Around 80 pages into Anne Enright’s The Gathering, I remarked to a friend that the experience of reading it with a heavy cold felt as enjoyable as walking up Croagh Patrick barefoot. However, just as pious pilgrims probably feel some sense of accomplishment while they gingerly massage their shredded soles after completing their climb, I did sense, upon finishing the final page of Enright’s book, that the experience, while not exactly a hoot, was not absolutely pointless either.
It’s certainly not a work that tries to win you over with glib similes or an appealingly wise-cracking narrator. That isn’t to say that Veronica, who provides the novel’s voice, is insensitive to a certain dark comedy that can be extracted from her situation. She does, after all, describe herself as named after the saint who offered a “tea-towel” to the suffering Christ.
Yet I felt that the manner in which she provides some perspective on the ways she and her large family try to come to terms with the suicide of her elder brother, Liam, sometimes segued from exasperated sympathy to boiling misanthropy (there are pages in The Gathering where Enright’s narrator makes some of Houellebecq‘s, for example, seem like Ned Flanders.)
It’s not that I don’t appreciate a healthy dose of misanthropy, but it’s difficult to appreciate the objects of Veronica’s withering gaze as actual characters when almost the only information about them relates to how they disappoint, aggravate, or repel the narrator. Tom, Veronica’s husband, is a shadow of a figure, who apparently “hates” his wife (this is, apparently, a hatred shared by all men for all women).
Veronica’s mother is similarly “blurred,” dismissed as a benign piece of meat. Even Liam, the cynosure of the book’s grief, never, to me, becomes engaging enough for his passing to register as a loss.
But it’s acrid language with which Veronica dispenses her wisdom that provides the real slap across the reader’s face.
For example, she comes from a sprawling family with 12 children–a horde she seems to consider with the bemused distaste of an entomologist who loathes creepy-crawlies:
“There were girls at school whose families grew to a robust five or six. There were girls with seven or eight–which was thought a little enthusiastic–and then there were the pathetic ones like me, who had parents that were just helpless to it, and bred as naturally as they might shit.”
If you find the last analogy bracing, a tad unforgiving, then you might blanch in the face of Veronica’s description of the activity her parents were supposedly helpless before. The book’s tone seems to be marinated in a corporeal loathing, with descriptions of bodies and the moments when those bodies come into contact depicted with the sort of grimy relish you might associate with a self-flagellator of the Opus Dei variety. Some samples:
“I contemplate the spreading bruise of my private parts”; “I can sense the blood pooling in his lap; the thick oblong of his penis moving down the leg of his suit”; “her pubis like the breast of an underfed chicken”
But it is this almost-monotonous disgust at the flesh, and the book’s unflagging rage, that gives it a cumulative power which the reader is ultimately obliged to acknowledge. The first-person narration might make the judgements and observations made seem close to self-indulgent tirades, but it also imbues them with honesty. (Monomania is hard to fake.)
Even if the childhood secrets that Liam’s death unravels make your eyes roll with their predictable contours, Enright’s dedication to revisiting this much-trampled ground also seems at one with this anti-ingratiating candour. We don’t want to hear about all this again, groans the reader. But The Gathering will have none of your jaded apathy. Just because you’re bored with these subjects, it seems to insist, doesn’t mean they’re not important, not of the utmost seriousness.
It’s a serious book, The Gathering. And you can easily respect it, even when you find it impossible to like.