James Wal­ton

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Mod­ern Gods by Nick Laird.

Viking, 308 pp., $27.00

“Mov­ing is easy,” be­gins Nick Laird’s first novel, Ut­terly Mon­key (2005). “But ac­tu­ally leav­ing some­where is dif­fi­cult.” It’s a les­son that the main char­ac­ter, Danny Wil­liams, soon learns. When the book opens, he seems to have long es­caped his back­ground in County Ty­rone, North­ern Ire­land, where he grew up Protes­tant in the fic­tional town of Bal­ly­glass: fa­mous—at least in Bal­ly­glass—for hav­ing the widest main street in all of Ire­land. Af­ter study­ing at Cam­bridge, he’s worked at one of Bri­tain’s lead­ing le­gal firms for nearly five years, in the process turn­ing him­self into “a first-class Lon­doner.” But then the past reap­pears, ring­ing his door­bell in the unan­nounced shape of his feck­less, drug-deal­ing old school­friend Ge­ordie—or­dered to leave North­ern Ire­land by the Protes­tant paramil­i­taries who en­force law and order in his lo­cal area. (In their de­fense, they’d al­ready given him an of­fi­cial warn­ing—by shoot­ing him in both calves.) Danny ini­tially re­gards Ge­ordie’s ar­rival as “dis­pro­por­tion­ate and cruel pun­ish­ment.” A few pints of Guin­ness later, he is—to his sur­prise— al­most grat­i­fied to be feeling “made in Ul­ster.”*

Be­fore long, though, Danny is also re­mem­ber­ing—or maybe re­al­iz­ing— how ir­re­duc­ibly strange his back­ground had been:

For ev­ery Protes­tant busi­ness . . . there was the Ro­man Catholic equiv­a­lent, some­times right next door. It was an in­stance of the par­al­lel uni­verse be­com­ing vis­i­ble, as if two sep­a­rate towns ex­isted and some­how in­hab­ited the very same space. And of course, as co­ex­is­tences go, this one couldn’t be called peace­ful. When Danny hears an in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism ex­pert talk­ing on tele­vi­sion, he feels “an un­kind thought rise in him like bile: now ev­ery­one else would know what it felt like—to live with the back­drop of bomb­ings and guns.”

In the tra­di­tional first-novel way, Ut­terly Mon­key in­cor­po­rated plenty of au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal el­e­ments. Laird him­self is from County Ty­rone, where he grew up Protes­tant in Cook­stown: fa­mous—at least in Cook­stown—for hav­ing the widest main street in all of Ire­land. Af­ter study­ing at Cam­bridge, he worked in one of Lon­don’s lead­ing le­gal firms. Yet what he doesn’t ap­pear to have in com­mon with Danny is any de­sire to es­cape his roots. Th­ese days, Laird’s rather glam­orous lit­er­ary life— some of it, as he ad­mits with vary­ing de­grees of rue­ful­ness, de­rived from his mar­riage to Zadie Smith—means he has a Green­wich Vil­lage apart­ment as well as a Lon­don house. Nev­er­the­less, when asked where he con­sid­ers home, Laird’s an­swer is Ty­rone; and in New York, his In­ter­net alarm clock wakes him with Ra­dio Ul­ster.

His in­evitably con­flict­ing feel­ings about North­ern Ire­land are also a dom­i­nant theme in his work, both as a novelist and as a poet. His last po­etry col­lec­tion, Go Giants (2013), ended with “Progress,” which ex­am­ined th­ese feel­ings in no fewer than 168 dense three-line stan­zas. And in his new novel, Mod­ern Gods, he ex­am­ines them some more.

Laird is un­com­fort­ably aware that Ul­ster Protes­tants are badly mis­un­der­stood by the rest of the world—if, that is, the rest of the world gives them enough thought to achieve mis­un­der­stand­ing. In Robert McLiam Wilson’s blis­ter­ing North­ern Ire­land novel Eureka Street (1996), for ex­am­ple, an Ir­ish Repub­li­can leader goes on a tri­umphant pub­lic­ity tour of Amer­ica—a tri­umph made eas­ier by the fact that “Amer­ica didn’t know [North­ern Ir­ish] Protes­tants even ex­isted.... It wasn’t so much that real his­tory was rewrit­ten. Real his­tory was deleted.” (Wilson, in­ci­den­tally, is Catholic.)

In Bri­tain, mean­while, the loy­alty of the Loy­al­ists hasn’t al­ways been re­cip­ro­cated ei­ther, and in Ut­terly Mon­key Laird treated their end­less, be­lea­guered self-mythol­o­giz­ing with a sort of ex­as­per­ated sym­pa­thy. “The Bri­tish govern­ment,” he writes,

only ever treated the Ul­ster Union­ists as con­di­tion­ally Bri­tish. Use­ful enough when there was a war to be fought or an Olympics to com­pete in but other­wise fit only for car­i­ca­ture and ridicule—the bigot bray­ing on the telly, march­ing sternly past the cam­era in his ar­chaic bowler hat and lu­di­crous sash.

In

Mod­ern Gods, both the ex­as­per­a­tion and the sym­pa­thy are still there—but this time, Protes­tant self­mythol­o­giz­ing is placed in a wider set­ting, as part of an ex­plo­ration of myths in gen­eral, and of the ap­par­ent hu­man ad­dic­tion to them. “Po­etry is my first love,” Laird has said—and un­til now it’s true that his fic­tion has been fairly light­weight in com­par­i­son. De­spite its mo­ments of se­ri­ous­ness and the qual­ity of its prose, Ut­terly Mon­key was clearly in­flu­enced by what was then known in Bri­tain as “lad-lit,” and in its fi­nal sec­tions turned into an overblown cin­e­matic thriller. His sec­ond—and Ul­ster-free—novel, Glover’s Mis­take (2009), com­bined en­ter­tain­ing de­pic­tions of twen­tysome­thing Lon­don life

with a less con­vinc­ing lurch into psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal vi­o­lence. Now, with Mod­ern Gods, he’s gone for some­thing far more weighty and am­bi­tious— al­beit not com­pletely suc­cess­fully.

Even so, the open­ing pages em­ploy a tech­nique much fa­vored by com­mer­cial fic­tion: a dra­matic and, for a while, un­ex­plained pro­logue, here based on a real-life in­ci­dent in Oc­to­ber 1993. The lo­ca­tion is a Catholic bar where in chill­ingly dead­pan Ir­ish slang Laird de­scribes “two ee­jits in plas­tic Hal­loween masks” burst­ing in, shout­ing “Trick or treat!” and shoot­ing the peo­ple sit­ting at their “wee round ta­bles.”

From there, the novel moves to the present—and to what ini­tially seems a con­ven­tional fam­ily tale. In Chapter One, Ken­neth Don­nelly is pot­ter­ing around his Bal­ly­glass kitchen when his wife Ju­dith comes home with the news that her cancer is more ad­vanced than they thought. Chapter Two cuts to New York where their thirty-four-year-old daugh­ter Liz re­turns to her apart­ment from her col­lege teach­ing job to find her boyfriend Joel with a male lover. Paus­ing only to split up with him, she then flies back to Bal­ly­glass for the wed­ding of her sis­ter Ali­son.

At this stage, it looks as if the mod­ern gods of the ti­tle might re­fer only to the more re­cent of our con­sol­ing myths. Fright­ened by his wife’s ill­ness, Ken­neth tries but fails to achieve “the mind­ful­ness” rec­om­mended by their coun­selor. When they first met, Joel’s bi­sex­u­al­ity had al­lowed Liz to en­joy “the fond glow of her pro­gres­sive na­ture.” Sadly, faced with a man in pur­ple underpants in her kitch­enette, this glow is ex­tin­guished. “Bring back stan­dards,” she finds her­self think­ing, “fam­ily val­ues and monogamy and chap­er­ones.”

But once Liz ar­rives in North­ern Ire­land, the novel’s wider scope be­gins to re­veal it­self. She’s picked up at the air­port by Ali­son’s fi­ancé Stephen, whose com­plaints about the po­lit­i­cal power wielded by for­mer IRA ter­ror­ists—to­gether with the po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious slo­gans they drive past—cause her to re­flect on the many myths that now sur­round her. And as luck would have it, Liz is well placed for such re­flec­tions, be­cause the sub­ject she teaches is an­thro­pol­ogy. Step­ping quickly into her role as the novel’s ex­pli­ca­tor-in-chief, she whiles away the car jour­ney quot­ing rel­e­vant Lévi-Strauss pas­sages to her­self—in­clud­ing one that oblig­ingly lays out what seems to be Laird’s main pur­pose in the book: “I there­fore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths op­er­ate in men’s minds with­out their be­ing aware of the fact.” As long as Liz is in Ul­ster, this double per­spec­tive re­mains. Laird con­tin­ues to serve up a sharp, en­tirely rec­og­niz­able, and some­times funny ac­count of the ten­sions and plea­sures of a fam­ily re­union. (See­ing her whole fam­ily gath­ered to­gether, Ju­dith’s “eyes took on an in­stant sheen of ma­ter­nal insanity.”) But with Liz’s help, he also con­tin­ues to draw our at­ten­tion to those un­no­ticed myths—both po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal. In par­tic­u­lar, Ali­son is some­one with “a gift for pre­sent­ing things not as they are, but as they re­ally should be.” Stephen keeps try­ing to tell her about some dark se­cret in his past, but she re­fuses to lis­ten, stick­ing in­stead to her pre­ferred nar­ra­tive that af­ter a dis­as­trous first mar­riage, her life is about to be redeemed.

At the wed­ding it­self, Liz takes the some­what less ro­man­tic line that her sis­ter’s sec­ond mar­riage is “text­book en­dogamy; she was mar­ry­ing within the tribe.” She fur­ther notes how the church is ded­i­cated to “the lost tribe of Ul­ster Protes­tants,” with its “plaques for the war dead—the Great War, the Sec­ond World War, po­lice­men and sol­diers mur­dered in the Trou­bles.” “Right from birth,” she con­cludes, “the Ul­ster Protes­tant was steeped in me­taphors of hard­ship and re­ward.”

But the Don­nellys’ story has also been in­ter­spersed with lit­tle pen por­traits of the peo­ple who died in that bar in the pro­logue—and in the chapter af­ter the wed­ding, we fi­nally find out why, when the fol­low­ing morn­ing a lo­cal news­pa­per ful­mi­nates about a “ruth­less gun­man” en­joy­ing “a lav­ish wed­ding cer­e­mony,” de­spite hav­ing killed five peo­ple in the Trick or Treat mas­sacre of 1993. The gun­man was, of course, Stephen (then called An­drew), who, like those Repub­li­can ter­ror­ists he so re­sents, was re­leased from prison as part of the 1998 Good Fri­day Peace Agree­ment. Liz spots the paper at the air­port, be­cause, as it turns out, her ex­pli­ca­tory du­ties are not done yet. Her Bal­ly­glass visit is to be fol­lowed by a jour­ney to Me­lane­sia to make a BBC doc­u­men­tary about a new cargo cult op­posed to the Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies there.

The choice of Liz’s des­ti­na­tion may re­mind some read­ers of Pat Barker’s Booker Prize–win­ning The Ghost Road (1995), in which Wil­liam Rivers’s ex­pe­ri­ences of treat­ing shell-shocked World War I sol­diers were in­ter­wo­ven with mem­o­ries of an an­thro­po­log­i­cal trip to Me­lane­sia. The cen­tral irony was that the Bri­tish govern­ment, now sanc­tion­ing the slaugh­ter of mil­lions, had banned in­ter­tribal head­hunt­ing. A more un­ex­pected one was that the ban cre­ated a list­less peo­ple “per­ish­ing from the ab­sence of war.” Yet ar­rest­ing though th­ese ironies were, they per­haps proved in­suf­fi­cient rec­om­pense for slog­ging through the scrupu­lous ac­counts of nine­teenth-cen­tury Me­lane­sian life that took up nearly a quar­ter of the novel.

A sim­i­lar re­ac­tion is pro­voked by the Me­lane­sian sec­tions in Mod­ern Gods—and here they oc­cupy even more of the book. Like Barker, Laird never re­ally solves the prob­lem that if the par­al­lels to the main story are too neat, they’re li­able to feel pat, but if they’re not, you might won­der why we’re be­ing of­fered all this Me­lane­sian in­for­ma­tion any­way.

Ini­tially, it seems that Laird is more likely to fall into the first of th­ese traps— not least be­cause the fic­tional is­land Liz vis­its is called New Ul­ster. Back in Bal­ly­glass, she’d “thought some­times of writ­ing some­thing on the tribal as­pects of life in North­ern Ire­land—how it re­sem­bled, like all cul­tures in­fected by vi­o­lence, an older, atavis­tic way of life.” Once she’s away, New Ul­ster be­gins do­ing much of the job for her. Belef, the cult’s fe­male leader, has a set of be­liefs, known as “the Story,” which, among other things, make re­li­gion and pol­i­tics in­dis­tin­guish­able, give an hon­ored place to dead an­ces­tors, and draw heav­ily on me­taphors of hard­ship and

re­ward. And just in case we miss the com­par­isons, Liz is on hand to spell them out in her note­book:

The Story—in fact any story—acts as an ex­cur­sion to the hyper real. The daili­ness we in­habit is re­placed by a copy of the world, one where we find clo­sure. Belef fic­tion­al­izes the world af­ter the fact to jus­tify where she finds her­self, where her peo­ple find them­selves.

At the same time, Belef’s fic­tions are laid out in ex­ten­sive de­tail, which is where the sec­ond trap comes in. Her pun­ish­ingly com­pli­cated cos­mol­ogy in­volves Dodo, the cre­ator, who sends his son Manup to Aus­tralia where he builds the city of Syd­ney. Manup had planned to go to New Ul­ster, but be­fore he can, he dies, be­comes a ghost, en­ters Mary and is re­born as Je­sus. And that’s by no means all. We also learn, for in­stance, about Amul­mul, the snake God, who’s the fa­ther of both Dodo and Manup; the birth of spirit chil­dren from men­strual blood; and Liz be­ing an in­car­na­tion of Queen El­iz­a­beth II. Pre­sum­ably Laird is sug­gest­ing that such myths aren’t any more ir­ra­tional than those of Chris­tians, who, as the ever-help­ful Liz points out, “have been wait­ing for two thousand years for their own cargo.” Nonethe­less, even those read­ers who agree may think the point could have been made with­out de­scrib­ing the Story’s the­ol­ogy so ex­haus­tively. Maybe none of this would mat­ter as much if Belef didn’t seem more like a lit­er­ary de­vice than a lit­er­ary char­ac­ter. But as things stand—and de­spite Laird’s spo­radic at­tempts to hu­man­ize her—she never makes the tran­si­tion from ex­em­plum to per­son. Like­wise, and partly for that rea­son, the New Ul­ster sec­tions too of­ten read like du­ti­ful pieces of straight an­thro­pol­ogy: well writ­ten, cer­tainly; fully re­al­ized, prob­a­bly; fully felt, not so much. Ear­lier in her ca­reer Liz had strug­gled to write a book on Mar­garet Mead, as “she got more and more and also less and less in­ter­ested” in the sub­ject. Some­thing sim­i­lar, you can’t help think­ing, might well have hap­pened with Nick Laird and cargo cults.

As a re­sult, I sus­pect most read­ers will be de­lighted that the novel reg­u­larly re­turns to the other Don­nellys (just as most read­ers of The Ghost Road were de­lighted to re­turn to the hor­rors of the Western Front). And even though the fam­ily’s story now feels a bit squeezed into the gaps be­tween de­scrip­tions of the Story, it al­ways lifts the book con­sid­er­ably. In one short chapter, Ian— the hus­band of a woman with whom Spencer, the youngest Don­nelly, has been hav­ing an af­fair—dis­cov­ers what his wife has been up to from a text that pops up on the screen of their shared iPad while he’s mas­tur­bat­ing to porn and think­ing about his lover, an eigh­teen-year-old re­cep­tion­ist. At first, “the text had the strange in­verse ef­fect of mak­ing him feel guilty” about his own mis­deeds. For­tu­nately, he’s then able to “trans­fer all the guilt, lock and stock, onto her,” and so en­joy the far eas­ier emo­tion of “right­eous fury.” In less than two pages, I’d sug­gest, this un­forced al­le­gory says more about Protes­tant–Catholic re­la­tions in North­ern Ire­land than any num­ber of sec­tions on Amul­mul the snake God. Even better is the chapter in which Laird fi­nally con­fronts those re­la­tions head-on. An aca­demic re­search­ing the Trou­bles per­suades Stephen to give him an in­ter­view. What fol­lows ex­am­ines trib­al­ism and the abid­ing power of myth in a way that feels em­bod­ied in the char­ac­ters rather than ex­ter­nally im­posed. It also ob­serves the Philip Roth rule of giv­ing the other guy the best lines, with Stephen al­lowed to make a dis­con­cert­ingly strong case. His grand­mother, he says, was one of the 20,000 Protes­tants (a pos­si­bly myth­i­cal fig­ure) whom the IRA drove from their homes in Lon­don­derry in the early 1970s. When he was thir­teen, his army re­servist fa­ther, who “al­ways thought the Catholics had a just argument,” was killed by Repub­li­can gun­men. Stephen turned to ter­ror­ism be­cause of

what was go­ing on then. . . . We were be­ing killed left, right, and cen­ter. . . . There was the Shankhill bomb­ing. You re­mem­ber. They killed nine Protes­tants in the fish shop. And [Gerry] Adams car­ried the bomber’s cof­fin.

Ali­son’s char­ac­ter­is­tic hope was that Stephen would “have a story . . . that ex­plained—thus ex­cused—why he’d done what he’d done.” By the time he’s had his say, the ex­pla­na­tion may be there, but the dif­fi­culty of ex­cus­ing is laid un­com­pro­mis­ingly bare when the in­ter­viewer re­veals him­self to be the hus­band of one of the women Stephen mur­dered—a woman preg­nant with their sec­ond child. “Sure, you took my whole world from me,” the man mur­murs through his tears.

Be­cause the Me­lane­sian sec­tion ends in mur­der­ous vi­o­lence too, the book ends with Liz and Ali­son back at their par­ents’ house, tak­ing refuge in what Ali­son had called the “cult” of the fam­ily. But it also seems as if, af­ter all the trou­bling ques­tions he’s raised, Laird is tak­ing refuge there as well. Through­out the book, the sis­ters have each re­mem­bered a child­hood in­ci­dent when Ju­dith left Ken­neth for a night, tak­ing Liz with her. For Liz, this has been life­long proof that Ali­son was al­ways her mother’s fa­vorite—the daugh­ter trusted to look af­ter Spencer and not fight with Ken­neth. For Ali­son, it’s been life­long proof that Liz was al­ways her mother’s fa­vorite—the daugh­ter she’d cho­sen to take. But in the clos­ing scene, they dis­cover from Ju­dith that only Liz had wanted to go. Equipped with this knowl­edge, the two women in­stantly es­cape the myths that have bound them for decades and Liz senses “some hard­ness that she hadn’t even been aware of in her crum­ble.” By fin­ish­ing this way, Laird is per­haps im­ply­ing that per­sonal myths are eas­ier to cor­rect than po­lit­i­cal ones. Yet even if that’s true (and lit­tle else in the novel has led us to be­lieve it), such an oddly happy end­ing seems dis­tinctly in­ad­e­quate as a re­sponse to all that’s gone be­fore.

Nev­er­the­less, the pri­mary prob­lem with Mod­ern Gods is still that, for all his ef­forts, Laird never prop­erly con­vinces us that we can learn much about Ul­ster Protes­tants by study­ing a Me­lane­sian cargo cult. Iron­i­cally, this leaves the novel feeling like an in­stance of the par­al­lel uni­verse be­com­ing vis­i­ble—as if two sep­a­rate books ex­isted and some­how in­hab­ited the very same space.

Nick Laird, New York City, fall 2013; pho­to­graph by Do­minique Nabokov

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