Essay by Chris Womersley
Maria (MJ) Hyland’s extraordinary second novel, Carry Me Down, was published in 2006, two years after her debut, How the Light Gets In (Canongate, 2004). The critical reception for Carry Me Down was almost universally positive, and the novel was shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Told in the first person from a twelve-year-old’s point of view, Carry Me Down is a perceptive and claustrophobic study of a boy who longs to escape the limitations of his family, his country, his life and his class.
Set in Ireland in an unspecified era, most probably the 1970s, the novel tells the story of John Egan, an only child. The Egans are a working-class family who live in John’s grandmother’s house in the town of Gorey, Ireland. To John, his parents are strange and unknowable. His mother is never named and his electrician father, Michael, has been unemployed for several years, but has intellectual aspirations and busies himself studying in the hope of gaining entry to the prestigious Trinity College Dublin. In this fashion, the father is a character endeavouring to profoundly change the circumstances of his life, a trait the author addressed in How the Light Gets In, which featured a girl embarking on an exchange program to the US in order to escape an impoverished family life in Sydney.
Carry Me Down can perhaps best be understood as part of the British kitchen-sink realist tradition exemplified by Alan Sillitoe’s Loneliness of a Long-Distance Runner (WH Allen, 1959) or Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave (Penguin, 1969). The hallmark of such stories is a working-class setting, characterised by a class struggle of sorts and peopled by characters attempting to better themselves or at least prove they are worth more than society and those around them believe them to be.
The opening scene of Carry Me Down establishes a curious tension in the household, wherein an apparently cosy domestic scene – in which the three family members gather around the kitchen table eating and reading on a dark, Sunday afternoon – is undermined by a curious, undefined sense of threat. It is not long until John is chastised by his mother for staring at her; she tells him that she finds this habit of his ‘unnerving’. Soon after, the father is distressed at the mistaken impression that his own mother – John’s grandmother, in whose house they are living – has returned early from the Dublin horse races.
John is a highly unusual boy, beset by a mess of adolescent feelings of both insecurity and superiority. When called into the principal’s office for a humiliating interview (‘Any strange or unwanted activity below the waist?’), he swings wildly between thinking his interlocutor is ‘worthless’ and that he himself is ‘nothing’. In addition, he doesn’t like to eat bananas in front of people. He is extremely tall for his age at 175 centimetres, and almost friendless at school. He scratches his scalp compulsively until it bleeds. His grandmother’s grotesque eating habits deeply repulse him. His slightly obsessive devotion to his mother is becoming unseemly for a boy shortly to embark on the journey into pubescence. Above everything, however, John is absorbed by the Guinness Book of Records, and the distinguished men and women whose feats have landed them in its pages. John longs to join the ranks of these celebrities more than anything else, and it is this aspect of his personality – his will to better himself – that powers the novel. ‘I don’t see the point of living unless there is something I can do better than anyone else can or unless I can do something nobody else can do,’ he thinks to himself.
John is an example of an unreliable narrator, in that his is the only perspective we receive. In this regard, he is similar to Anwell/Gabriel in Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender (Penguin, 2005), Francis Brady in Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy (Picador, 1992), Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (Vintage, 1991) by Brett Easton-Ellis or Holden Caulfield in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (Little, Brown and Company, 1951). The unreliable narrator, as the terms suggests, is not a neutral observer and chronicler of events, but has a particular view of the world that forces the reader to read between the lines in order to make sense of events; as readers, we are never wholly sure that the version we are being told is the most ‘truthful’. The writer whose work lurks most persistently in the corners of Carry Me Down, however, is that of English dramatist Harold Pinter, whose tormented characters imbue domestic settings with a brooding, subsonic menace. The struggles for primacy – erotic and otherwise – in the Egan household are reminiscent of the domestic battles enacted in Pinter’s 1964 play, The Homecoming, in which a man brings his young bride to visit his family after many years abroad. Pinter explained his dramas as being concerned with ‘the weasel underneath the cocktail cabinet’, a description that may equally apply to Carry Me Down.
John’s ability to navigate the complexities of the world and the behaviour of other people in his life is compromised not only by his age and limited experience, but by the disquiet with which adults in his life react to his size. He fears his moody father, who on one occasion says to him, ‘You’re an odd mixture, you are, of a little boy and a grown lad.’ John is a sort of outcast, even within his own family; he fails to understand others, just as they appear to be baffled by him. ‘Talking to you,’ says a drunken uncle, ‘is like talking to a ventriloquist’s dummy with the ventriloquist nowhere to be found.’ On another occasion, his parents bicker about a word’s meaning, prompting the mother to search for the dictionary. She never returns and the father soon leaves the room without another word, leaving John alone. This is never explained or commented upon again. It is tempting to categorise John Egan under the twenty-first century’s catch-all diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, but this would be misleading and, worst of all, simplistic. He is a much more complicated character than such a conclusion allows.
It is almost always an error to claim a novel’s characters or the stories they embody as a cipher for the life of the author who dreamed them into being, but such a trap seems unavoidable in the case of MJ Hyland. She was born in Ireland and endured a difficult childhood, shuttling between England and Australia several times with her mother and drunken, violent father before the family settled in Melbourne. As a teenager, she converted to Mormonism – a means to become an American citizen and forever escape her family and her apparent destiny. In 2004, she wrote in a London Review of Books essay:
I was thirteen and I wanted my new fantasy life to begin. At the time, there seemed little chance I would become anything but a criminal, too. I was doing badly at school, taking any kind of pill on offer in the local park, drinking from a cask of wine I kept under my bed, and throwing up after dinner every night. Then I decided that I should go to a better school.
Her fantasies were of being adopted into another family. Eventually, she studied law and became a successful writer. Her younger life – perhaps as much as those of her characters’ – was driven by a pressing need for escape and reinvention.
Good fiction, Hyland has noted elsewhere, is ‘the art of persuasive lying’ and it is lies – those we tell, those we keep secret for others, those we seek to unearth – that are at the heart ofCarry Me Down. John Egan believes himself to possess the unique ability to determine whether someone is deceiving him, especially if it’s someone he already mistrusts (tellingly, he is unable to detect his mother’s lies). His ears get hot, and he vomits. It is a talent he discovers when his father brutally kills a number of unwanted kittens; rather than process his queasiness as a natural result of the sickening sight of the kittens’ tiny heads being bashed against the edge of the bathtub, he interprets his feelings as arising from his father deceiving him. He begins to keep a record of the lies told to him by others and the way they make him feel, as a means to refine his burgeoning talent. Soon, he writes to the Guinness Book of Records to inform them of his incredible skill.
Despite his idiosyncrasies, John is no fool. The gaps in his comprehension are as much a consequence of his youth as they might be of any perceived psychological imbalances. He is ferociously linguistic but strangely inarticulate, and although highly attentive to events around him, he struggles to determine their importance or, indeed, to assess the likely consequences of his actions. One night he spies his father sleeping on a mattress on the floor, not in bed with his wife. When his grandmother says it is because his father has a bad back, John intuits this as not being the reason but is unable to furnish a likely alternative. ‘She’s lying,’ he thinks to himself. ‘There is something happening between my mother and father and I should know what it is.’ He is also prone to fits of sudden anger that, in concert with his size, make him a formidable and unforgettable character. His anger has a threatening aspect, something we glean only from the reactions it evokes from others. When his mother, for instance, attempts to take him to the doctor without informing him first, John is furious – both at her for the deceit and at himself for failing to detect it with his skills in lie detection – and his mother is evidently afraid: ‘She looks at me to see what I’m going to do. I put my hands under my legs and she looks back at the road. But I can tell she is nervous; she touches her face and swallows too much.’
Almost all the action in Carry Me Down takes place indoors; inside the house, at school, in a car, in a shop. In every way it is an interior novel. John’s inner monologues are compelling and believable, and his inability to understand the world is heartbreaking. It is perhaps only his size that prevents him from coming to harm at the hands of his fellow students and the rougher kids around the housing estate. As readers, we are so immersed in his consciousness that it is almost impossible to accurately predict the patterns of his family. One of the many strengths of the novel is how it thwarts the reader’s expectations at every turn; John’s inability to read the social and adult landscapes becomes ours. When he confronts his father, for instance, over the matter of an Easter greeting card that John feels has been given without due consideration, the argument ends with John going to his bedroom. There is the threat of violence but, rather than the expected showdown between his parents, from his room John hears his parents and grandmother singing together happily. On another occasion, John arrives home to apparent signs of violence having occurred: his mother’s hair is disordered, her eyes are bloodshot. When John asks why she is untidy, his father departs so abruptly that his chair falls to the floor. When he returns a moment later, however, it is with a hairbrush to brush his wife’s hair – albeit clumsily – and our understanding of what might have happened is rendered less clear.
John’s conviction in his special qualities only increases as his family’s fortunes continue to decline. The Egans are thrown out of the grandmother’s house after an altercation and they end up living in the sordid housing estate of Ballymun in Dublin. It is a bleak and stinking place, and John’s desire to expose his father’s lies put the family under further strain when he tells his mother that he suspects his father is sleeping with young women upstairs. The father leaves the family and, in the days that follow, in which his mother becomes listless and depressed, John attempts to smother her, although it’s unclear if he is intending to kill her or merely acting out of anger. After he spends a night in custody and is faced with the prospect of adolescent detention, John’s mother decides against pressing charges and the family is reunited. True to the structure of the novel, our expectations are upset and, against all odds, a more or less happy ending is in the offing. The family journeys together back to Gorey. John’s future is unclear, but he abandons his aspirations of being a human lie detector and his dream of appearing in the Guinness Book of Records. ‘There’ll be no understanding of what I’ve done,’ he thinks to himself. ‘I will be given no forgiveness; there will only be forgetting.’
Hyland, MJ 2004, ‘Diary’, London Review of Books, vol. 26, no. 9, viewed at <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n09/mj-hyland/diary>.
Adair, T 2009, The Lying Game, interview, July 4, The Age, viewed at <http://www.theage.com.au/news/entertainment/books/the-lying-game/2009/07/02/1246127632701.html>.
© Copyright Chris Womersley 2015