Coming off the back of reading more than my fair share of European crime-fiction (culminating with Stieg Larsson’s posthumuous sales-phenomenon The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) – a genre where plot, reasonably enough, is tight and pragmatic, where the reader must above all else understand what’s happening – it was a palate-cleansing delight to dive into Anne Enright’s crazed and crazy elliptical poem of a novel, The Wig My Father Wore.
Like many, I had heard precious little of Enright before her Man Booker winning The Gathering, a title which remains on my ‘must get around to reading’ list. Part of my reluctance to read The Gathering has come from the reviews, and more particularly from the comments of a number of friends involved in a reading-group which almost universally disliked the book – put off by its grim theme (a family struggling to understand the suicide of one of its members).
Enright’s first novel, though, from its rootsily inverted title through to its premise had enough to nudge me over this acquired reluctance towards her work. The tone is well set by the snippet displayed by the publishers on the jacket:
It was a tough wiry wig with plenty of personality. It rode around on his head like an animal. It was a vigorous brown. I was very fond of it as a child. I thought that it liked me back
The wig, although possessed of an admirably brash personality, is merely a walk-on character in a book which features television professionals vainly producing a blind-date style show; where one of the contestants appears to be stuck in Nietzschean eternal return, albeit one with a ladder in her tights; and where one of the main characters is a successful suicide turned Angel, who, returned to earth to soak up despair, spends time hanging in the bathroom (it helps him to think), and ultimately is transfixed and transfigured by the tv.
All of which is to say that the actual plot counts for little here. Our crime plotting friends, with their maxims of ‘action reveals character’ and ‘character determines acton’ would be horrified by the promiscuous use of allegory (her father’s wig being a case in point, which stands for vanity, the fear of death, and television amongst other things), and the oh so very loose storyline – not a lot happens, and when things do happen you’re not sure that they really have.
‘My father is not able to climb the stairs, so he will never see the three bald photographs hanging on the wall. My mother thinks she hung them out of sight because she loves him. She says she wants to remember things as they really were. As if she didn’t know, that seeing things as they really were is the greatest possible revenge.’
I remember listening to a lecture by Seamus Deane (whose own novel, Reading in the Dark is well worth a read) on Flann O’Brien, where he suggested that the fantastic and the absurd in novels like At-Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman could be read as a round-about way to write about the vioent Irish political situation in the ’30s,’40’s and ’50s – indeed the fantastic has a long and proud tradition in anglo-irish literature, ranging from the straight satires of Swift through to the nervous ghost stories of Stoker, Maturin, et al.
Enright, in this novel, is part of that tradition. The absurd and darkly funny world she has created is one of the most concrete and realistic ways to write about a culture where all the rules seem to have been turned on their heads. The big questions of life and death have been obscured by science, technology and television. When the narrator’s father first put on his wig it is as a defiance of ageing and mortality – but when we meet him in the book it is his body that has outlived his mind, as he suffers from a form of alzheimers.
Big weighty questions then posed by this novel, but always with an eye to rhythmn. Peeling through the book to pick a favourite line or quote is akin to re-reading the whole thing, as every paragraph or two , regardless of how bleak or bewildering the story has become, there is a gem:
‘But for a moment he saw his own face there, or some face. He thought that if he could paint he would paint on her belly, stroke by stroke and colour by colour, that face. He would paint a picture of his own face which was, just then, the face of an angel.
‘It is a difficult thing,’ he says, ‘for a man to understand.’
How do you explain condoms to an angel? Or money, to a dead man? or Sex to anyone?’
‘I have always found liars both subtle and exciting. for which, of course, my father is to blame. At the same time, I thought his wig was a talisman against other, less interesting lies. I thought I was immune. And yet, here I was in Stoke Newington, watching a man wash my smell away.’
A joy to read,and – given that it’s in part a novel about suicide, dementia, and grief – that’s high praise indeed.