by Brian Morton

What do Kids Know?

June 28, 2013 | by Brian Morton

Neil Mackay’s debut novel is more Natural Born Killers than What Maisie Knew but it does have its Jamesian turn, and its Jamesian problem. The most problematic of all the windows in what the Master called the House of Fiction is the knee-high one that looks out of, and lets light into, the nursery. Henry James’s genius was that he could both inhabit the mind of a child and unsurpassably convey its limited perspective on a world of sex and sexual tension, money and divorce, but also be present in his book as its author. Maisie Farange knows and intuits a lot, but some of what we learn through her we owe to James entirely. Maisie is a human pawn who occasionally feels she is a queen, and sometimes moves as awkwardly and as devastatingly as a knight. Her understanding of events is almost pre-verbal but it grows steadily as the book advances. F. R. Leavis thought it was a perfect novel. James Wood in his How Fiction Works sees it as one of the great models for the ‘free indirect style’ that dominates modern narrative.

The problem that Mackay’s characters have is that they know too much. This is their problem as young people and also as literary characters. For the parallels with What Maisie Knew to work, the differences have to be clear. James’s novel was published in 1897, set in London and France, and concerned with a divorcing couple, weak and venal rather than truly vicious, who divide a solitary child between them. The book is quietly comic, its one (often forgotten) moment of actual violence the off-screen death of the grotesque governess Mrs Wix’s daughter Claudia Matilda, who goes under a carriage on the Harrow Road and is buried at Kensal Green. Mackay’s novel is set in the town of Antrim in 1980, and despite that dateline is in every way post-Dunblane, post-Bulger, post-Columbine. Its comedy is midnight dark, its violence overt and detailed.  Its two sets of parents have viciousness running through their various weaknesses and they are defined mainly by absence (gaol, whoring) or by brutality (thrashing a little boy, pimping out a little girl). Three of them (and a grandmother) perish by the book’s end, bloodily as with its other victims.

The book’s killers are not so much natural-born as made, children whose dysfunctional and ugly upbringing – as ugly in its occasional sentimentality as in its gruesome moments of actual physical harm – provides what might be thought an ‘inevitable’ trajectory to murder. Some critics have suggested a parallel between What Maisie Knew and Sigmund Freud’s slightly later ‘Dora case’. The analogy in Mackay’s case is a psychology conference with the screamer headline ‘WHY CHILDREN KILL’.

The problem with this lies in what we might after all mean by ‘post-Bulger’.  Anyone who has read Blake Morrison or the late Gitta Sereny on those terrible Liverpool murders will know that the more one looks into the background of a child killer the more mysterious, rather than clear, the act and its motivations become. There is actually a moment in All The Little Guns Went Bang, Bang, Bang when a child, neither Pearse nor May-Belle, pulls the legs and wings off a cleg. This is the kind of thing serial killers are invariably remembered as doing in childhood, but of course so do the rest of us, and it provides no adequate explanation of why adults kill. Nor does the other fundamental drive. As Morrison showed, Venables and Thompson (perpetrators of the Bulger murder) talked hazily about sexual matters during their questioning, but these were largely overlooked in court, either to spare the victim’s family further pain, or else to preserve some sentimental attachment to the ‘latency period’. We’re all Freudians, really. But children grow up in a historical and social context as well as a psychic one and the background of the Troubles is an additional and additionally complex aspect of Mackay’s novel. It’s a scene he knows well and recounts with conviction: flags and Lambeg drums, sectarian graffiti, ould songs and Adam Ant songs, the day the wrong person climbs into the wired car and turns the ignition…

And yet the background doesn’t deliver what T. S. Eliot, borrowing from the art historian Washington Alston, called an ‘objective correlative’. Thinking of Hamlet and his madness, Eliot sought in vain for the ‘adequacy of the external to the emotion’, as if a murdered father returned as a ghost, a usurping uncle, faithless mother and bonkers girlfriend weren’t quite enough to explain a breakdown.

Dragging in Eliot isn’t just another deceptively flattering way to beat up Mackay with literary history. It’s to make the point that All The Little Guns Went Bang, Bang, Bang isn’t a psychiatric or sociological tract – doctors, police and magistrates function oddly and remotely in it – but a sophisticated (in the way that Hamlet is sophisticated) revenge tragedy, and that its protracted form (in the way that Hamlet is ingeniously drawn out) has a specific and clever narrative function. We’re told in the first lines that something very bad has happened, but that the badness has gone into the realm of storytelling and has involved the most radical kind of separation.

The killers, to meet them at last, are eleven-year-old friends Pearse Furlong and May-Belle Mulholland, and aren’t those richly Jamesian names for two kids who’re going to torture and murder their peers and elders! The clever thing Mackay does is to give Pearse a long and richly storied family background and May-Belle none at all, in fact nothing to mitigate the horror of a mother who feeds her sleeping pills or sells her, all too horribly awake, to middle-aged men; nothing except a rich singing voice all the more wonderful for seeming to come from nowhere. Pearse, on the other hand, has inherited an entire family saga, one that suggests the present, as son of a downtrodden mother and a UDR man who stashes an illegally held gun in the family home (Chekhovian touch! it goes off several times in Act 5), is a falling away from a grand and affectionate past.

These are the stories he tells to May-Belle as they snuggle sexlessly in his bed. And they are a very large part of the book’s problematic. To quote one example. Pearse describes his Granda being gravely wounded, steamed alive, in a sub during the Battle of Jutland. And yet, apart from a few German wolves prowling the Firth of Forth there were no submarines in the order of battle at Jutland that I know of. The torpedoes came from surface ships. So is this misremembered detail, or is it invention. And if so, whose invention? Pearse’s? Gran’s? Mackay’s? The very fact that one pauses over a detail like this is a sign that there is something not quite right about the narrative voice of the book. It’s very nearly right, but there are moments when one feels that, in the other sense, Pearse knows too much.

It’s all grandly written, in both the usual and the Irish sense. There is a Joycean lift to some of the sentences – ‘In Pearse’s house back then there was a long hall, front to rear, that seemed to have no end to it – just a fizzing black hole at the very back of the house…’ – and there is a pulled-back, overarching perspective to the beginning and end of the book that tells us Pearse and May-Belle did not fall dead in a hail of bullets or simply pass into ‘the system’ and anonymity but are still with us, conjoined and inseparable, alive and in some miraculous way loving. That is the only thing that makes sense of Pearse’s grasp of Irish as well as family history, that he is still somehow here with us, a middle-aged man looking back at his own and his country’s past with the quietness and stillness that follows extreme violence just as often as noise and chaos do. Like Maisie Farange, Pearse and May-Belle are human pawns who make a sideways jump into chivalry of the most warped kind. They are also somehow aware, as great literary characters have always been, of being characters, on the page, in a book.

James, Eliot, Freud, Chekhov, Joyce; you might add any of the more confident purveyors of unflinching violence, Harry Crews, Irvine Welsh, Bret Easton Ellis; or compare the book with others, like To Kill A Mockingbird, The Member of the Wedding or The Catcher in the Rye, that rely on a precariously immature observer. None of these are gratuitous offerings for future drop-quotes but an acknowledgement that Mackay, a gifted journalist and broadcaster, is batting in some very heavy literary company indeed.


All The Little Guns Went Bang, Bang, Bang
Neil Mackay
Freight Books, PP288, £8.99, ISBN 978 1 908754 288

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