Thursday, June 11, 2015

Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a novel by Irish writer Roddy Doyle, first published in 1993 by Secker and Warburg. It won the Booker Prize that year. The story is about a 10-year-old boy living in Barrytown, North Dublin, and the events that happen within his age group, school and home in around 1968.

The novel is known for its interesting use of language – Doyle uses a register that gives the reader the vivid impression of listening to a ten-year-old Irish boy from the 1960s. The novel is not divided into chapters but into small scenes which do not follow any chronological order.

The plot structure of the novel is also unconventional, that of numerous vignettes. Despite the absence of a clear-cut plot (introduction, complication, climax, dénouement) one can still, with certain sensitivities in place, derive a perceptible passing of time as we witness, gradually, how Barrytown changes.

The novel, chronicling Paddy's internal journey towards maturity, is a bildungsroman as it centres around the main character's development. Paddy's growing up is painfully bitter. While the beginning of the book is filled with playful antics, the growing antagonism between his parents and the breaking up of their marriage are evident as the novel moves on. What makes Paddy's rite of passage, as it were, all the more tragic is the fact that he does not choose his "journey of enlightenment and maturity", rather, he is robbed of it when his parents become estranged from one another.

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A few years ago, Roddy Doyle found himself swirling around in a teacup storm. A few days before the annual Bloomsday celebration in 2004, he had the temerity to suggest that the Dublin Joyce industry is rather tacky, that Ulysses "could have done with a good editor" and that it's annoying for Irish writers like him to be forever compared to Joyce: "If you're a writer in Dublin and you write a snatch of dialogue, everyone thinks you lifted it from Joyce. The whole idea that he owns language as it is spoken in Dublin is a nonsense. He didn't invent the Dublin accent. It's as if you're encroaching on his area or it's a given that he's on your shoulder. It gets on my nerves," the Sunday Tribune in Dublin reported him saying.

Naturally, decent citizens everywhere were outraged. They pilloried Doyle as "foolish", spewed invective about how he wasn't half such a talent as the great JJ, reminded us once again of the latter's deathless genius – and blithely ignored the fact that Doyle was on most counts quite right. Ulysses is a slog, the Joyce tourism industry is over the top and Joyce doesn't have a monopoly on Dublin. Besides, it's only natural that a Dublin writer should want to escape Joyce's shadow and feel annoyed at being constantly compared to him.

So Doyle has my sympathy – for what it's worth. Or at least, he did until I started on the opening of this month's Guardian Review book club title, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – which couldn't be more like the opening A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man if … I was going to write "if it tried". But that's the wrong expression. Because it does try.

Here's the start of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha:

"We were coming down our road. Kevin stopped at the gate and bashed it with a stick. It was Missis Quigley's gate; she was always looking out of her window but she never did anything."

Here's the start of A Portrait of the Artist:

"Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo … "

And so it continues – and far beyond the elegant tribute of these echoes. Throughout the book the rhythms, and (sorry Mr Doyle) the voice are strikingly reminiscent of Joyce. So too is the subject matter. Like A Portrait of the Artist, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a description of a Dublin childhood that delves into deep and evocative detail about the sights, sounds, smells, cruelties, triumphs and bizarre dialogues that schoolboys tend to encounter. It has Joyce written all over it.

But that shouldn't be taken as a criticism. A Portrait of the Artist is a fine book after all and to have written something that approaches so close is damn impressive. Nor should it be taken to suggest that Doyle slavishly adheres to the Joyce model. There's no doubting that he has his own vision and take. The 10-year-old narrator points out all sorts of details that belong to him alone. He tells us about the varnish at the front of the prefab buildings in his school that "was all flaky because of the sun: you could peel it off". He tells us all about Sinbad, his brother, and what brotherhood means to him, and how strange it can be to be so close and so removed – especially when he does odd things like twirl a rodent around by its tail: "I stood near Sinbad; he was my brother and he was holding a dead rat in his hand." He shows us about the daft thoughts running through his head: "Confucius he say, go to bed with itchy hole, wake up in the morning with smelly finger." He talks us through the process of puking up Angel Delight, strawberry and milk and sums up the after effect wonderfully: "I felt better, sturdier." This is definitely Paddy Clarke's world, not Stephen Dedalus's. Doyle brings it to life vividly and with infectious humour.

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