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Belinda McKeon.

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

\"Belinda

Belinda McKeon.

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.

“Insofar as I had any intention, early on, of how to ‘cover’ Counterparts, I’d hovered around the idea of a functional alcoholism, the pull of the well-lit bars on a winter’s evening in Dublin – every evening – but once I got down to the draft, that melted away and I realized that I was writing about a more modern addiction.

“The elements I retained didn’t feel so much like a retaining as the natural elements of the setting which grew out of the writing. A woman named Elizabeth in her mid-thirties, unable to escape the loop of pointless but compulsive Internet lurking and chattering, working in an office job she resents, spiraling into self-sabotage of the most ordinary, unremarkable kind.”

What surprised her about the writing of her version of Counterparts?

“What surprised me was the New York setting. The story began in an office on George’s Street in Dublin, which I could see very clearly, and I wrote lots of scenes there, but they weren’t gathering any momentum or showing me any shape, and I tried out other ways in – an early morning in a house in Crumlin, listening to Morning Ireland, a couple at a breakfast table, not talking to one another, just staring into their screens and the click-click-click of their mouse pads.

“These were all okay as ideas, but none of them would give me this story, and I could feel it, or sense it, just past another layer of fog, so I had to keep searching – and then I got the opening line, about morning climbing towards the character across the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, and I realized that she was not in Dublin at all.

“I grappled with that for a while,” says McKeon.  “Was it okay to set a Dubliners story in another city? But it kept demanding to be here, in New York, and once the story began to show itself, I could see why. Elizabeth, locked into her social media feeds, live streaming RTE radio, is living in a sort of Dublin of the mind – she’s homesick, but in a very confused, unclear way.

“She couldn’t wait to get away from Dublin - she had no work options there – and she knows that she’s now living in an amazing city, and should be grateful, but she doesn’t feel anything she should be feeling. She can’t even feel nostalgia, because she’s too hyper-plugged-in to give herself a chance. Meanwhile, her job, such as it is, is to celebrate Irish voices. She’s in a right funk, basically.”

What are McKeon’s own thoughts about social media? Is there a danger of her ever becoming Elizabeth?

Social media is, unfortunately, tailored perfectly for a gossipy, distractible, story-chasing, oh-look-something-shiny type like me. Every day of my life has the potential to plummet into an Elizabeth day. If I’m writing, I have a very simple solution. I unplug the modem cable and hand it to my husband on his way out the door in the morning,” she says.

Only the tech has changed in her story and in the other stories in the collection – the inner life of Joyce’s characters makes them instantly recognizable.  Does McKeon agree?

“Yes. He gets human fears and human foibles exactly. In fact the more advanced the technology gets, the more it shows how we’re still the same kinds of people as the people who were walking the streets of Dublin – and New York – 100 years ago.

“The same tendencies, the same habits, the same weaknesses, the same needs. What’s astonishing is that Joyce was so young when he tapped into the human condition so fully and so powerfully. Though finally published in 1914, Dubliners was completed in 1905. He was twenty-three years old. To put this in Twitter terms, #holycrap.”

McKeon will introduce and moderate Symphony Space's 33rd annual ode to Joyce’s work, featuring readings by Cynthia Nixon, Malachy McCourt and Colum McCann in partnership with Irish Arts Center. The event will be held at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 155 West 65th Street, at 7 p.m. on June 16.  Call 212-864-1414212-864-1414 FREE, ext. 289 for more details.

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