Paul Fulcher's Reviews > Beatlebone

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
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bookshelves: goldsmiths-2015, 2015

The final book I've read from the Goldsmiths 2015 shortlist, but, relatively to a strong list, one of the weaker in my view, albeit still a worthwhile read.

And not as strong as Barry's previous Impac-winning City of Bohane (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...). Ultimately this novel suffers from two issues:

firstly it requires an interest in John Lennon to really appreciate it, and I don't think it does enough to create that interest for anyone who doesn't have it.

secondly, the authorial interjection that occurs part way through, see below, seems artificial.

Beatlebone has its origins in a true story. In 1967 John Lennon bought an island in Clew Bay off the west coast of Ireland, originally with grand designs of building a house there, but he eventually handed over the island to a community of hippies, who themselves abandoned it. Beatlebone imagines "John" (his surname is never mentioned), returning incognito (although the press soon get wind) to the area in 1978, hoping to visit the island and try out primal scream therapy.

"He will spend three days alone on the island. That is all he asks. That he might scream his f..... lungs out and scream the days into nights and scream to the stars by night - if stars there are and the stars come through."

What follows is a slightly surreal, supernatural and mildly Kafkesque story as the locals, and in particular the memorable Cornelius, a local fixer, seem to take him on endless diversions and misadventures on the way to the island. And in the meantime we get John's own thoughts, mostly in dialogue with Cornelius, on his Liverpool origins and on artistic creativity.

The novel is largely told in minimally punctuated and sardonic dialogue, for example when John first reaches a hotel in the area:

"A hatchet face crone appears on the tip of her witches snout. Looks him and and down. Sour as the other Monday's milk. Double checks his ankles to see if he's got a suitcase hid down there.

Well? she says.

It's about a room, love

She throws an eye up at the clock.

This is a foxy hour to be landing into a hotel, she says.

And in denim, he says.

The reception's air is old and heavy, as in a sick room's, and the clock swings through its gloomy moments.

Do you have a reservation? she says.

I have severe ones, he says, but I do need a room."

Or, towards the end of the novel, in conversation with Cornelius:

"The black swarm of the sea moves its lights like a cocaine palace.

I beg your pardon, John?

It's a lyric, Cornelius. Or at least a note towards one. I'm thinking it all through.

I have you now.

I just let the words come out, really, in a sort of ... blaaah. You know without thinking? It's just a kind of ... bleuurrgh. Without thinking. To get the sub-concious stuff? And then I see if I can get a shape on them.

Is that how it works?

Sometimes. But the imagination is a very weak little bird. It flounders, Cornelius, and it flaps around a bit.

I'd believe it, John. Cocaine I never took.

I'm inclined to think that's a very good idea.

Though I was addicted to cough bottles at one time."

His trip culminated not so much on the island, which is something of a disappointment, but with a spiritual experience in a cave, which inspires him to imagine a new album, the eponymous beatlebone:

"It will contain nine f... songs, and it will f... cohere, and it will be the greatest f.... thing he will ever f... do.

Now in the cave he has all of its words and all of its noise and all of its squall.

He sees the broad sweep - he sees the tiny detail. This is the one that will settle every score. This is pure expression of scorched ego and burning soul.

The title comes through with first light. He makes carefully with a finger the letters of the word in the white sand

b e a t l e b o n e."

And the eight part of the novel - there are 9 in all, a number with which the real-life Lennon was obsessed - tells of his rather unsuccessful attempt to record this (fictitious) lost album:

"CHARLIE:[the sound engineer] It's going to be a challenging piece of work.

JOHN: They are going to do me up like a f****** kipper, Charlie.

CHARLIE: Well there are no songs. As such. I mean song-type songs. Is the thing of it, John.

JOHN: You thing this is news to me, Mr Haines.

CHARLIE: I'm not saying it necessarily needs song-type songs. As such.

JOHN: There are nine f****** pieces.

CHARLIE: But do they flow? As such?

JOHN: Flow, Charlie. What do you think this is? F****** Supertramp."

To add to the rather non-standard nature of the novel, three quarters of the way through the book there is a 35-page authorial interruption to the story. The narrator - the author or a fictional version of Barry - explains that much of John's experiences are based on his own when he researched the book.

"The idea was that I would get to the island and I would Scream...I imagined that this was going to be an odd, meditative interlude in my life - three days of utter inwardness; an exploration of inner space; a seablown breeze to clear all the webs away - and I would return to report my findings in a mature, honed, prose, as clear as class: this from a man who had never knowingly underfed an adjective.".

Except in practice, Barry found the experience (or at least in his account in the novel) more disturbing that he expected, complete with the same visions and cave experience he attributes to John in the novel.

This "how I came to write the novel" section is interesting, but I couldn't help feel that its insertion directly into the novel, temporarily interrupting but not diverting the story, felt artificial versus simply including it as a postscript.

Overall, interesting and worth its place on the Goldsmiths shortlist given the brief of the prize, but there are stronger novels on the list.


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Reading Progress

October 31, 2015 – Shelved
October 31, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
October 31, 2015 – Shelved as: goldsmiths-2015
Started Reading
November 8, 2015 – Shelved as: 2015
November 8, 2015 – Finished Reading

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