Kieth Ridgway's first novel, "The Long Falling", very rightly won big European prizes. It was straight-forward and hugely sympathetic, the story of a middle-aged Irish woman from the farming world, driven to engineer the death of the psychopath husband who was beating her up on a regular basis. It's the tale of her self discovery, as she takes shelter with her out gay son in Dublin. In other words, it didn't cast the gay as a victim, but as part of forward-moving Irish life.
"The Parts" is vastly more ambitious, more like an attempt to rewrite Joyce's "Ulysses" but with gay characters as part of the core rhythms of the life of a city. There's six characters, and some brief lyrical interludes that seem to come from Virginia Woolf's "The Waves", and it's without a doubt a groundbreaking book.
It's at once tricksy, and a not altogether perfect book. At times I found myself thinking of Angus Wilson's equally experimental and equally ambitious "No Laughing Matter", which attempted the history of England from the Edwardians to the 1970s with the gay elements among the key aspects. And as is Wilson, Keith Ridgway is peerless on his gay figures, especially the men - the young guys, the hangers-on, the rent boys, the dodgey brother, and the anti-gays who just can't stay away from the gays. He's interested too in different ways that people stray from their own paths, in loyalties and disloyalties, and especially in freedom, and in what people may have to do to reach freedom.
I took the title as asking a question - do the parts hang together? do these people constitute a city? a world? The suburban and the bedsit people are brilliantly vivid, to my mind much more so than the rich moneyed folk - but maybe that's exactly the point? And there's a strong euro-feel to it - internet chat rooms, ecological debates, pharmaceutical experimentation, all feature alongside more long-standing sides of city life. It's good too for catching how independent radio is an important aspect of Dublin life, and is part of the city's ongoing access to non-official debates and freer understandings of the world.
Mostly good Irish novels tend to be little gems, miniatures like "The Butcher Boy", or Jennifer Johnson's many exquisitely polished jewels. Here there's risk-taking, more in the vein of Edna O'Brien and JG Farrell, and the results can sometimes be a bit uneven. But unevenness is what makes boldness possible, and takes the action where carefulness couldn't go. There's movement across the class spectrum, which has hardly been attempted by Irish novelists since J G Farrell, resulting in a grandness of scale.
I'm not at all sure if this is ultimately a novel or a collection of short stories, some of them as brilliant as any of the diamond hard pieces in Ridgway's devastating collection "Standard Time". But does that matter in the end? Isn't it a question for each reader to decide on? For sure "The Parts" is never dull, and constantly pushes the boat out, exhilaratingly. It bears re-reading too, and is still funny and even more gripping the second time around.
It's long. So buy it for the beach, or for the next time you have a week off. Then give yourself over to it - there's nothing else quite like it.
Ridgway approaches anomie, guilt, despair in The Parts in a sympathetic way, suggesting that we shouldn't take them too seriously, so that the only real villain here is a pantomime villain, and several of the other characters likeably wish and plan to rescue themselves from their faults, and from the unreal blankness of celtic tiger Dublin. I think it's the writer's voice one responds to. His characters repay the attention we are asked to give them for long pages (and they are constantly being shuffled), for more than half the novel in fact, before the rather sensational and ludicrous plot rears its head. It's a really good book, but, like any novel of 450 odd pages, it would be much better had it 275.
I was quite disappointed with the Long Falling, as it didn't have any of the energy of Standard Time, which really impressed me. The Parts really delivers on the promise shown by his short stories: the characters are vivid and believable, and the human interaction is beautifully done. Not quite sure about the plotting, but the writing shows so much talent (and enjoyment) - I actually wished it was longer.