Review: The Rooms Are Filled – Jessica Null Vealitzek

You have to be ready for Jessica Null Vealitzek’s debut. You have to be ready for the brutal humanity of it, because if the title of the takes lends itself from the biblical proverb, there is no relief from any kind of religious belief.

Starting off in rural Minnesota, Michael and his mother move to Chicago after the death of his father, and as much as young Michael may see his dead father, there is no miracle of him ever coming back. Whilst not filled with people, Minnesota is filled with symbolism, particularly wolves, which sustain with Michael throughout the novel. The ‘Grandmother wolf’ for instance which must be killed in ‘the white and red snow’, as Michael reminisces about a hunting trip he had with his father.

When they move to Ackerman, Chicago, now surrounded by people rather than animals, Michael and his mother Anne, must adapt to this. Anne takes a job at her brother’s diner, and Michael struggles to fit in at school (lone wolf), as he inadvertently challenges the playground hierachies that already exist there. He is then further admonished  when they learn he is adopted. All this happens early on, along with a miscarriage; a lot of the early pages you do find yourself just wishing these people could get a break. Regardless, the school does unite the two central story arcs, that of Julia Parnell’s and Michael’s. We’re first introduced to Julia in alternate chapters, which at first appear as a series of  letters to a woman called Rose.

Typically, these two outcasts begin to forge a relationship. The teacher – loner pupil relationship is not new, but the story that Vealitzek renders it as is something original, because Julia’s sexuality and begins to take precedent in the novel’s events. They’re not just outcasts in a new town; they are outcasts when the eighties AIDS paranoia in swirling around them. Although Michael is not gay, or  as far as we know is not, people see his adoption as a reason for him being homosexual.

Michael does make one acquaintance in Tina, a neighbour. She is worldly, and beyond her years, frustrated by Michael’s naivety and innocence, which irritated me as well at times.  Tina , the ‘whatever’ saying pre-teen girl with a greater understanding of sex (another example i reviewed in Andrew Lovett’s novel, last year) she is not entirely original. But she asks more questions about the conflicts of sexuality and introduces one of the most interesting characters in the book, her father, Jim. He is a self-congratulatory, violent mysoginist with authoritarian  power, or as Vealitzek wryly describes him, ‘a man’s man’, and his ego takes a beating when his advances on Julia are spurned.

On that note psychoanalysts might take some pleasure (ho-ho!) from their interpretation of Vealitzek’s work. A key moment, specifically related to Jim, but encapsulates the novel’s main themes, is when he is on his last job in Milwaukee, before he also moved to Ackerman. Jim is sent out to a neighborhood area because of a noise complaint. There he encounters,

“Masked faces appeared, whirling about him as he stepped inside…The masks laughed at him as they rushed by, Frankenstein, John Wayne, Ronald Regan. As his eyes adjusted, Jim noticed the people, male and female, were naked.

This idea of masks and, indeed being a character is something that troubles all of the characters  and challenges the modern notion of whether a mask really is hiding something, or rather if we’re always  masking ourselves, just changing and shifting person over times and instances, particularly here with the key debate of sexuality. Look at the characters of Julia and Rose, with Julia acting as the straight–laced teacher, but finds herself struggling to act as ‘what she really is’, that horrible phrase that to indicate there is some kind of essential truth about us. What she is, is a homosexual, but that is precisely what she also not is. She wants to be accepted as a homosexual but not defined by it. It is that essential truth that people see as justifications for vilification. To be what she really is would be to signify her exclusion as an outcast from society. Although set in the eighties, even now in our apparently free and modern times, there is still loathsome opposition to gay people, with the old orders reproducing archaic, old arguments.

The above episode is not over for Jim when his remembers,

he turned to step outside and call for backup, but a hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him around. Marilyn Monroe pouted back at him inches from his face,and her painted fingers rubbed his chest. Another body closed the door behind him and pushed up against his backside, hands sliding down his waist. He felt a stirring as Marilyn’s fingers brushed down, down, down until they played on his lower adbomen…that’s when Jim saw that Marilyn was a man’

This seems to ignite and explain his projectile rage throughout the rest of novel and his masochistic quest. Vealitzek may be making a pertinent comment about the authorities and the reaffirmations of status quo, but it’s also about man, he is a man’s man.

Vealitzek is playing with the greater themes whilst remaining hands length away; feminist/criticism of the rigidity of authority and power/ sexuality, but producing a story to go with it, which i’m sure people will be happy to read without the subtexts.  Some of the character’s are slightly overused stocks, and some of the phrasing skirts cliché and the overly hyperbole; a plate for instance ‘smashes into a hundred pieces’. Does it really? And you can imagine the kind of typical rage and frustration that led to that. And as already mentioned, Michael, who witnesses several early trauma’s remains ridiculously composed throughout the novel, and it’s no wonder Tina get’s frustrated with him. There is also quite a bit of reminiscing that serves as exposition. But, there is still plenty to take away from The Rooms Are Filled.

The Rooms Are Filled by Jessica Null Vealitzek is out now published by She Writes Press. Thanks to them for providing a review copy.

Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

UPDATE (14/11/2013)

WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE

Original Review below.

The coming of age novel is not an under cooked format. Airport bookshelves are dotted with the neo-plotted , hollow ,saccharine, single mother who cannot handle all this childcare and shopping stories, or the new 50 shades era that arguably degrade the whole for that one author’s commercial gain. I find it hilarious when people refer to E.L James as a pariah; writing dross about submissive women, selling out to film producers at the drop of a hat. From the first word though, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by debut novelist Eimear McBride is a renegade against commercial fiction and an attempt to tell the truth about what it means to come of age,
“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear you say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, i’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day”
Immediately it conjures James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’s opening lines, of the father teaching his son about the ‘moo-cow’ and the ‘baby tuckoo’, but unlike Joyce’s classic text, where Stephen Dedalus gradually mature’s from those juvenile perceptions, McBride’s protagonist (nameless, and so are all the other characters) stays with this immediate conception of her life. Within a dozen pages or so you become accustomed to this and fully in immersed In the novel.
The allusions to Joyce come naturally, but it becomes apparent that there is another dimension to McBride’s work. Like Stephen Dedalus, the narrator’s life is cast from early infancy to her early 20’s. Her brother’s illness boils away in the background whilst the protagonist must tackle with the identity crisis of her emerging years. Where Joyce chose to prescribe Dedalus his by dipping in and out of his conscioussness, Macbride fully immerses the reader into the chaotic, reactionary mind of this female.

Dedalus’ mission was to break free from the religious dogma to become the artist, A Girl is a… is striving for something with a much greater pretext and fluid – her identity. Religion is a constant presence throughout her life. The ‘Holy Family’ as she refers to it in her early days,
“Such worshipping worshipping behind the bedroom door. with their babies and babies lining up like stairs. For mother of perpetual suffering prolapsed to hysterectomied. A life spent pushing insides out for it displeased Jesus to give that up.”
Gradually though, the religion that she is forced to live under, accept and live by enters her processing consciousness and leaks out into her frantic thoughts. When she starts coming into her sexuality in her early teens, it poses the kind of questions a life under religion does, and in doing so McBride mocks and goads Catholicism; its oppressive, old fashioned views on sexuality. In fact it is quite scathing (welcomingly) and see’s it as another force of oppression for her narrator and the female in the search for identity. MacBride introduces the girl’s Uncle who throughout the novel, constantly manipulates and exploits his niece for sex. It is brave, bold, and unflinchingly graphic at times, but important. The narrator is then continually at odds with this religious thought and her own natural development
“Two stairs. Three at a time if I can. Leave it. Sitting room. Watching there the telly all of them. I’ll be on my own. Be quiet insides. Don’t be fucked up. I will wait. This out. He’ll [Uncle] be gone. Quite soon. I’ll be pure to then. I will. It’ll be. It’ll be. Fine”
And then, she will resort to Jesus and Mary in times of despair, like most people resort to, believers or not. Religion is the one that blames the narrator for the way she is, her urges, temptations which should be,completely natural. In a vicious, circular way, in her times of desperation, religion becomes the empty, non-fulfilling savior. McBride allows religion to skew the picture like it does in life.

Interestingly this leads to the questioning of the man in McBride’s novel. They are a very strange breed in a A Girl…As mentioned, there is the Uncle, and the other formidable male presence of the brother battling a brain tumour, which she sometimes resorts to blaming herself for. But while she watches him dying, she also watches him literally waist his life away. He doesn’t display the urgent need to fill a bucket list before he goes, but just watches his days go by. Then there is the absent father, who emerges died when she was young. It is never spoken of in straight terms, and never digressed, but allows for the religious element to be explored further.
“Don’t turn your face from the father or he’ll turn his face from you” and “no sign of the feckless father” are a couple of the ambiguous statements uttered In the household. The absence of the father and man in her life ties in with MacBride’s further scathing of religion. The male image of God is the predominant male figure in the narrator’s life, but he is constantly leaving her stranded, never answering her desperate prayers. Like any poor father, he is not there to be that paragon male figure that everybody, as a natural birth right deserves. And then as the overbearing witness to his daughters development “Don’t let the father see you doing that”, religion is no replacement for the compassion that a father would bring.

To return to Joyce and the stream of conscioussness, it is not that straight forward and easy to categorise. Her narrator’s scope isn’t as all encompassing as somebody like Stephen Dedalus’ with less allusions and digressions, but it is a different subject matter with different achievements as already mentioned. If anything, it is the narrator’s need to break free from religious thinking to just live her life in non-apparent sin and blame. It is also distinctly chronological in a linear coming of age way. The prose if anything more closely mirrors, Samuel Beckett’s How It Is. cBride manages to keep the style from getting tiresome, and it is a lot easier to get along with than somebody like Joyce’s, certainly Beckett’s, even Woolfe’s but they’re different eras for different audiences. Instead we are restricted to the narrator’s battling conscious and unconscious. Eros and Thanatos are duelling, and there is a persistent tussle between the drive to destruction and the drive to procreate. Most often they are confused. To pluck a line from Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle ‘the course taken by mental events is automatically regulated by the pleasure principle…[associated] with an avoidance of unpleasure or a production of pleasure’ best embodies what is going on in the narrator’s mind.  It has an almost Baudelaireian view on sex and is difficult to view it as beautiful or destructive.

There is a constant allusion, and return to sea imagery, which is more reminiscent of Woolfe as if a metaphor for her equilibrium and state of mind, “Strange. Pushed out to the ocean of school. Wave back occasionally to her shore”. This is an easy metaphor to explore when the narrator is trying conceptualise her life, but it sustains and provides some poetic images, and is particularly powerful towards the end of the novel. In fact the last part of the novel is one of the strongest I have read this year. It also provides respite from the immediate cluttered perceptions of the narrator, and is not only escape for her but for the reader as well.

It will be very interesting to see where McBride goes next. Here is a writer with a clear message and an apparent anger, and a sanctity of hope that publishers still want to publish new and daring works that do not may not have a commercial credentials. We should be thankful to Galley Beggar Press, as McBride has said in a recent interview that the bigger presses didn’t seem viable. A new voice, backed by Galley Beggar, not only that it is one with a cause, but one against the tides.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride is out now (240pp), published by Galley Beggar Press (£11). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.