On this Bloomsday, I am pleased to be able to write a few words about Liam Mac Sheóinín’s novel George W. Bush Buys Coke in Mid-Eternity (Serving House Books, 2011). I know Mac Sheóinín (indeed a brief blurb from me appears on the back cover of the book), so I can’t say this is an impartial review, but my admiration for his work is genuine. As editor of The Burning Bush, I published a couple of excerpts from Mid-Eternity, yet reading it in full book form is quite an amazing experience. Very few people are writing like Mac Sheóinín now. With the ascent of creative non-fiction, memoir, crime fiction, and the like, literary fiction of this sort has largely been shunted to the sidelines. As the Western world’s collective cultural intelligence quotient continues to drop daily, and our universities are turned into degree-printing assembly lines for business majors, fewer and fewer people are being equipped to read a novel such as this. James Joyce himself wrote in Finnegans Wake, “Wipe your glosses with what you know,” but today many people seem to know less and less. All of which is to say that Mac Sheóinín’s Mid-Eternity will not be a bestseller, but nevertheless it is to my mind a welcome addition to the corpus of poetic-prose novels in the mode of Joyce, Pynchon, Nabokov, and Djuna Barnes.
The novel’s main character is an Irish-American Jersey Shore coke dealer named Brian Jordan. It is the late 1980s. Jordan is an anomaly as a coke dealer — he is interested in Joyce, philosophy, linguistics (oh, and anal sex), and intersperses much of his speech with obscure (to those around him) literary references. Jordan runs a bar and a strip club with his partner Dentelupo, is seeing the girlfriend (Rachel) of an acquaintance, and spends part of his time in the local library (à la Stephen Dedalus), where at one point he runs into the novelist Martin Amis — or is it Martin Amis the character in Money? Mid-Eternity is sub-titled “A Menippean Satire,” and Amis certainly is satirized — enough to, as was the power of the poets in ancient Ireland, bring boils to his face. Harold Bloom the literary critic also makes an appearance and comes off only slightly less scathed than Amis. The Bushes, both W. and H.W., tend to be described in simian (the former) and sinister (the latter) terms, and the scene from which the book derives its full appellation is hilarious.
Jordan is also given to visionary moments, which may or may not be encouraged by drugs and Jameson, and further he is seemingly abducted by aliens (Zeta Reticulans), who supply the coke he sells. In a parody of the detective novel — or is it in homage? — there is a murder. Such is the plot. The blurbs tend to portray Mid-Eternity as a rollicking, madcap good time, and they are not at all wrong in that. But I think there is something further going on here. Neither Menippean satire nor the modernist / postmodernist novel is really about plot. Mid-Eternity is about character and language, and puts forward ideas in something of a stochastic manner. “The true writer has nothing to say,” conjectures Jordan in one internal monologue, “It’s the fucking way he says it.” This may not be the first time it’s been suggested but it bears reiterating, and while it may sound coarse as presented, it suggests a deeper and possibly mystic sensibility. Clearly, this is a novel that is conscious of a tradition — not just of the 20th century, but going at least as far back as Scotus Eriugena.
Jordan, and Mac Sheónín himself, have actualized “A world where poetry is legal tender.” For Jordan, it may be in the form of his own wishful thinking, but Mac Sheónín really does create for the reader who understands his references a cosmology based on Joyce, poetry, and all of the above. Finnegans Wake, “the eternal book,” is Jordan’s “passport” to “sráid na réaltaí,” the Zeta Reticulans’ Irish-language term for the otherworld (meaning “street of stars”). The aliens have decided to intervene in human affairs because “your race has, largely, rejected Finnegans Wake.” These are wry strokes, but at the same time is this really so off in its sentiment? Mac Sheóinín is (if it is not obvious at this point in the review) an unapologetic Joycean, and Mid-Eternity takes Joyce as a given first premise. It is a work which builds on this premise; it is in dialogue with Joyce. Joyce is the greatest novelist of the 20th century. The literature of the 21st must of course continue to become itself, but I would be happy for it to spring from Joyce (in some way). And so Mac Sheóinín’s book is significant not only as an eminently worthy 252 pages of writing (and reading), but also because it is a marker of one possible direction for contemporary fiction.