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The Blood Miracles: Pills, thrills and bellyaches

Lisa McInerney's prose is as vivd at capturing sensory phenomena as conveying quirk of thought.

The Irish novelist Lisa McInerney is a preposterously gifted writer, Amis-like, ­almost Shakespearean, in her ability to riff, refresh and amuse. She is known for her former blog Arse End of Ireland (a reference to Cork city) and for her debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, which received the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction as well as a stack of reviews that could have been written by her agent. The Blood Miracles, despite a more cumbrous, less fist-waving title, is similar in style and shape and resumes the hairy adventures of Ryan Cusack, a junior gangster with a feckless dad, a dead Italian mum, a handful of little-seen siblings and a long-term girlfriend, Karine, a trainee nurse whose capacity for long-sufferingness has just about reached its limit.

Ryan is now 20, still working for Dan Kane, a local kingpin, and still harbouring dreams of a musical life that he has neither the time nor the headspace to pursue. His fluent Italian has helped secure a fresh supply of Ecstasy and a new “route” (Salerno to Ringaskiddy). But after the pills ­arrive, Dan’s girlfriend, doing the pick-up, is robbed on her way back to Cork. Dan suspects one of his lieutenants but decides that the best course of action is to do nothing, just let him sweat until he cracks. Ryan doesn’t care too much – he isn’t a partner in the deal – and anyway he’s busy, setting up Dan’s new nightclub Catalyst, paying visits to an elderly mystic (whose identity we know but he doesn’t) and rebounding from Karine’s censure into the arms of ­Natalie, a middle-class accountant, recently returned from a 24th-birthday jaunt in Shoreditch, and a product of “glossy, artsy, vibrant Cork” with oddly deep connections to the city’s lowlife.

In a prose light on commas but with a surprising taste for the semi-colon, as vivid at capturing sensory phenomena as conveying a quirk of thought, and offering a full-dress display of just about every type of metaphor from the sublime to the annoying, McInerney immerses the reader in Ryan’s world. Post-crash Cork, at least in this version, has as much in common with the Detroit of Elmore Leonard (sunny, silly) as the LA of James Ellroy (sulky, jittery), and similar debts to the Dublin of Joyce (mythic, pun-strewn) and Roddy Doyle (given to fatalism yet hopping with high spirits). Her virtuosity functions all along the scale. The novel opens with a five-chapter dash, the first sentence (“This, like so many of Ryan Cusack’s fuck-ups, begins with Ecstasy”) being answered 58 – closely printed – pages later. But she can fit a sex scene into the gap between sentences: “His compassion proved quite the aphrodisiac. Afterwards they had a smoke.”

A potential pitfall of a novel of this sort is a recurrent lurching from literary polish to rough-hewn vernacular, from the urbane to the streetwise. McInerney’s answer is to aim constantly for a mix of tones and registers. The effect is neither look-at-me juxtaposition, in the Saul Bellow manner of needing to appear equally at home in the gutter and the ivory tower, nor the mock-heroic deployed to the ends of mockery: the way that Ian McEwan writes “The master of the house was at his ablutions” to describe a builder taking a shower. It’s something more organic, more naturally democratic, as if McInerney finds equal value in all the available resources. “Sentinels” is a helpful word, but so are “blokey” and “jackeen”. “Fuck” isn’t too bad either.

There’s a thematic underpinning to the regime of fizz and dazzle. In this fantasy Ireland, language functions as a code, a currency, a kind of action. There is talk of “vocabulary” and “terminology”, of “Ryan’s tongue”, his “smart mouth”, the “lip” he has on him. Usage comes under scrutiny. The mot juste is worth scouring for. Accused of softness, he announces: “I’m not soft. Just . . . raised right.” As McInerney distinguishes a “thud” from a “drier clatter”, so Ryan, defining the criminal enterprise, rejects “this life” and “this business” and settles on “this thing”. When Karine says that Ryan’s fling with Natalie shows a reluctance to tug his own prick, he replies, “If that’s how you want to put it.” How he wants to put it is that he wasn’t aware of any “moratorium”. At one point he is saved by his “language skills”, at another by someone else’s “way with words”.

McInerney’s writing never patronises the milieu, but the perspectival dynamic is frequently at risk of doing so. In Ryan, the “gangster”, his persona, jostles with the “musician”, his true self. In one ­painful exchange he is stripped of his DJing gig at Catalyst because he is needed for more pressing business: “Time to put away the toys,” Dan tells him. Ryan the boyfriend, the lover, is caught in the middle, torn between poles. Karine, who rails against his life with Dan and who, for Christmas, gives him a book (Sound and Silence: a Human Obsession), notes that in Natalie Ryan has found a girl for whom the gangster side has appeal. No wonder he’s willing to give her a chance. She won’t test him. He can give up with somebody’s blessing.

Karine seems to be his conscience or foil, a walking bullshit detector, but her comments reinforce the idea of Ryan as a man apart, spiritually superior to his schoolmates and colleagues, pensive and neurotic where other Corkonians seem reflexive and unthinking. Much of the novel is concerned with the discovery of a lost piano – Ryan’s Rosebud – and we are left in no doubt that he would have got his school Leaving Certificate if he hadn’t been expelled for bad behaviour.

There was a similar strategy behind Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, another spectacular feat of prose, in which, by some mysterious (and very recent) process, Billy, an army specialist, has ceased to be an average grunt like the rest of Bravo Squad and has traded hedonism, homophobia and a head-in-the-clouds temperament for a sort of wired lucidity, a sixth sense for the nature of things that Fountain, keeping things necessarily vague, called “a farther perspective”. As an attempt to explain the grandeur of the writing it doesn’t go nearly far enough. A more likely motive is that it provides a short cut to high stakes, a feeling that all this matters because we are dealing with someone who transcends his social status, not some ordinary soldier or pusher.

But in contrast to Fountain, who cleaved to his mild transcendentalist programme, his American image of the outlier with a destiny, McInerney succeeds in generating some distance from Ryan’s exalted vision of his own potential. At one point he reflects that the bad-boy stories he feeds Natalie are just “dick-clutching fantasies”. Invoking such notions as “brotherhood, loyalty, hierarchy” is just something he does to deflect the “meaningless” reality of “moving around all day, scared shitless, talking shite” as a form of security, a way to stay sane. Then McInerney tugs the rug, showing Ryan’s comforting moment to be just so much self-deception, his confidence in being a better person dwarfed by the fact that the pill-peddling and shite-talking constitute his life. The bears are already inside, she writes, “picking their teeth by the fire”.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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