I first encountered the work of Catherine Eisner in 2008, when I read Sister Morphine (also published by Salt) and it absolutely blew me away. I was convinced at the time that it was a major, very important novel and the comparatively modest success that it has enjoyed since then has not caused me to change my mind. I still believe that it will be ‘discovered’ by a much larger audience, including some discerning and influential critics, much in the same way as John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces finally achieved the (sadly posthumous) attention it deserved.
A Bad Case has strong links to Sister Morphine, picking up on some of the same themes and even exploring further the lives of some of the same characters. Both works consist of a series of discrete but linked short stories, a format which I find very appealing. It enables the author to expand the sometimes constricting form of the short story whilst taking advantage of the fine discipline that it imposes, simultaneously giving the characters more depth by setting them in a shared context.
I have to confess that, although I by no means belong to the school of thought that opines that an author’s biography and his or her work are inextricably linked (i.e., you can’t understand the one without the other, a wonderful excuse for prying), Eisner herself intrigues me almost as much as her work. This is because she is profoundly knowledgeable in so many different fields: she understands the pop scene of the 1960s; she obviously knows a lot about the publishing industry; she exhibits more than a passing acquaintance with a wide range of ‘mind-altering substances’; she is erudite, although she wears her learning lightly, pronouncing telling mots justes upon the giants (and some of the minnows) of Western civilisation’s authors, artists and musicians across many centuries; she understands Latin and several European languages besides English; she has an acute ear for dialect (in A Bad Case, southern Irish, especially) as well as the varying cadences of speech that derive from differences in social standing; and, if she has not lived among the British aristocracy, she has clearly had opportunities to observe it at first hand. Wow!
But it is not Eisner’s accomplishments as a polymath that most fascinate me. I am hooked on her work because she writes with a vigour that both contributes to and has pushed the boundaries of an outstanding literary tradition. I don’t have a single word that encapsulates what this tradition stands for, but I can list some of its luminaries. They are Jonathan Swift (though Eisner’s indignatio is more of the jocosa than the saeva variety); Somerville & Ross and Samuel Beckett. Elements of A Bad Case also remind me of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour. It is not lost on me that all of these writers are Irish, but although Eisner is clearly interested in Ireland and Irish characters, I doubt that it is because she has Irish blood herself. I think it is because her strong sense of the inescapable absurdity of fate, her ability to communicate the disgusting terribleness of the human condition, her knack of pulling off some elements of the supernatural while staying just this side of credibility and her wonderful power with words, all interlaced with robust black humour, happily also epitomise the best of Anglo-Irish writing.
So to the writing itself. Eisner may often be tongue-in-cheek, but the subjects she chooses are harsh. They include false imprisonment (I found A Room to the End of Fall, the first story in the volume, of particular interest, because my next novel, The Crossing, also explores false imprisonment, though in quite a different way.), paedophilia, treason, espionage, adultery, suicide and madness. The cover of A Bad Case quotes Kate Clanchy, who says that Eisner’s writing is ‘slightly, scarily deranged’. Although I understand perfectly what Clanchy means, this is not my reading of Eisner’s work. The characters may be deranged, but not the author. She pays them the compliment of presenting their world through the prism of their own outlook and sentiments, which have been conditioned by their often adverse experiences. If the reader can’t keep up, that is too bad: if there is one thing Eisner never does, it is patronise her readers by pandering to some notion of sparing their refined sensibilities. If the reader feels unsettled, that is good. If, despite understanding the richly conflicting, occasionally brutal and always uncompromising world that Eisner paints, the reader also laughs out loud, that is perfect. I have no better words to express my admiration than to say again: Wow!
Over the past few years I have played an Eisner guessing game with a friend. (I do hope that if Catherine Eisner reads this, she won’t be offended!) It’s only half serious and has its roots in our first reading of Sister Morphine, when we were each convinced that ‘Catherine Eisner’ was a pseudonym for someone much better known in the world of literature. If we’d taken bets on it, he would have lost, because his preferred candidate has since died. I’m still half-convinced that my own prospect is the correct one: I may never find out the truth. However, if you are also intrigued, I know that there is only one way for you to get closer to it: by reading Sister Morphine and A Bad Case, if possible in that order. I heartily recommend both of them to you, as I am certain you will not be faint-hearted.
I made the cardigan in the photograph for a small friend of mine and I have to admit I am quite proud of it. The small friend is a she who likes owls (the multi-shaded wool is called ‘Owl’ by its suppliers) and I found the owl buttons online. I was even more delighted when they arrived and I discovered that they’d come from an online retailer based at Gedney, a small village close to my native Spalding.
This particular little girl owns very few clothes in pink. Her mother, whilst objective enough to include some pink in her daughter’s wardrobe, is determined not to turn her into a ‘princess’ and, in any case, I had other ideas for this project (pink not having been a very popular colour for girls during my own childhood, I should never have considered this colour as a must for any daughter of mine, had I had one); I like owls myself and have noticed that they tend not to shine brightly pink as they silently flit between the trees at dusk. And, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that my chosen header picture there hasn’t a trace of pink in it. When looking for other garments with which to indulge the small friend, my worst expectations were quickly confirmed by what I found, that many are not only pink, but pink in a very sexist way. I’ve discovered (but not been tempted to buy) pink tops printed with patterns of cupcakes and hearts, pale pink coats adorned with dark pink bows and little pink socks with lacy ruffled tops. Most retailers of children’s clothing stock their racks with boy-girl equivalents and I’ve found that the boy equivalents are almost always much more interesting and, generally, much less narrowly stereotyped by colour. For example, at Monsoon, I found some beautiful long-sleeved T-shirts in green and gold, decorated respectively with wild animals on a prairie and a train packed with animal passengers. Some of the motifs were appliquéd or embroidered, making the fabric fascinating for a small girl already interested in all things tactile. I bought them for her: there was nothing overtly masculine about them and they were much more fun than the horizon-narrowing pink-iced buns on a darker pink ground topped with scarlet glacé cherries. Her mum has also bought beautiful boys’ clothes for her which look as good on her as on any boy. Based on my limited recent experience as a shopper for infants, I’m astonished that the racks of sickly pink fairy-frocks sell: I had fondly assumed that at least some of the clear message thinking women (and men!) have been sending for so many years now to the producers and buyers of children’s goods would have got through; I’d have expected to see the ‘pretty-in-pink’ clothes bunched in limp, unconsidered crowds during the sales. But in all the shops where I browsed, the pink princess outfits seemed to be disappearing like hot cakes – or cupcakes!
What I especially don’t understand is the logic behind dressing little girls in clothes like these. In the past, girls wore skirts and boys wore trousers or shorts (I belong to the first generation of girls to have made a big push first to be allowed to wear trousers and later to have them accepted as smart workwear), but there were few other concessions to gender except whether buttons were placed on the left or the right of the garment (a confusing convention that thankfully seems largely to have died out). Girls and boys wore the same styles and colours in coats, jumpers, cardigans, shirts, vests and socks. Only swimwear and footwear were different, and then not always: small girls often wore the same (hideously uncomfortable when wet) knitted swimming trunks as boys and stout lace-up shoes in the winter or bar-sandals in the summer were fairly universal. Granted, colours were often drab (browns, greens and greys didn’t show the dirt, swatches of cloth and hanks of wool were often left over from the making of adult garments) and choosing ‘unisex’ clothes may partly have been inspired by the domestic economics of hand-me-downs. I acknowledge there was also quite a lot to put up with before the advent of man-made materials and truly waterproof clothes. Most children had only one school coat and often had to wear it damp on the day following a downpour. All but the wealthiest grew heartily sick of their clothes before they grew out of them: two school skirts, two jumpers and two or three shirts, plus a dress ‘for best’, was the norm and, although I didn’t think of it then, this must have meant mothers, and sometimes fathers (not all fathers ensconced themselves behind their newspapers when they returned home) were engaged in a constant round of washing and ironing. I’m not trying to hark back to some kind of golden age.
But still, as far as our clothing went, girls and boys were pretty much equal. I certainly never wore anything that suggested that my future would be focused on baking cup-cakes and wearing lipstick (though I happen to enjoy both), nor did my brother’s clothes indicate that he was destined to be a footballer, astronaut or mechanic. I make these points tongue-in-cheek, but underlying them is a very serious principle indeed: that of achieving true equality between the sexes and removing the glass ceiling once and for all. How are the women and men of the future going to be inspired to exercise a completely free choice, electing to become engineers or hairdressers, electricians or fashion designers, bus drivers or nurses – or indeed, bakers or make-up artists – because they’ve thought about it and this is what they want to be, if at the age of a few months they have already been placed in a gender pigeon-hole created by parents in cahoots with clothing manufacturers?
I began by saying that I’m proud of the owl cardigan. It’s been a long time since I knitted a garment and, though the pattern was simple, I enjoyed making it and felt a sense of achievement when it was finished – especially as its owner seems to like it. It’s a unisex cardigan, suitable equally for a girl or a boy, and could equally have been made by a man or a woman. One of the people who taught me to knit was my stepfather, a burly fifteen-stone builder with hands as big as soup tureens. Boys – and girls – and parents – take note.