by Sean O'Brien
293 pages, Picador
Review by Marc Nash
Should poets turn their hand to prose fiction? If you're John Burnside and you write a book like "Glister" then unabashedly yes. If you're Sean O'Brien, don't give up the day job.
Ironically, this is not due to any poetic traits overwhelming the text. There are a few good linguistic and lyrical flourishes on display here. What lets it down is the material O'Brien has seen fit to offer. Three chums decide that they can shirk the life of a working stiff and continue to write poems after they leave University. They decamp to the wild, unspoiled Marches on the English-Welsh border and are joined by the girlfriend of the narrator to make it a cosy foursome. A more effete and 'fey' (author's own adjective) group of people you could not wish to avoid encountering. Again in the author's own words on page 219 "All this was of course only a crisis for a few young bourgeois". And that's supposed to be a plus point of the novel?
Encountering is a key word in Afterlife. These four beings repeatedly bump into one another in fields and undergrowth and abandoned barns. Or they accidently eavesdrop on two of the others in some sort of moral trespass. They rarely bump into one another across the breakfast table in their shared house for example. It's all a bit tedious and Shakespearian seeing as it's supposed to be the 1960's. And yet we are asked to believe among all this claustrophobic space, there are unknown secrets aplenty between them.
I think the book wants to be Fowles' "The Magus" or Tartt's "The Secret Life" in that one Summer inexorably defines the lives of four people standing at the cusp of their adulthood. And while there are some good backgrounding ideas here, such as the vitality and relevance of poetry beginning to be eclipsed by the vibrancy of film and documentary (and towards the end, its own suggested eclipsing by celebrity culture). But what insights are on show, are completely subverted by the author's startling pronouncement from manipulative, plagiarist poet playboy extraordinaire Alex, that "Look Martin, it's simple. They (women) are all c*ck-hungry in the end". I'm offended on behalf of literature, let alone women.
These characters are simply odious. They each suffer a period of mental breakdown, one of which is prompted by a spiked party drink. It was so transparent how that episode was going to end up. Fortunately, or unfortunately perhaps, our narrator recovers from this to be able to steer us through the novel. I didn't really see why he needed to suffer a breakdown as well. It didn't seem to add anything to his self-involvement with a metaphysical poet he was charged with researching as a means of making a little money, seeing as he wasn't as privileged as his two fellow poets. Cue for long authorial rambles through poetic theory, based around a fictional poet (how tiresome is that particular device?) But it doesn't stop there. O'Brien also gives us his (characters') opinion on two real 60's films at length. "The Whicker Man" and "Don't Look Now" which assumes that the reader has both seen them and has the same take on both films. I don't. I might discuss it with him at a dinner party, but over the course of a novel when I have no redress, I just get irritated at his presumption.
Again in the author's own words, commenting about the climactic party act of symbolic book-burning as well as a rare painting of the fictional poet Martin is studying, "it was a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. It had no aura. It was a fetish commodity. And it was a lousy painting" all of which critiques could be hung around the neck of this saggy novel. With the last point the primary.
Last week I took some 100 of my books round to the second-hand bookstore in my ever constant need to raise funds. If I'd waited a couple of days, I could of included O'Brien's opus. Instead now it has to reside on my bookshelves next to books I actually want to keep. I hope its canker on literature doesn't spread and rot the pages of those tomes next to it. God save us from the fey and effete.