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1327 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

An Agenbite of Inwit & Other Wits as Well

[George W. Bush Buys Coke in Mid-Eternity
by Liam MacSheóinín]

A Review by Duff Brenna

Serving House Books (2011)

Cover of George W. Bush Buys Coke in Mid-Eternity, by Liam MacSheóinín

See also Amazon

“Hedonic Engineer” Brian Jordan has wandered off the straight path and is Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita (Midway along the journey of life), when he falls madly in love with the luscious Rachel, a woman who should have a warning sign stamped on her gorgeous behind that reads Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate: Abandon all hope ye who enter here! Upon her tail hangs the tale of MacSheóinín’s wildly-word-rich, rollicking satire. The epigraph disclaimer at the beginning of the novel comes from an interview in Vanity Fair (March 1922), in which James Joyce, echoing Mark Twain’s threat to shoot anyone searching for a motive or moral in Huckleberry Finn, says:

The pity is the public will demand and find a moral in my book—or worse they may take it in some serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not a single serious line in it.

MacSheóinín’s novel is seriously unserious. He weaves his fable through a perilous plotline that might have come out of The Sopranos or perhaps The Godfather or any other clever gangster/Mafioso allegory dealing with love and hate, good and evil, power and pissed-off impotence. Jordan is a partner in several enterprises: drugs, booze, objets d’art, the foresaid “hedonic enterprises,” real estate, blue chip stocks, precious metals, two nightclubs—the rhapsodic list of financial shelters goes on and on, but safe to say he hasn’t trusted his assets to any market that might pull a 2007 401K flip-flop and sink him when this or that flimsy bubble bursts. He’s a smart man. He knows what he’s doing except when it comes to finding the woman who might be best for him. Jordan, with little awareness and without wanting to, proves what most men know instinctively: women who are too beautiful, desirable, femme fatales (Lilith, Aphrodite, Helen of Troy) are almost certain to be a smitten man’s pulchritudinous curse.

In the midst of a DNA-spiraling maze of sex, drugs, rock and roll, violence, betrayal, fantasy-inspired perversions, there is a glut of Menippean allusions to the Odyssey & The Iliad, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Twelfth Night (Feste the Fool), Winter’s Tale (Exit pursued by a bear), Joyce’s Ulysses & Finnegans Wake, Raymond Chandler, Little Red Riding Hood, Oedipus, and Blake’s “Nobodaddy”—all in just the first 60 or so pages of a 252-page book!

Included as well are parodies of Russian words such as glaza {eyes} and gahspada {gentlemen}, and phrases and sentences from French, German, Italian, Latin (and no doubt others I’ve missed). This is what notable Menippean satires do: They create a gargantuan mixture out of historical events, science, psychology, words words words, all bits and pieces of the world’s cultures—its professionals and menials, men and women in all walks of life, most of them objectified and broken into their constituent parts. Just think of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Voltaire’s Candide, works written to expose the foibles of human beings going about the outrageous business of living lives that are seen to themselves as not only natural but inevitable; though from our side of the glass, those lives often come across as grotesque absurdities, humorous and entertaining but also subtle warnings mimicking, say, Philip Larkin telling us not to be part of the madness continually perpetuating itself: Get out as quick as you can/ And don’t have any kids yourself.

Okay, so Jordan loves Rachel, but his friend, Rick, is engaged to her. Rick thinks Jordan’s partner Frank is having an affair with her, but Jordan knows Rick is wrong and would like to tell his friend the truth, but Rachel made him promise to keep the lie going, which is what he does, partly because he is fixated and it was so hard to win her over in the first place, and partly because he doesn’t want to acknowledge what he’s done, betrayed a friend, seduced the man’s intended and lied about it.

The pace of the narrative, its verbal pyrotechnics and glut of references give it the feel of something modeled after fleet-footed Achilles or a Maserati in sixth gear going 90 miles an hour. There is urgency to the dialogue, the swift lines of narrative, the internal monologues that seem to be written by someone running out of breath and trying to finish before he drops dead:

Fool! Feste! Yorick! I refuse to laugh at your gibes, sirrah, you stupe! Clean the shite out of your monkey ears or I’ll pour a flagon of rhenish on your head. Poisson {statistics} distribution: the number of idiots at a few meters of this fucking bar; the number of pines in daily verdict commute; the number of stars with planets where one can obtain, for a great price, a James Joyce tenner and two JFK halves and perhaps a rectal probe, exemplary yeyo {cocaine} and decent Chinese, no Monosodium Glutamate a must...

And on and on, a staggering accumulation of images and allusions permeating Mid-Eternity, almost overwhelming the brain’s synaptic chemistry, its ability to go where no bibliophile has gone before. But the reader (at least this reader) was unable to put the book down, hypnotized, perhaps, wondering what next? How far can Liam MacSheóinín go? What more can he add to modernism/ postmodernism’s malleable use of language? Was he on coke when he wrote this?

And what juice or inspiration infused him with the brilliant ability to create a paragraph that so accurately pins the tale of George W. Bush to the symbols written on his face?

The vice president’s son’s simian brow corrugated. If you want to give a natural appearance to one of them, a Bush for example, use the fosh of an ape, the eyes of a lizard, the ears of a chimp, the schnoz of a redtail hawk, the smile of a Danish villain, the temples of a rattlesnake, the neck of a tortoise.

Or this thumbnail of Bush pere:

You smile as you glimpse the father of one of your new customers on the box: George Herbert Walker Bush. The sound is turned down, and as you’re not a labiomancer, you can only surmise what he’s blathering on about. It appears the wimpy fuck is on the campaign trail, addressing what seems to be a cop convention; thus he’s probably advocating something draconian: Under my administration cop killers will be drawn and quartered and drug dealers castrated.

There are spoofs on “the mysteries of Anglo-Hellenic pursuits”; the lush, not luck, of the Irish; the Achtung mindset of the Germans; the abysmal ignorance of Americans; demented Frenchmen; oral and anal sex; men’s fixation on women’s mammary glands, also their gluteus max and la vagina. Religion in one incarnation or another is included in nearly every chapter:

Dreams. Dreams. Dreams. They forecast the future sometimes. Religion is to blame. The servants of the heavenbeast grease us with guilt and roast us on a spit of shame...

The list seems endless. And perhaps it is—or would be to a literary scholar who felt inclined to mine the depths of what is a very deep book, indeed, written by the hand and mind of an author who has apparently forgotten nothing of whatever he’s read. Maybe it’s an illusion.

But whatever it is, Mid-Eternity is far more than an hors d'oeuvre to those who love Homer or Sophocles, James Joyce or Shakespeare or Dante or Blake or Nabokov or T.S. Eliot, Thomas Pynchon or Evelyn Waugh. Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Henry James. Or? Or even Martin Amis who gets an entire hilarious chapter (15) to himself.

MacSheóinín has written a hoot of a book, some of it spoof, some of it not—all of it full of dazzling invention and wordplay embodying Pound’s imperative proclaiming: whatever you do: make it new.

—Previously published in As It Ought To Be (3 February 2011), and Contemporary World Literature (4 February 2011)


SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

Duff Brenna

is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel (The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year (The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention.

Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review, New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated into six languages.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury