Portrait of the Irish: Belinda McKeon on “Dubliners 100”


There’s no getting around James Joyce or his defining legacy, but equally there’s no question that a new generation of Irish writers are stepping out of his long shadow.

It took some doing. In the decades after Joyce Irish novelists used to moan about his ubiquity the way other Irish poets once complained about Yeats. 

But 100 years has passed since the first publication of Dubliners, enough time for even the Irish to chart new courses.

That realization has encouraged independent Irish publishers Tramp Press and editor Thomas Morris to come up a lively suggestion, an anthology of all 15 of Joyce’s stories re-written (or completely changed) by some of Ireland’s most accomplished contemporary writers.

Novelist Belinda McKeon, 34, was tasked with re-writing Joyce’s Counterparts, a short, sharp shock of a story with a shattering ending. What McKeon does with her re-imagining merits a book of its own. McKeon has crafted an acidly funny portrait of a brilliant but flinty young woman on the verge of a self-created career crisis, in a story that is by turns acidly funny and gasp inducing.

But how do you climb out from under the great man’s shadow? Or is that even an issue in 2014? Does she have to break up all that frozen adoration that attends his work to write this? Or was it no bother? 

“I don’t know if I have a frozen adoration of Joyce, actually,” McKeon tells the Irish Voice. “Which is not to say I don’t marvel at his work – I do – but every new story owes a debt of one kind of another to an old story, consciously or unconsciously, so in a sense this invitation, from the editor of Dubliners 100, was not hugely different to the starting-point of any new piece of fiction.”

When Dubliners 100 editor Morris made it clear to her that once each author had selected their story they’d have free rein to do whatever they liked stylistically and thematically, she was intrigued.

“In other words, Joyce or no Joyce, we all had to write new stories, and I can’t speak for the other writers, but for me the demand of a new story itself, as it comes into being, is much greater than any demands exerted by the circumstances under which it has been commissioned,” McKeon said.

“Once you get down to work, it’s the story itself, the story you’re writing, which begins to exert pressure on you.  You have to work to find its language and to find its form, because only from those things can you discover what the story is.”

But Dubliners isn’t just a book.  It’s become a cultural artifact, a high water mark in the history of world literature. So how does an editor convince you a re-write and re-imagining is worth doing?

Again, but in a different sense this time, the story decided. Tom Morris gave me my choice of the stories and I decided, after thinking over it for a few days, to go with Counterparts,” McKeon said. 

Joyce’s story is so powerful in that it takes on the exact cadence of compulsion and of self-sabotage.  The protagonist is an alcoholic office clerk who can’t fight the urge for a drink and for company, and who discovers, inevitably, that neither of these things can satisfy him.

“Reading the story induces, at least for me, a sensation of claustrophobia and dawning panic – the crammed scenes of tense and desperate encounters, the jittering of Farrington’s internal monologue as he tries to bargain with himself and with the world from minute to minute – and Joyce achieves this through a brilliantly tight – indeed merciless – use of free indirect speech – ‘Blast it! He couldn’t finish it in time’ -- and a slamming down of livid dialogue.

“There’s a masterful, more apparently languid central scene, where Farrington and his friends go on a pub-crawl around Dublin city center, and there’s the closing scene in which Farrington takes his anger out on his young son, and that’s a deeply unsettling moment, but it’s unsettling because you realize that the relative comedy and farce of the whole story, a story of selfishness and frustration, has been building up to this very stark, lonely moment.

“I didn’t know, when I took it on, whether any story I would write would want to riff off or pay homage to those elements – again, I had to let the new story find its own shape – but I was very, very drawn to Joyce’s Counterparts, to its darkness and its bluntness, and to the seam of pathetic comedy running through its shabby tweeds.”

McKeon retained the elements that appeared in the original story and reworked them – office politics, petty functionaries, thinly-veiled fury, the abuse of a child, the lack of self-consciousness – and also updated the tech. 

I had an image of a character sitting in front of a computer screen, locked into social media the way it’s so easy to get locked in, slumped and already deadened – and, yes, paralyzed – before the day had even begun – seeming weary already of the way, to steal a line from Joyce’s Portrait,” she says.