Friday, December 12, 2008

Coincidence or prognostication? (Books - The First Verse by Barry McCrea)

Barry McCrea's The First Verse is an alluring and literate page-turner. It is Niall's first year at Trinity in more or less modern-day Dublin. He is a verbose, book-smart naif trying to figure out just who he is. He lives a duplicitous life, not yet able to come out of the closet, even to his friends. Like most young people leaving their home for the first time, he is trying on his future possible selves like they are clothes on a rack, trying to understand exactly what life could hold for him. All the strangeness starts one night during what seems to be a party game. Guests ask a question, take the nearest book, open it randomly, choose a passage, and look in it for the answer. The trouble is, the books' answers are dead on, and as it gets later and there are only two players left, it is clear that they don't treat this as a game, but rather as some sort of tool for divination. Niall is a young man hungry for some answers and he stands on the brink of getting sucked into a world of mysterious synchronicities and apparent power:
As I felt my hand falling over the bookspines I already knew that over this hung worlds. Two mutually exclusive universes were in the balance, teetering over the tiny gap in the space-time continuum which was my choice. As I went back to the beginning of the rows of books and touched each title as I ran my finger along, I knew that the passage I chose would be either ambiguous and a confirmation of what Fionnuala was saying, a triumph for Ian, for all those people, for all those adolescent dreads of emptiness to follow; or else it would be something else, the opposite, unimaginable. I wished so deeply for it to work, a choice between a past I knew stretching drearily on out into an eternal, colourless future, and the possibility of fullness and newness and things I didn't know. I could feel the inevitability of the dull and the mundane creeping in, the ridiculousness of anything except that the world was as Fionnuala said, and these two were just arrogant and unfriendly thrity-year-olds who took their party games extremely seriously and were irritated by our undergraduate enthusiasms and fears. I tried to push that out of my mind as I stopped at a thick book, but my heart was already falling. I flicked through Ulysses and the probability waves all came crashing down around each other and collapsed into a singularity...
The coincidences begin to pile up and Niall wants to know what this ritual is really all about, but his new friends become mysterious and evasive. McCrea is acute in his depiction of the psychological complexities of a young man moving from adolescence to adult-hood, but he's not pat. That personal Bildungsroman is mirrored by another, this one of the city of literature - Dublin. McCrea can also write thriller-like scenes that have me tearing the pages, I'm trying to turn them so fast, but the book constantly eschews what is obvious. The First Verse is an enticing mix of the supenseful supernatural and the literary that has this reader in its thrall. Think of the addictiveness of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, only the reach of the story's themes is broader and the writing style more elegant.

I am already somehow half-way through this novel, although I can only afford before-bedtime reading in this final week of the semester. I am thinking that I may not write too much more about it, because it is very plot-driven and I don't want to ruin it for those of you who want to read it.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

I really enjoyed The Secret History, so if this is similar or even better, I will look out for it.