Book Review: First Book of Frags by Dave Lordan (Wurm Press, Portarlington, 2013)
Dave Lordan announced his uncompromising presence with his first collection ‘The Boy In the Ring. The title poem is emblematic of so much of our recent history. In that brief lyric, Lordan invents or recalls the visceral experience of being the centre of a ring of violence. The boy in the ring is a child in an industrial school, a child in a court, a child in a schoolyard, a child on the street. Whoever he is, he is in great danger, and yet he is not simply a victim. The poem concludes with the unanswered/unanswerable question ‘When will the boy get out of the ring?’
Lordan’s work escapes from all the rings, including the literary traps of form and content. He is always a political poet, always challenging, both as a riveting reader of his own work and in print, so it was with great interest that I opened his first collection of prose.
The title has intrigued me for some time. ‘Fragging’ was the Vietnam War practice of dropping an occasional hand-grenade into the back-pack of an unpleasant officer. And these short fictions are hand-grenades. As the narrator in ‘Christmas Cracker’ says, ‘Tenderness and all that shite is for hypocrites and mealy-mouthed muffin-heads.’ And tenderness there is none in this collection. It seems deliberately set up to take the piss out of all the careful conventions of what we call Irish literature. There isn’t a simple chronological narrative with a sympathetic character and a redemptive ending in the whole thing. What there is a knapsack full of verbal hand-grenades and characters that would stand your hair on end.
‘Dr Essler’s Cocaine’ conjures a fascist orgy somewhere in the (future or present?) west of Ireland in which Lordan has the narrator tell us that ‘The Irishman does not care what his masters get up to as long as he is allowed to get drunk and lash out at his own.’ In another fiction, almost a poem, a series of complex statements about a character called Kathleen is clearly a meditation on the complexity of the feminine image of Ireland beloved of nationalists: ‘We must behave as if the dead are watching and waiting to receive us, or else we are lost. It all comes down to the dead, says Kathleen.’
‘A Bill’ posits an Ireland where transport has declined and the world has grown bigger so that what was once a nearby town is now distant, a place to journey to, and which is famous for its suicides in the same way that Knock is famous for its miracles. The story is about the media and counseling industry that develops around suicides and clusters of suicides, and about managerialism and capitalism’s desire to exploit every human action.
Shorter pieces like ‘A Wall’ are reminiscent of Brecht or Thomas Bernhard.
Elsewhere there are echoes of Pasolini and Flann O’Brien. In his broad attack on the fatuousness, the emptiness, the callousness and the obsessiveness of our culture, Lordan is constantly inventive – his bizarre world where houses are attacked by motorcyclists, hares, students and porn stars is always recognisable as our own. If there is one flaw to all this richness it is that the stories are told in the first person and the voices of the narrators are not sufficiently differentiated. But technique is, as one of the narrators says, ‘only paranoia with a plan’; it is a small complaint about an otherwise electric read.
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