Two strains of fiction manhandle syntax for opposing goals — one method represents, supposedly mimicking consciousness with an accuracy inaccessible to proper prose, the other debunks, purportedly defying the possibility of mimetic accuracy. (I know I’m simplifying — it’s a blog, sheesh.) Working primarily in the former tradition, Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is the latest exercise in how to represent a non-writer’s experience using a very writerly fragmentation. And. So. Many. Periods.
McBride prevents her novel from devolving into just a belated modernist exercise by fitting her style to the biological limitations upon coherence that each stage of human development imposes. Her experimentation is always age-appropriate. To start, childhood is an time of grasping for words, the meaningful sounds we’ve accumulated never quite enough to capture the sense of thoughts just beyond saying. The narrator (“I” throughout the novel) knows a terrible thing is happening to her brother (who is “you” throughout) but she can’t express it (it’s a brain tumor, we learn).
In adolescence, chemicals overwhelm the brain’s ability to think straight, and here the narrator’s mental spluttering temporarily turns the book into A Portrait of the What-Ever as an I Can’t Even. Then the narrative takes another dark turn. You might think that a childhood brain tumor is enough trauma for one slim novel, but sex at thirteen with a visiting uncle transforms the narrator into a creature of only impulse and sensation. Smugly seeing through the romantic illusions of her fellow girls, she becomes addicted to the power she can exert over dumb horny boys by adopting a pose of sexual nihilism.
Then comes the narrator’s move to the city — the liberating climax in many a coming of age novel — but as she enters that post-adolescent stage it’s a mistake to call “young adulthood,” she indulges only the freedom to deaden perception through overstimulation, leading to a suitably blurred prose. Her brother, the mother, the uncle — all pull her back into the past, as does the half-remembered cant of her childhood Catholicism, which further diffuses her already scattering thoughts in ways that only increase her frustration.
Many more awful things happen to the narrator before we reach a conclusion that feels inevitable but also ineffective. McBride tries to mirror the breakdown of consciousness through the breakdown of language, but the wires are showing and the illusion is dispelled. No shame in that: Geniuser writers than McBride have failed to eff the ineffable. It’s achievement enough to craft a compelling voice that tells it to eff off.