It's 1978 and John Lennon has skipped out on the domestic bliss of his New York apartment life with Yoko and Sean. His head is in turmoil and the only true escape from the world that he can think of is to visit a tiny island in Clew Bay on the west coast of Ireland that he bought for 1700 pounds in 1967.
Now, Clew Bay is lousy with islands - there are over 100 - but John believes that if he can escape the paparazzi, fans and television producers that want him to appear as a guest on The Muppets, then he can hide out on for a few days and... well, not much really. All the islands are small, and are largely covered in grass, rocks and a few sheep. But he also wants to scream, a primal scream, like he learned how to do in California with Dr Arthur Janov. Scream away the hate and confusion that is crowding and clouding his head. Scream like a baby. Scream till he is hoarse.
This is the set-up for Kevin Barry's new novel Beatlebone. Its prose style and structure is probably best described as experimental, and in fact it recently won the UK's Goldsmiths Prize for experimental literary fiction. It was also listed by the New York Times as one of 2015's notable books, so it certainly already has its fans, I'm just not sure I am one of them - despite being a big fan of unconventional prose. The novel starts in a somewhat poetic haze as Lennon is driven during the night towards Clew Bay. He is alone and confused.
His brain feels like a city centre and there is a strange tingling in the bones of his monkey feet. F*** it. He will deal with it. The road unfurls as a black tongue and laps at the night. There's something monkeyish, isn't there, about his feet? Also his gums are bleeding.
There is no back story to how he finds himself there, you just have to deal with it, like Lennon dealing with his monkey feet. However, these early chapters left me feeling as disoriented as the former Beatle was.
He's been coming loose of himself since early in the spring. He knows all the signs of it. One minute he's lost in the past and the next he's shot back to the now. There is no future in it. The year is on the turn and greening and everything is too f***ing alive again.
Gradually however I found myself warming to this strange, and yet well known, narrator and realised what Barry was able to achieve with his fictionalised account. The trick is this: the author doesn't have to explain any back story - you know it. We all know John Lennon's past and we all know what lies around the corner for him back in New York. Even if you are only vaguely aware that there once was a band called The Beatles and Lennon was a member, that's all the information you really need to tackle this novel.
The real joy for me comes when Lennon meets up with his driver/minder for his time on Ireland's west coast called Cornelius. Long patches of dialogue between the pair float around the pages but express the wit and charm of two acerbic, quick-witted people enjoying being in each others company.
Are we going to make it to the island?
Touch and go, I'd say. Different question for you.
Does it matter, at the end of the day, which island I let you down on?
How'd you mean?
There are hundreds of the f***en things. They are all small, wet, miserable holes of places. They're fit for hares and rats and filthy birds. Why should one of them be any better or worse than the next?
The banter and philosophical discussions between the pair are a joy to read - less so when Cornelius exit's the scene, for example, an extended group therapy session in an old hotel and when Lennon escapes everybody to spend some time in a damp coastal cave.
Then, two thirds of the way into the book - just when you think you know what is going on, the author throws in a long first-person narrative of his own non-fictional experiences in the Clew Bay area and details of Lennon's actual time spent on the island and its history. There is no doubt that this chapter answered many of the questions I had about the location. It is fascinating and engaging. I'm just not sure the best place to put such a chapter is in the middle of the book, as it takes you out of the story completely. Then again, there are some interesting parallels between the author and his subject that would have been lost if it were simply deposited as some kind of epilogue, so perhaps its final location is the best compromise.
Also, a book called Beatlebone is bound to attract Fab Four obsessives keen to read an author's take on Lennon on his ex-band members and music writing, but such people will be disappointed. This Lennon never mentions The Beatles, nor are any key members of the band's history - other than his mother Julia - mentioned at all. You may however, enjoy picking out the few references to song titles and lyrics the crop up throughout the book. I picked out about five, but there are probably a lot more than that hidden within this novel's pages.
Overall, I certainly enjoyed reading this novel, and found it to be a very interesting literary experiment, I just don't think that it works on the whole. Trying to create a context-free story about one of the most beloved musical figures of the twentieth century and his mid-life crisis is stylistically entertaining and imaginative, but its subject matter never steps out from that poetic haze. It is certainly foolish to expect a more analytical novelisation in this case, and I was totally willing to jump right in and feel around in the darkened fog with him, but overall I found the experience more frustrating than enlightening.
Do you see, John?
Do you see the trick of it, John?
I think so.
Beatlebone is published by Canongate and available in NZ through Allen & Unwin.
Illustration / P.K. Stowers