of Amos.

This is the world of Erika Swyler’s imagination, a place of medicine shows, water nymphs and intergenerational curses. Chapter by chapter, The Book of Speculation oscillates between Simon’s detective work and the folkloric murk of the musty annals in his hand. The two stretch to meet one another as Swyler’s debut novel saunters along, one half reaching back through Simon’s family skeletons in the cupboard, the other looming out of a past full of black magic and foreboding. They begin to intersect more and more as Simon seeks to find out why the female members of his family have all drowned themselves on the 24th of July. That ominous date is only days away, and with Enola home visiting, he is frantic for answers.

It is too trite to call this “a book about a book”, although Simon’s fetishizing of the manuscript and the weight he affords its every detail do provide a vital sweat-tinged edge to the otherwise flat protagonist. Nor is this straight-up fantasy fiction or a genetic relation of other uncanny fables such as Patrick Suskind’s Perfume or Louis de Bernieres’ more fanciful realms. It exists instead in a very pleasing “elseworld”, a dimension of magical realism that can both reference internet search engines as well as tell a secret history through flamboyant antiquarian prose and occult dramatics. Tim Burton would kill for such silken weirdness.

Swyler’s background as both an actress and playwright fail to catch hold of her characterisation though, particularly in the present day chapters. Simon feels underdeveloped, passive and hard to get behind, as if Swyler just needed someone, anyone, to tell the tale through. More time should have been spent fine-tuning his voice, you feel.

Mind you, The Book of Speculation is in many ways just a family analogy dressed up in magical clothing – abandonment issues, affairs, disapproving in-laws and the sturm und drang of nature and nurture battling it out over generations. Instead of alcoholic or depressive genes, the taint of ruin travels via tarot cards “like a curse and the thoughts they contain seep into you like venom”. Simon wants rid of the weight of family history but to do so he must first be smothered in it. None of this feels too far from the lot of any medium size family after time and tragedy has had its way. This could well be Swyler’s most dazzling illusion.

First published in the Irish Independent

Joyce cuts

After the strange, heady intrigue I found in The Man Without A Shadow, I made a mental note to find time to read a few more of Joyce Carol Oates’s 319 novels. Thus raves the following Irish Indo review.

***

The Man Without A Shadow
Joyce Carol Oates
Fourth Estate

JONATHAN NOLAN’S dark psychological thriller Memento Mori (and the 2000 feature adaptation his brother Christopher directed) had enormous fun with the condition known as anterograde amnesia, whereby the sufferer is unable to form new memories. Who could forget Guy Pearce tattooing his body and eyeballing every acquaintance for a glimmer of familiarity as he hunted his wife’s killer.

Joyce Carol Oates is similarly pondering the art of finding the mind’s construction in the face with her own noirish tale of a scientist studying a man with the memory of a goldfish. However, in this umpteenth novel from the much lauded writer and academic, the 77-year-old explores if love can eke out an existence when two people grow old together but must be re-introduced to one another at every encounter.

Oates’ central protagonist bares antihero ingredients, the kind that bring layers of intrigue to a tale largely set in a research institute. Margot Sharpe is a young scientist in the mid-1960s when we are introduced to her. Working under a celebrated neuropsychology professor, she is assigned to study one Elihu Hoopes, an old-money Philadelphia heir whose hippocampus was damaged by a particularly nasty dose of encephalitis.

“Eli” – or “E.H.” as he is often referred to throughout the saga, rather coldly – is charming, vulnerable, handsome and self-effacing with Margot. Things learned before the brain damage provide a fund of cultured general knowledge but something sits in the back of his memory that is shrouded. His drawings depict images of a dead girl floating in a lake, and certain lines of questioning arouse Eli’s temper chillingly.

Over years and countless batteries of tests, Margot’s rigorous scientific sensibilities are invaded with emotion. Familiarity turns to protectiveness, which gives way to affection and eventually obsessive love. She is a lonely character who “has had very few male friends who might have been lovers”, and finds herself ignoring ethics and “appropriating” Eli through touch and marital roleplay when they are alone. And yet every time they meet, she is a stranger to him. Naturally, the slightest deviations in his mannerisms or responses consume her over their decades together.

The mysteries lurking in Eli’s subconscious become more pronounced as Margot delves deeper into his life and comes to know the relatives and companions of his pre-illness years. But in many ways, The Man Without a Shadow pays closer attention to Margot’s deterioration as she balances a fierce ambition to make her name through Eli’s clinical trials with her “passionate, doomed and deranged” love of her charge. Don’t be surprised if you wonder who is the more psychologically dysfunctional of the pair. These flecks of arid humour are another stealthy Oates prop.

The ethics of scientific research are commented on throughout this bizarre love affair along with some startling ruminations on the nature of memory and cognition (“to the amnesiac there is something about the future that is unthinkable – inconceivable”). Oates, a professor of humanities at Princeton University, is distilling rigorous research into the form of fiction in fine style.

The real masterstroke here though is a palpable feeling of the ground shifting beneath you as perspective toggles between Margot and Eli, outwardly and within. Oates’s prose is compact, refined, spare and full of muzzy-headed suspense as she observes like a scientist herself. You’ll be hit by creeping sensations of déjà vu, like a record skipping before a crescendo while Margot and Eli float “in the present tense… without a shadow”. This is down to a harmony between language, pace and story that is arresting and all, you feel, entirely Oates’ own.

First published in the Irish Independent

Wishbone ah here

While I generally enjoyed this new short story collection from Aidan Mathews, I occasionally found it too clever for its own good. Here’s my Irish Independent review.

***

Charlie Chaplin’s Wishbone
Aidan Mathews
Lilliput Press

THE ascent of the short story format is as attributable to faster lives and a market for bite-size fiction as it is to the proficiency of its master exponents. Time is of the essence, so a short tale by Christine Dwyer Hickey or Kevin Barry offers a more intravenous narrative hit than a Franzen doorstop.

Aidan Mathews – the poet, playwright, novelist and RTÉ drama producer – does not fit this bill with Charlie Chaplin’s Wishbone and Other Stories. Look elsewhere if you are seeking for a yarn to pass the commute with. For these pieces, which are mostly set in the Dublin of the rare ould times (1960s), language is made to sweat in a gymnasium to perform acrobatics and muscular workouts. That is not to say that his first prose publication since the early nineties (‘In the Form of Fiction’ appeared in The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories 2006-2007) is not worthwhile, because when Mathews does decide that the story is king, he is electrifyingly good.

‘Barber-Surgeons’ observes two seemingly different men bond over Bond and a shared professional heritage as Dr No hits the big screen. A cinematic sheen also burnishes ‘Northern Lights’, a deliciously slippery cut from the streets of Troubles-era Belfast. There is an almost unnerving undertow to ‘Access’ and its look at a father processing his daughter’s first steps into womanhood. ‘Cuba”s youthful apocalyptic dread is wonderful.

Dermot Bolger recently dubbed Mathews “the Christiano Ronaldo of linguistic stepovers” but there are times when you’d proffer that Vinny Jones might be a more suitable ­comparison.

By the age of 20, Mathews was already garnering awards for his poetry so it is perhaps no surprise to find the 59-year-old going off-piste as he sees fit and expecting the reader to dutifully tag along.

‘Information For The User’, a radio drama transcript built upon exhaustingly pompous and esoteric dialogue sprawled about between wilfully obscure micro-essays, is unwisely included here. Mathews’ need for self-indulgence also nearly ruins ‘Waking a Jew’, an otherwise worthwhile portrait of an Ashkenazi in the winter of his years.

We get dexterous, inversive rifforama: “He could hear the trucks clearing their throats, gunning the motors to blot out boots and shouting, the garbage chucked like children into the stainless steel of the pig’s snout”.

Never far away, however, are potholes of smart-Alec ego appearing like whack-a-moles: “Survival is not strength. Survival is length. Length is no yardstick.”

“His accent mentored and tormented them,” the author quips to himself elsewhere in ‘Barber-Surgeons’.

Synecdoche, alliteration and nearly-anagrams elbow narrative flow into the ditch as Mathews insists on his word-games taking centre stage. Yes, yes, very clever. Now please get back to the story.

There is nothing wrong about literature that requires a firm grip by the reader and a recess or two to deconstruct its layers. Mathews has said he is more in thrall to images and metaphors than character and narrative, and many of these chronicles just about balance the two realms.

If only a little consistency and restraint had been applied to this uneven volume.

First published in the Irish Independent