Characters in novels do not have to be “good”. They just have to be alive. In Citizens by Kevin Curran, there is a character named Neil who loves his grandmother but he loves the idea of escape even more. He loves his lover Kate more now than ever since she has escaped to Canada. He despises the greed of his extended family. He abhors libraries. He exists to muscle build his body. He communicates via Google, YouTube and email. He is filled with a hatred for what Ireland is.
He is not a “good” character. In fact, he is unlikeable. His unease and hatred of his present life in Ireland infests the reader, and this is testament to Curran’s writing that the reader follows Neil as he learns to live with himself and his great-grandfather’s legacy that haunts him.
Citizens’ narrative is split between 1916 and the present. The 1916 section is written in the form of a memoir for Harry Casey’s son to read. Harry Casey is a Pathé newsreel cameraman. He is idealistic and determined to document the birth of a New Ireland. His nemesis is his best friend Davy. There are terrible scenes for Harry Casey to film. He becomes a witness to and a victim of betrayal.
The present narrative of the book follows Neil’s search for his great-grandfather’s newsreels. He wants them for the money and he wants the money for the freedom he believes is his due.
Un-likeability in a literary character is a tricky thing to respect. An unlikeable character needs something to make the reader decide to read on and Curran achieves this by writing spiky, visual dialogue for believable and flawed characters. Neil loves his grandmother and his girlfriend Kate, yet love is just as questionable a value as an historic legacy threatens to be. Neil considers himself ‘a citizen of the world’ and therefore it makes sense to him that such a world should ‘share things of worth until they become worthless’. His search for his great-grandfather’s newsreels takes him to Archbishop Marsh’s Library and his disdain for libraries and the words contained in their books seethes through him.
‘A dying culture. Fading customs…Libraries are museums for the digital age. Quaint obsolete spaces. The silence in them, like churches, like the buildings themselves, he sees as unnecessary. The space leads to thoughts. Thoughts, invariable always lead to questions, and questions, invariable, always lead to an interrogation of his life…’
At this point the reader sees behind Neil to what Neil fears. Being alone. Being without love. Condemned to dole life while watching a powerful elite Photoshop their way into the country’s mind and soul.
The juxtaposition of the novel’s narratives highlights the likeability and idealism of Harry Casey with the craven need for escape of his great-grandson, Neil.
Much is made of time distance in Citizens. 1916 is almost obsolete in Neil’s life until he is forced to read Harry Casey’s memoirs. Harry’s voice is young and thrilling and sometimes reads almost too much like a man re-living his life as a character in his own image. Curran writes Harry Casey’s voice well but there is a difference between the voice of Harry Casey in his letter to his mother at the beginning of the book and the voice Harry Casey uses to address his son in his memoir, so it takes a while to for the reader to slide into Harry Casey’s narrative to his son and that is a deliberate thing. 1916 was a hundred years ago. Today we speak YouTube and we speak for everyone to hear our words and we act for everyone to see our lives. Harry Casey’s story to his son draws on myths and culture and history and these are the very things that Neil has no faith in.
Citizens shows an Ireland in flux, bathing in self-love and self-hatred. Betrayal is a bye-word for advancement both in Harry Casey’s life and in Neil’s future. His relationship with his grandmother is the one that sustains him. He acknowledges her existence from the beginning. Their scenes in the novel are tender yet Curran shows how even here Neil is prepared to betray his grandmother’s dreams.
Citizens asks questions. Is there such a thing as a past to believe in? What sort of value has this past when everything in it is deemed sellable? Do human lives, their stories and their ideals have any value for their descendants?
These questions are layered throughout Curran’s novel. They come alive via the vivid and “actable” dialogue. The reader feels the dialogue within them. This is a visual novel. The character of Enda, a film engineer and archivist, is counterpoint to Neil’s ignorance and disregard of historical legacy. Neither one likes the other but it moves the story so well, the images of Neil and Enda facing off to each other give relief to the later scenes of Neil facing a bête noir of a politician, a man sly of smile, easy on the eye with filled in wrinkles, and a master of money.
The novel’s dual narrative works although there are times when an authorial voice enters into Neil’s story and supersedes his character. ‘He has no depth of knowledge for any of the things he reads, sees. At least he is self-aware enough to realise this much,’ but that is a very small point.
The novel’s atmosphere comes from the novel’s main protagonists. We sense the difference in the two Irelands through the sight and vision of Harry Casey and his camera, and through Neil’s fears of his future, of his need for Kate and his love for and his loyalty to his grandmother.
The scene between Neil and the woman from the Department of Social Welfare is quick to the bone and encapsulates the truth of a country that betrays its own present inhabitants for the sake of a good mark in their copybook.
Citizens is a novel about idealism of the past and the useless value of idealism in the present. It questions what we have become after all the dreams recorded on Harry Casey’s newsreels. Neil is swimming against his own meltdown, and his un-likeability is paramount for the truth in this novel. The prose propels the reader to the end. The dialogue makes the reader step in and step close.
Kevin Curran has written a novel that is true to what he sees in this Ireland, this legacy of 1916. It is a rough, raw account of love-misery-over-a laptop and of futures engineered by emigration. It is ambitious and visual. It does not betray itself for the sake of likeable characters. It shows an Ireland that is so recent that you have to shut your door to breathe a bit before you open it again.
- Citizens, by Kevin Curran (Liberties Press, €13.99). A copy can be ordered here.