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.
In January, I wrote about a train journey to London during which I observed my fellow passengers and assessed them for potential as fictional murderers.
Yesterday, I made another train journey, this time to Cambridge. I didn’t set out with this intention, but, by the journey’s conclusion, I had been compelled by an uncharacteristic bout of Swiftian disgust to appraise the potential of some of my travelling companions as murder victims.
The journey from Wakefield began in a civilised manner, until the train pulled into Grantham. There, a group of schoolchildren boarded, evidently bound for some kind of daytrip destination (possibly London – this was the King’s Cross train). I say ‘schoolchildren’ – they were fifteen or sixteen, possibly first-year sixth formers. Until that point, I had been occupying a table to myself. Three of them joined me, two girls taking the seats opposite and a boy the one beside me.
The boy was very polite. The girls were shrill horrors, bred on a diet of Hello and reality TV. One of them was particularly inane. She made it quite obvious that she fancied the boy. She asked him what time he’d got up that morning. He replied 5.30 a.m. – he’d had to do his paper round before setting out. She said that she herself had got up at 6.30 a.m. – and it was a good thing that she did, because she, like, put on the T-shirt she meant to wear today and there were, like, two inches of bra sticking out at the top. Cue: shrieks of laughter from both girls. She then asked which of her companions would like to play ‘I-Spy’. (I was astonished at this choice of game, which most self-respecting ten-year-olds of my acquaintance would have scorned.) The other girl declined. The boy – still patiently polite – agreed. ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with t,’ said the first girl. ‘Train!’ said the boy. Another burst of giggles. ‘I don’t believe it!’ she said. ‘However did you, like, guess that first time around?’
I was joined on the Cambridge connection by a tall young man with Jesus hair and a Tonto headband. He was dressed in an Afghan-style coat and was reading a book on philosophy. He seemed a pleasant enough travelling companion until he yawned. I was assaulted by breath fouler than could have poured from the mouths of half a dozen dragons after a brimstone-eating spree. I moved to the seat beside mine so that he and I were diagonally opposite each other. A middle-aged woman then boarded and sat next to him. She was immaculately dressed, all her golden curls sprayed firmly into place. She was clutching a cup of Costa coffee. I looked up a few minutes later: The white plastic lid of the coffee was smeared all over with her red-orange lipstick; so was her face. She took a packet of Monster Munchies from her bag; they were pickled onion flavour!
At Ely, another tall young man joined us. I stood up so that he could take the seat opposite dragon-breath. Their long legs clashed. The newcomer smelt even worse than his counterpart. It wasn’t just his breath: he had an all-over aroma of mingled mould and sweat.
I was delighted and relieved when I could finally disembark. Cambridge station, drab at the best of times, had never seemed so inviting. Jonathan Swift, I am sure, would have imagined eloquent and appropriate comeuppances for their various vile traits. I could think only about who might murder them and how. Motive would not have been a problem… but engaging the reader’s sympathy for the victims? Perhaps a little more of a challenge!