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


“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.