The Quarterly Conversation
Review by Christiane Craig — Published on September 3, 2012
Perhaps the most surprising moment of Anakana Schofield’s Malarky: “Our Woman’s brain ached as though fingers were separating it inside her head.” Indeed, Malarky is nothing if not a very difficult, albeit remarkable, little “brain” and to read it is to separate it with fingers. The novel is composed of twenty “episodes,” the muddled recollections of “Our Woman,” an Irish farmer’s wife on the threshold of old age, with two featureless daughters and a very dear gay son, Jimmy, who is her favorite person.
Malarky’s sections slip between first and third person and are non-linear, recursive. Just as in a dream, each thought disappears into the next. On some days, Our Woman wishes to “mould away to her own finality” and just so, it is decay—destruction from within, not without—that sustains narrative momentum. In all episodes, what remains most constant is a certain instinctive urgency to repair time and memory. It is the same challenge that a reader faces: to make sense of the novel’s disjointed events.
In Malarky’s first episode, Our Woman is already a widow in grief counseling, where she admits to unpleasant ideas, presumably in the wake of her husband’s death. She is plagued, so she says, by thoughts of naked men, “at each other all the time, all day long.”
Later in the novel and earlier in time, Our Woman’s husband, “Himself,” is still living, though even in life he is a “droopy,” vague, and not-unfriendly ghost, drifting in and out of the house, rattling plates, opening jars. After his death, she sees him only “at the kitchen table and moving objects. Only in the moving of objects does he live again.”
Bound so long by the “routine of [Himself’s] demands,” Our Woman is cut loose rather suddenly during a visit to Ballina, where she is approached by a strange, demented woman, “Red the Twit.” Born again, Red repents fancifully, confessing in much detail to a fling with Our Woman’s husband.
However dubious, Red’s testimony shakes Our Woman to her core and she proceeds to divorce Himself, if not by law, then in practice. She stops looking after him and ceases to notice him—or the furniture and the objects that he haunts. Her brain—fossil that it was—is cracked by Red’s information, such that thought seeps out from it again: “she must investigate the very bones of this transaction. She must undress this mystery vest to its threads. She can stand here in this kitchen and continue to know nothing, or she can head off into the world and figure this muck out.” As it happens, “figuring this muck out” involves, necessarily, the seduction of a drab greeting card salesman.
For Schofield’s Our Woman, “malarky” can mean only sex, or, more specifically, the sex she secretly witnesses in the barn between Jimmy and a neighbor boy: “he’s got him by the hips, rattling in and out of them, almost like he’s steering a wheelbarrow that’s stuck on a stone, going no place.” It is sometime after this that Jimmy professes his homosexuality, even bringing a boy home. He is disowned by Himself and forced to quit college. He enlists in the American army and departs for Afghanistan, where he is killed. From the outset, Our Woman takes Jimmy’s death for granted and already grieves for him.
She spends her days in the Ballina Public Library, poring over books about Middle Eastern architecture. There she meets a Syrian security guard, Halim, whom she promptly seduces. Her sex with him is perhaps best described as an “undertaking”: “Been furrowing around in this young stranger’s groin like a cleaning woman who’d lost her brush in a bucket of water.” Much like her romp with the greeting card salesman, this sex is private, forensic inquiry, toward psychological rather than physical gratification.
Malarky proves to be a kind of abstruse, physical turmoil. Both Our Woman and Halim seek knowledge, not pleasure. This knowledge seems, finally, to involve sexual difference. For example, Our Woman’s daughters are difficult strangers, just as they were the instant they emerged from her. But Jimmy is her whole heart. So it is not her husband’s death that she’s survived, but his. In a sense, she is her son’s widow.
Our Woman wants to do all and only that which she’s seen Jimmy do. She wants to feel what he felt. She impersonates him, seeking “to consume, rather than be consumed.” Halim’s fascination is of an entirely different sort: he wants to know what a woman feels when she births a child. At his urging, Our Woman provides a brief, hard-boiled report of the births of her own three children and finally instructs him to lie flat and spread his legs for a physical demonstration. She considers: “he was a tender young man, who, for whatever reason, no matter how many women he might fill, would always have an empty hole.”
Sex seeks to resolve, if only briefly, the grief of physical separation and of difference.
In a sense, Malarky’s stylistic project is the same. The novel is crawling with similes. Everything must be like something else. It’s exhausting, but very beautiful: the brain sparks where its fibers touch. Schofield writes: “I often imagined music coming through or underneath the text, as I am a little fixated on rhythm and sound.” Truly, the novel seems powered by a very personal, musical attention, though not only where local rhythms or sonorities are concerned, also more largely, in its episodic arrangement, its movements and tonal fluctuations. Occasionally, strange adverbs will appear, like annotation on a musical score: “Himself sat in the chair by the fire. Increasingly.”
Written over ten years, Malarky is a finely wrought and mysterious novel. Just as Our Woman wonders “into which dark corners” her husband’s brain “extends,” a reader must sense a great many dark corners in Schofield’s writing, which offers very little in the way of knowledge. It advances, but does not accumulate, rather like music—or living thought.
Christiane Craig is an American student of literature living in Paris. She has worked as a proofreader and assistant on several of The Cahier Series’ projects.