Review: The Gathering

I’d like to state up front and unequivocally: Anne Enright is a brilliant writer. The Green Road is excellent (more on March 12), but The Gathering is overwrought and pretentious. It’s a hybrid of Gilead and Written on the Body with a curious fixation on genitalia. The book jacket makes it sound more intriguing, however:

The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan are gathering in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother, Liam, drowned in the sea. His sister, Veronica, collects the body and keeps the dead man company, guarding the secret she shares with him—something that happened in their grandmother’s house in the winter of 1968. As Enright traces the line of betrayal and redemption through three generations, she shows how memories warp and secrets fester. As in all Enright’s work, her distinctive intelligence twists the world a fraction, and gives it back to us in a new unforgettable light.

I wrote, when reviewing The Narrow Road to the Deep North, that bad sex scenes remind me of my days helping fellow students polish their papers. Students do a funny thing when writing about sex: They want to include it in their stories, but they don’t want it to sound Penthouse-letter-y. The easiest way to avoid this is to make it gross or mundane, throw in a mention of death, and add some non-sequiturs. They try so hard to be inventive and literary that the final result is unintentionally funny. Lit sex has always made me giggle and in The Gathering, where so much anatomy is described at random intervals, it was a distraction.

Though Enright’s voice is beautiful, it’s hard enough to stay focused throughout jumps across time and subject matter without the lit-sex intrusions. Any time I started to sink into the story, BAM! I’m only including a highlight reel below, because if I filled this post with penile descriptions, it might get censored. 😛

But before we get to the lit sex, there’s lit grief:

I am a trembling mess from hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling—somewhere between diarrhoea and sex—this grief that is almost genital. (7)

This is a unique way to describe that weak-kneed feeling, but you know Enright threw in the diarrhoea because if she only compared grief to sex, we’d all be saying: What?? or Such brave writing to risk a misunderstanding like that! or How daring! and these reactions would be even more distracting. As is, it only elicits a WTF followed by an I don’t get it.

On the subject of childbirth, which she likens to “shitting,” Enright throws in some extra oddity to her description of a short gap between siblings:

There were eleven months between me and Liam. We came out of her on each other’s tails; one after the other, as fast as a gang-bang, as fast as an infidelity. Sometimes I think we overlapped in there, he just left early, to wait outside.

Well, that’s a new one. And the award for the strangest paragraph I have ever read goes to…

Drumroll, please!

His sister. Younger than him. She died. The room they grew up in was full of the wet rattle of her chest; the horrible gurgle of phlegm and the shocking bright blood. Nugent can not forget the nightly rosary, said at a terrible, safe distance from her bed; her white knuckles fumbling on the coverlet for the dropped beads, or the dark light in her eyes as she looked at him, like she saw right through to his bones. His own puberty going unnoticed—almost to himself—as her little breasts swelled under the nightdress. She moved towards death and womanhood at the same pace, the nipples like a spreading bruise, the breasts growing, and failing to grow, over lungs hard with disease. And so, she died.
Is that enough for him to think about, while he is on his knees?
That when he holds his penis in the night-time, it feels like her thin skin; always damp, never sweating. Because, in those days, people used to be mixed up together in the most disgusting ways.. (35)

I read this, and said: Is that lit speak for incest? Also, is that two-period thing a rare, non-OED sighting of a two-dot ellipsis or just a typo? Because an ellipsis makes this passage even stranger. But no matter, this paragraph cuts to another reason I struggled with this book: It’s damn depressing. And the wishy-washy writing makes it all the more depressing because you’re left to guess at the gaps between characters, always assuming the worst. The faults of memory are convincingly written, but the endless revisions are a chore to read.

Wait, I spoke too soon. What about this unusual paragraph:

The figures that pass are scribbled with the graffiti of his gaze: everything they have spills over, or droops. An overweight child with breasts—a boy, it seems. An old man with a scab under his nose. A woman with a widening tattoo. A parade of lax flies and stained trousers and bra straps showing under other, shoestring straps. The living, with all their smells and holes. Liam was always a great man for people’s holes, and who stuck what into which hole. (76)

Is that metaphorical? Am I being a pervert if I assume holes is an anatomical reference here? Given the random penises emerging on trains, the anatomical reference seems likely. However, what an odd way to describe a brother—by saying he’s a hole expert. Just for the record, I’m not a prude. I’ve given the “sex talk” to dozens of my peers and once ran a reproductive health site with many mentions of holes. Sex stuff doesn’t bother me—what I’m rolling my eyes about here is how forced and artificial it sounds for the sake of being arty and highbrow.

I don’t typically review books I don’t finish, but I had this on my queue for the month and felt obligated to not let this date pass without some remark on The Gathering. As I would like to read all the Man Booker Prize winners (this was the 2007 recipient), I plan to keep it on my shelf for a few years. Maybe it will sit better with me in a decade.

Lastly, because Enright does actually have talent, here’s a well-written passage for you:

Don’t tell Mammy. It was the mantra of our childhoods, or one of them. Don’t tell Mammy. This from Midge, especially, but also from any of the older ones. If something broke or was spilt, if Bea did not come home or Mossie went up to live in the attic, or Liam dropped acid, or Alice had sex, or Kitty bled buckets into her new school uniform, or any number of phone messages about delays, snarl-ups, problems with bus money and taxi money, and once, catastrophically, Liam’s night in the cells. None of the messages relayed: the whispered conferences in the hall, Don’t tell Mammy, because ‘Mammy’ would—what? Expire? ‘Mammy’ would worry. Which seemed fine to me. It was, after all, of her own making, this family. It had all come—singly and painfully—out of her. And my father said it more than anyone; level, gallant, There’s no need to tell your mother now, as if the reality of his bed was all the reality that this woman should be asked to bear. (9)

Book 3 of the Reading Ireland Month 2017 Challenge

Next Up: The Green Road by Anne Enright

Previously On:

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift