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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Nick Laird's Utterly Monkey

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 28 February 2006

With Nick Laird's novel 'Utterly Monkey', the post-Agreement depiction of Northern Ireland has arrived in print—and it has received the 'Rooney Prize for Irish Literature', the back cover informs me prominently. (London: Fourth Estate, 2005; New York: Harper Perennial, 2006) Its appearance as a paperback, the addition of a feature I've never seen before in which there's not only background and interviews and two of his similarly prize-winning poems...but the contents of his desk, his most played i-Tunes, and "Poems Attached by Blue-Tac to the Door of My Study" the latter three as of July 4, 2005.

Laird's novel follows the dyspeptic detective send-ups of Colin Bateman, the considered meditations of Glenn Patterson—both Northern writers also continuing their explorations of their province as the Troubles subside, and like Robert MacLiam Wilson, he loves shenanigans enmeshing his likable protagonists who seem to take quite a bit from their creators.

What distinguishes Laird? First of all, he's over a decade younger than this trio. Born in 1975, by the time he came of age in Cookstown, the worst of the violence had begun to for the most part ease. Like MacLiam Wilson, he went to Cambridge. Unlike his predecessor, he did not drop out—shades of Ripley Bogle—but went on to a year at Harvard and six years practicing law in London. He chucked it all and took up writing. Now, I have to admit, since he's married to Zadie Smith, I'm not sure when this relationship started and how it influenced his decision. Certainly, however the situation, Laird has, like his wife, taken on today's London and, in his case, mixed it with a glance back at his native corner, still struggling to shake off the paras—now using drug moneys to fund their continued grievances and, in this novel, to carry off—on the Twelfth of July 2004—another spectacular.

Laird's sketches of his native turf enrich what otherwise succeeds far more on characterisation than plot. While the caper entertained me, and its initial twists kept me up at nights eager to continue while not wanting the book to end too soon, as I kept reading, I began to grow disappointed. Still, I recommend it regardless of its too-pat ending and denouement. The people he conjures up, with a couple of notably static ones, mix satire's bite with reality's tang. They do seem only slightly larger than life. While Danny, the main character, seems perhaps too glaringly a stand-in for his harried solicitor-maker, and likewise his stunning black partner, Ellen, may be all too closely drawn from his wife, these comparisons are perhaps inevitable for a first novel. (As a professor once lectured to us, 'all first novels, or first books for that matter, are deep down autobiographical.') But, with Ian, dispatched from 'the Organisation' to force the Crown to pay attention to its spurned suitor now languishing across the Irish Sea, Laird's command falters. There's one scene when Ian wanders about the zoo in Regent's Park that adds nothing but time-killing to the story as it nears its climax. Geordie, the unwitting mate of Danny who has to leave 'Ballyglass' suddenly when he stumbles upon the ill-got stash of 'the Organisation', and his girlfriend Janice do add texture to Laird's depiction of the recent past and the post-1998 Northern younger generation that still finds all too little to gainfully do in a fast-changing economic invasion. Laird's insights, filtered through mainly Danny—who mirrors Laird's own trajectory for the most part, Geordie, and, to a lesser extent, Janice and Ian, establish the post-Agreement terrain in asides scattered through the novel. Never enough to pontificate, but sufficiently scattered to make 'Utterly Monkey' more than another generic trade paperback mass-market purchase to while away the hours in an airport or on a bus.

He introduces 'Ballyglass' as a market town where, 'It was an instance of the parallel universe becoming visible, as if two separate towns existed and somehow inhabited the very same space.' But, now, the Protestant greengrocer who put carrots in his window while his adjacent Catholic competitor displayed broccoli and cabbages both risk redundancy. Businesses close after the Army barracks is dismantled, the sangars vanish, as 'It was becoming apparent to the place that it was only the troubles that had kept the community structure'.

Echoing Connolly's warning about only the flags changing but not the masters, Laird's omniscient narrator observes how with 'the invasion of the national chains, Ballyglass was starting to look as if it could be in Yorkshire or Surrey. It had turned out that the threat of losing your identity hadn't been from the foreign governments of Dublin or London after all, but instead from the money-makers, the profit margins, the businessmen.' (189-90)

Laird, with each of his main characters also remarks upon the inescapable images that marked their formative years. For Geordie, he recalls the Lambeg drum: 'He remembered how the lodge's banners had advertised their faithfulness, as if faithfulness was all that mattered. But how could one stay devoted to someone who wants to leave you?' (54)

Militant Ian resents how the Crown '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, awkward, brash, unfashionably religious.' (320-1)

The loss of any belief transcending one's own committments — whether to domination or decency becomes Danny's psychomachia — infuses this book in a barely registered hue that delicately shows how popular fiction depicts, as much as the long shelf of tomes on modern secularism, existentialism, capitalism, the pulse of its era.

This book at times reminded me of Dickens, Thackeray, or even George Eliot in its determination, beneath all of the scurrying and swearing, to honestly capture Britain today— as its embattled Northern outpost with its abandoned settlers, or in London as 'a whirlpool's eye, a huge centripetal machine dragging bodies towards it from across the world.' (324) But Danny realises that the capital's promise only enriches capital: 'London had seemed to promise to put him at the centre of his life, but the city kept turning, and the song of one small existence became quickly subsumed in the hum or its engine. He was fuel.' (325) Janice and Geordie gawk when they leave 'Ballyglass' for London: she has never seen a black person up close until she meets Ellen. Danny wanders Cheapside—the emptiness of nighttime weekend London in the deserted corporate blocks of the City emerges tellingly. 'Dan looked at the bus's windows--there wasn't one white face. These were the dark ghosts of the City of London, those invited to the party but only if they arrived at the back door, ate nothing, and left before it began.' (276) The tale of the lad up from the province(s) that has sparked so many novels again reaches its fulfillment. But, unlike the gains of Pip or Dick Whittington, it's not—for much of the novel—Danny's happy storyline.

The Province itself, as Danny notes in an aside, continues its own isolation as far as the City's concerned. A fellow lawyer: '"You've been over in Belfast, I hear." He said it like Belfast was just south of Baghdad.' (285) When Ellen and Danny go back to investigate 'Ulster Water,' as their law firm's client seeks a hostile takeover to buy and gut the firm of its assets, human and material, they too find it a bit exotic. Staying at the Europa, they cross to the 'most famous pub in the North', the Crown. (221) Laird lovingly details its decor, and even if you've seen it countless—if half-recalled—times, he makes its interior fresh through the eyes of a returned colonial back to the hinterlands. 'Danny thought of the hold of an emigrant ship, dark and hot and filled to the rafters with shouty Irish, excepting one quiet black girl who was standing beside him, her skin more polished and dark than the smoke-dark wood of the walls.' (222) Laird's ability to arrest an image does not overpower, but thickens, the scenes he portrays.

Drawing upon his poetic avocation, which judging from the two samples appended to this edition takes not only his acknowledged influence of Heaney but in my estimation Auden and Larkin—both in his verse and prose rhythms, Laird sprinkles his story with arresting metaphors. For instance, London's black cabs are compared in their vaulting roofs and interior silence to cathedrals—inside the taxi, Danny stares out at 'a London so quiet it was as if the mute button was pressed' (164); the law firm's like a vast ruminant, its entrance as its maw, corridors its intestines, and its lawyers like teeth, 'yellowy-pale, varying in sharpness, and renewable.' (29) A xerox machine whirs: 'From under its lid Danny could see the strip of light zip up and down the glass panel, the dawn horizon strapped into a box.' (107) Two pages later, Danny looks out his office window at those windows opposite: 'They were like stacks of televisions all tuned to the same channel. A programme about a mythical monster: half-human, half-desk.' (109)

On the other hand, Danny, as well as the other emigrants from the North, find to their chagrin: 'Forget about six degrees of separation. Everyone in Ulster was just a person away, sitting on their other side, waiting to lean forward and say hello.' (175) Caught up in a white lie while interviewing two Ulster Water employees, Danny realises in the nick of time what others in the novel do not, to their sorrow and for plot complications: unlike London, in Northern Ireland, the world is indeed small.

Even as calm replaces anxiety in the North, however, in our own decade, as Danny recognises, what for decades has made his homeland famous or infamous has now spread ineradicably from provincial to worldwide outbreaks. Watching BBC World, Danny ponders: 'A global terrorism expert was being interviewed. There was terror everywhere now. Danny felt 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, with murderers sharing your doctors and schools, your restaurants and surnames.' (249-50)

While 'Utterly Monkey,' in my reading, does not entirely pay off in a satisfying conclusion, it may make for a great film. Certainly the climactic pursuit over the Thames, across the Millennium Bridge into the Tate Modern, seems written with screenplay in mind. And, as a novel pitched to an audience perhaps as wide as, say, Zadie Smith's, Laird's debut promises not only entertainment but, as the citations I have shared with you attest, the seriousness beneath the satire that marks talent more than it does sass.



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5 March 2006

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MI5 and Omagh — The Bomb to End All Bombs?
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MANIFESTO: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism

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MI5 and the Stasi Syndrome
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The Progressive Road
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Nick Laird's Utterly Monkey
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No Dangerous Liaisons
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