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Tuesday, November 01, 2016


The Beatles are embedded so deep in our collective cultural consciousness that they can be used as fictional characters in novels, such as Kevin Barry's Beatlebone. John Lennon means a lot of things to a lot of people, and he clearly means something to Barry, who has written a somewhat experimental novel about Lennon visiting the island he owned in Clew Bay in Ireland in 1978.

It's a diverting book, which captures the profane and acerbic Lennon (who is only mentioned as John): "Do you have a reservation? she says. I have severe ones, he says, but I do need a room" is a typical example. Lennon loved words, was enamored of Lewis Carroll, and that comes through in Barry's writing, which at times reads like a play.

Lennon's island (which Yoko One sold after his death) was called Dorinish, and in an essay that Barry writes smack-dab in the middle of the book (which frankly I found to be the best part of it) he explains how he came to own it and how many times he visited it. Apparently the 1978 visit, which would have been during Lennon's silent period (he wouldn't release another album until his last one, Double Fantasy, right after his death) is a fictional one. There is comedy when he enlists a local man, Cornelius O'Grady, to ferry him there. First they stop at the island of Achill, where there is a place called the Amethyst Hotel (a real place) full of a kind of commune of young people who believed in a sort of confrontational therapy. Lennon, who was into scream therapy, gives it a go but leaves and hides in a cave, which Barry finds.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. It shows a kind of honest admiration of Lennon, his faults and all, and the book works best when it's funny, such as Cornelius' jibing with John: "Though of course why you might want to go out to a mean little rock of an island is no one’s business but your own. I’m only here to oblige you. We have always been an obliging breed of people, the O’Gradys." It also is steeped in Irishness, as Barry is an Irish writer and Lennon, though a few generations back, was Irish (Liverpool has always been the first stop for Irish emigrating to England; some just stayed there).

But I didn't feel any epiphanies about John Lennon. It's interesting that he owned an uninhabited island among hundreds of others in Clew Bay (it is now visited by others, like Barry, who want to commune with the spirit of Lennon) but I felt that Barry was groping for some kind of meaning that eluded him. As stated, the essay in the center of the book, on its own, would have made a great travel-writing piece.

So, a kind of thumbs sideways for Beatlebone. I read it because I'm fascinated with all things Beatles, which I suspect is the same with most of the people who've bought and read it.

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