Ireland's Eye: Travels

by Mark Anthony Jarman
292 pages,
ISBN: 0887841783

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Looking for Irish Blood
by Ryan Bigge

Mark Anthony Jarman

Volume XXI of The New Quarterly (published in Winter of 2002) is devoted to Wild Writers We Have Known, a three-day symposium on the English Canadian short story, held in Stratford in September of 2000. These proceedings were so rich in result, they required a double issue of The New Quarterly to document and describe them. And it is here where you will find the transcription of a lecture given by Douglas Glover entitled "How to Read a Mark Jarman Story."

There are few Canadian fiction writers whose wordplay is so inventive, complex and dense that it necessitates sentences being tweezed apart. Fewer still are those writers whose work remains intact and vital after this deconstruction. But no matter how many times you snap apart the sentences of "Burn Man on a Texas Porch"¨the best story from Jarman's recent collection 19 Knives¨and glue them back together, the poetry and power remain.

Ireland's Eye is non-fiction, barely¨more accurately, creative or literary non-fiction¨so Glover's guidelines remain relevant. The writing is as intricate as always, no need for a lecture on "How to Read the Non-Fiction of Mark Jarman."

This book is a look at dead relatives, the past and the future, and changes in both the author and the countries that claim his roots. Style and substance tussle, embrace, go on separate vacations, only to return and reunite. The intro is observation overload, a compact punch of prose delivered by Jarman in carnival barker mode. ("From the get-go on the painted jet we drink hooch madly, foppishly, British Airways headphones on the so-called rock channel with some cockney DJ nattering and spinning hit singles from 1966, from my ancient grade-school history.") Jarman is crazed, loud, smart, compelling, taking the energy of travelling and expressing it on the page.

And yet, content ultimately rules Ireland's Eye. No amount of style could shove the reader through this tale; the facts and figures and newspaper clippings and archival photos are never dismissed in the word storm. The cage of literary non-fiction tames Jarman's work just enough, making this¨his fifth book¨his most accessible work to date. The factual architecture keeps both the author and the reader focused, while the format ensures Jarman's pyrotechnics dim little if at all. Part Two of his travelogue is entitled "Interviews with My Sainted Mother When She Was Speaking to Me Once More and Before She Lost Her Mind in the Wilds of Hollywood, So to Speak." If that seems too large a mouthful, beware¨this book is girded with sentences as long as PEI's Confederation Bridge, but thankfully, both have a similar structural integrity. Here, now, experience the pure speed and descriptive pull of a Jarman super-sentence, as he describes 21st century Ireland:

It's a new world of complicated crimes and weird bedfellows, a world of hostile takeovers, scary monsters, soft mist, soft money, leveraged buyouts, ironclad dot-com investments, seed money and speed from a lab, endless lineups at the Temple Bar in-spots, pills the bright colours of artificial flowers, and lovely Irish boobs once covered and now overflowing from low-cut scarlet sheath dresses as disposable Detroit techno pumps in your less-than-innocent ears, and no more doloroso 'bedads' and 'begobs' from the drunken jarvey driving your jitney, your hack, your spider phaeton.

This isn't a run-on sentence; it's a marathon. But the jog is worthwhile. Jarman pairs the above sentence with another, a bon mot to reward the reader for reaching the end of the paragraph: "No jarvey in a jitney now unless it's in a Merchant-Ivory production."

Douglas Glover suggests Jarman is "intoxicated with words." This phrase is apropos given the book coverwhich is designed to resemble a beer bottle label. Yet unlike a drunk author, Jarman describes nothing carelessly; the language is never ordinary. There are perhaps 10 cliches in Ireland's Eye, and nine are employed intentionally. Jarman seems aware of every last word in the dictionary, knowing when to use them, abuse them, how to mix oily and watery words, push them side-by-side, make them cuddle or fight. Still, not everyone will like the taste of Jarman's heavy, stout words, and some will get prose drunk. It is a risk Jarman is willing to take.

Regardless of how his prose goes down, it is incredible that Jarman somehow manages never to appear as a show-off. He is occasionally indulgent, but it is always controlled and intentional excess. Jarman escapes many a critical trap because he is in love with writing, enamoured with language, not himself. There is an "I" in Ireland's Eye, but most often Jarman is a camera that records and contextualizes.

The themes of the book are many, a pile of bright sticks on the floor that jumble and criss-cross each other. The main path through this travelogue is the search for the full story about Jarman's grandfather, a cooper for Guinness who died in 1922, drowned in a canal, leaving behind 10 children and a widow. Jarman addresses many monologues toward his dead grandfather: "I'm the future coming back to tromp through the past, the wild colonial boy who desires a dark pint with his dead grandfather."

The use of his family as the ore of the book is acknowledged appropriately. As Jarman puts it, "I am a flea on Ireland looking for a bit of blood, a clue." His mother refuses to participate, coalesce with the project¨hence the title of Part II.

Jarman's detective work is wrapped in diversion and digression. Themes include Ireland versus England, Ireland versus Ireland, what the roar of the Celtic Tiger truly sounds like and the trap of consumer tourism. This final theme is one of the most memorable. Jarman aches as he attempts to scratch off a little part of Ireland, a few flakes of authenticity to bottle and take home duty-free. For Jarman, the main site of contestation between the real and the fake is the pub: "A real pub mutates into a weird fake pub so we blow-ins can rest assured that the fake pub we choose on our once-in-a-lifetime trip is indeed real." Then, near the end of the book Jarman asks, "Why am I happier if the locals seem poorer? Does that make them more colourful, worth more points in a tourist inventory or Super 8 home movie?"

This book is so many things, but never strains to be any of them. Funny ("Bad disco plays inside, which raises the question, Is there good disco?") and touching ("I'm back in Ireland, chasing two corpses now and arguing with ghosts.") and grim and self-aware and restrained when need be. The text expands and contracts, wheezes, pulses, skips ahead, backtracks.

The complaints are minor. Jarman's structure is off a bit, with a 200-page first section, a dozen or so pages comprising part two, and a 90-page third and final act. Given Jarman, however, this isn't so surprising. That he imposes a structure at all is amazing.

The other irritant is a stray chapter or two that becomes the equivalent of family home movies or vacation slide shows, the material too insular to keep the reader interested. But the discomfort ends quickly, and these minor tangents do not ruin an otherwise superbly paced book. Jarman seems aware of the thicket of relatives he describes, and reminds us often of the links between cousin and grandmother, Uncle and Aunt, the past and the present.

It is a shame more history can't be this entertaining. Jarman shoehorns interviews, primary research and book quotes in-between the stylistic flourishes. This is like very few travelogues, thankfully. History alive, loud, vital, wrong and right. ˛

Ryan Bigge is the author of A Very Lonely Planet (Arsenal Pulp, 2001).


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