Thursday, 18 February 2016

Review: a Niall Griffiths Duo


Two books, one year apart, same settings: the mountains of west Wales, Aberystwyth, the small towns and hamlets that surround it. Grits and Sheepshagger read almost like the same book; or, more apt to the subject matter, Sheepshagger reads like an extended, hallucinogenic nightmare within the wider narrative of Grits.

Griffith’s debut, Grits, which appeared in 2000, was barely in paperback when Sheepshagger appeared a year later. Both novels follow the plight of a group of drifters and druggies; reprobates and really-couldn’t-give-less-of-a-fucks as they bounce from pub to rave, house party to hovel, beach to mountain shack. Where Grits, at just shy of 500 pages, traces a wide range of characters—Irishman Liam, Scouse Colm and Yorkshire lass Mairead being just three of them—Sheepshagger is really only concerned with Ianto, hill-dwelling hermit-come-couchsurfer, wreckhead-come-ferral mountain boy.

Just as Grits is interspersed with passages from the metafictional Guide To West Wales (anonymous authorship), referred to several times as being the life’s work of a crazy bloke who walked into the sea, Sheepshagger splits its narrative into thirds: the present continuous exploits of Ianto, wild, wicked and apparently uncaring in the hills; a stoned conversation between his former friends, Marc, Griff, Danny and Llŷr, each trying to explain Ianto’s descent into murderous rage while simultaneously absolving themselves of blame; and flashbacks to Ianto’s childhood, where we begin to piece together the tragic, weird and horrific events that might have shaped him into what he later becomes: a vicious murderer, himself ultimately murdered.

Where Grits is bleakly funny—laugh-out-loud so, at times—Sheepshagger is just bleak. What lifts Griffiths’s books above a study of depravity, however, is his ability to manipulate us and reconsider characters and their actions from more than one point of view. Roger, for instance—a heroin addict from South Wales who has drifted to Aberystwyth to smash bottles in the faces of students and whack pool cues round the knees of police informants—is a loathsome character in Grits, but in Sheepshagger, we see him act as the protective older brother to Ianto when most others couldn’t care less. In a particularly tender scene on the beach, coming down from ecstasy but going up on whisky, Roger joins in singing with pissed-up Ianto, ruffling his friend’s hair affectionately.

In Grits, the sense of omniscience that forces us to think of these people as more than just smackheads, is managed by a narrative divvying up: one character’s monologue may initially present them as likeable, but a later character may contradict what has previously been said, thought or done. We witness several scenes twice or more times, from differing perspectives. A nod to Bede’s sparrow at a rave in the hills is seen from two vantages, as one set of characters dance like wind-up toys and another set zone out to the varying chemicals and intoxicants in their bloodstreams.

Another good example is Colm: initially thought of as a happy-go-lucky, witty young man from Liverpool who always has a comeback or a wry, philosophical observation, he later becomes, well, a bit of a twat, and finally, a desperate and anonymous beggar, pitied by a former mate. Depending on who is narrating, we see different sides of characters; find out more about their dark pasts; what unique set of circumstances has brought them to each other, to the town at the end of the line, hotbed of hippies, vagabonds, crusties, punks, students and those who just want to disappear for a while, or forever.

And while in Grits (perhaps purposefully) this prolonged party, this drug-after-drug-after-vomit-after-vodka, never really leads anywhere, in Sheepshagger we are presented with a much more ‘packaged’ novel. We know from the outset that Ianto has committed several heinous acts, and we soon find out that they lead to his own death, but we don’t yet know why. That is not to suggest that the book is set up as a detective piece; far from it, but Sheepshagger is the more self-contained of these two novels: it achieves in under 300 pages what Grits doesn’t (though, as said above, it probably doesn’t intend to) in 500. I would say that that ‘thing’ is wholeness, or narrative resolution, but as the four lads note towards the end of Sheepshagger, Ianto still feels alive to them, his story unfinished.

Just as Malcolm appears to have ‘escaped’ Aberystwyth at the end of Grits, boarding a train for something new, the reverberations of enigmatic Ianto and his shocking acts of brutality live on beyond the closing pages of Sheepshagger, putting into question notions of a perfect narrative arc. In fact, it is apt that the latter book closes with the lads getting their coats on to go to the pub, to ‘get lashed’ and forget about Ianto and their part in his death. We know that they will end up in the same pubs that all of the characters frequent in both books, shooting up, drinking multiple concoctions of pints and spirits and generally wasting their lives.

Which would be the ultimate liberal’s way to end this review: to adopt a holier-than-thou stance and suggest that, as educated people, we are better than those grits in the machine, who shoot up, imbibe silly amounts of alcohol, or smoke and swallow preposterous amounts of brain-frying chemicals. But Griffiths’s books are smarter than that, and we as readers must react to them on many levels. If we detest Ianto as he viciously murders two innocent hikers taking in the spiritual energies of the abandoned mines of Wales, then we must also detest, or at the very least question the motives of, the English colonists who have bought his former childhood home and turned it into a private weekend retreat for their Hooray Henry mates from the home counties.

Just as we are right to detest the paedophile who brutally assaults ten-year-old Ianto, we are right to detest his supposed friends for egging him on to masturbate in front of the object of his affections, Gwenno. These books play with morality, morals and subjectivity. They never let us off the hook or allow us to swallow a simple truth. They are, ultimately, hymns to people in places—to the bays and the hills, the farmhouses and the farmhands—but they are hymns that recognise the complexities and contradictions of life and all its stark beauty and stark cruelty. In their masterful adoption of multiple vernaculars (Welsh, Scouse, Essex and more are all handled without any recourse to condescension); in their monumental evocations of space, place and time (in the mountains and waves that will outlive all); and in their attention-to-detail, their recurrent little vignettes and repeated character quirks and allusions, Griffiths’s books present a picture of a part of Britain quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

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