Declan Toohey Reviews ‘The Wild Laughter’ by Caoilinn Hughes

‘The Wild Laughter’ Caoilinn Hughes

One World Publications

ISBN 9781786077806,

£14.99 hardback

Towards the end of ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ (1965), Thomas Pynchon defines a visionary as someone ‘above the immediacy of their time who [can] think historically.’ In the context of his narrative, his definition concerns a centuries-old conflict between two independent postal systems, and whether their leaders were ‘hip enough’ to foresee Europe’s coming ‘descent into particularism’ in the latter half of the seventeenth century. On a more structural level, however, he suggests that the novelist is someone endowed with the ability to think historically about all things social, cultural, psychological, and literary.

While Thomas Pynchon and Caoilinn Hughes might, on paper, have next to nothing in common, they are both committed to the infuriating ways in which histories inform and complicate the present moment. For Pynchon, history becomes a central character in his densely-populated books; for Hughes, it is more like a ghost whose presence, though strong, shies away from the audience, preferring instead to hide backstage in the wings.

Nowhere is this more patent in Hughes’ work than in her second novel, ‘The Wild Laughter’. As with its predecessor ‘Orchid and the Wasp’(2018), the book focuses on an Irish family who are thrown into crisis by the 2008 financial crash. Only where ‘Orchid and the Wasp’—set between Dublin, London, and New York—was more cosmopolitan in subject, ‘The Wild Laughter’opts for a provincial purview, with most of the action taking place in Roscommon and other parts of Connaught. Similar to Donal Ryan’s ‘The Spinning Heart’(2012) and Mike McCormack’s ‘Solar Bones’(2016), it is keen to explore the strain felt by rural families in the wake of a crippling recession. Following Ryan and McCormack further, Hughes succeeds brilliantly in locating such drama beyond the pale.

At first the story is recognisable. We meet a middle-class farming family from Dysart, Roscommon, at the helm of which sits Mr Black, known to his sons as ‘the Chief’ but to others as Manus. A potato farmer, he is financially comfortable. He eyes up new machinery, buys property in Spain and Bulgaria, but soon recession hits and he is swiftly delivered into abject financial ruin. Later, he is diagnosed with lung cancer, and youngest son Hart—through whose embittered yet wry narration the novel is told—must look after the farm and care for his father. Older brother Cormac, meanwhile, goes to college to become an engineer and, whenever he returns home to visit, consistently clashes with his only sibling.

For all this might sound familiar, the novel quickly nudges Irish literature into newfound territory. The Chief, disquieted by the odds of successful treatment, refuses chemotherapy, and with the help of his family he looks to end his life himself. He calls Cormac over to give him a bible. ‘Will you read that for me,’ he says casually, ‘and find the bits that reference suicide.’ Thus. begins his quest for a dignified death, not to mention his family’s prolonged struggle with the discourse of euthanasia.

Because the twists in Hughes’ tale are too good to spoil, I will refrain from talking further about the plot of ‘The Wild Laughter’. As for the mechanics of the book, it is difficult to say with any certainty what Hughes does best. Her caustic humour in one chapter is outshone by the pathos of the next. The bravura with which she tackles her subjects is rivalled only by her tremendous economy: while she never wastes a word, hers is a style that is far from minimal. Lush and expansive, her prose spreads itself comfortably across the spectrum of human emotion. Consider, for example, Hart’s thoughts when Cormac asks him to go to the theatre, and he wonders whether the play in question will be worth his time:

‘[T]he only reason to step out the door is to hear tales of people worse off than ourselves. So if it’s Noël Coward or Wilde on about pomp and circumstance, celebrities with silken skin and trust funds, I’ve no interest. But if it’s Beckett on about some poor sod getting stuck in a mound of earth for the rest of her life for she couldn’t be bothered digging herself out, or about a disembodied head, or about a man listening to tapes of his youngster self, appalled at the twat he used to be . . . then I might be interested.’

Hughes is also loyal to the memorable scene, of which there is no shortage in ‘The Wild Laughter’. Whether an anecdote from an ailing Manus, a game of poker to settle which brother will arrange the funeral, or a touching goodbye overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Hughes’ scenes linger in the brain like the best of short stories. Though their affect and comedy is cinematic in charge and rhythm, their literary flair keeps the reader guessing on a sentence-to-sentence level. The book, moreover, is worth buying alone for a chapter in which Hart goes to confession and the parish priest makes a confession of his own.

If, as I suggested, Hughes demonstrates an ability to think historically, it has to do primarily with her understanding of patriarchal powers in contemporary Ireland. ‘In one sense,’ she wrote in July of this year in the Irish Times, ‘neoliberalism is the patriarchy that followed the coloniser and the church.’ Her novel, while concerned with the death of a father, is not about the death of the patriarchy. Instead, it is about how a patriarchy of neoliberalism remains at large in contemporary Ireland, and how it differs vastly from those which existed a century or two ago.

Hughes’ biggest achievement, like Pynchon’s, is to look both forward and back in time; to not get lost in the present moment. Though ‘The Wild Laughter’ gestures towards a more progressive Ireland, it never strays far from the empirical reality of yesterday or today. This is no novel of idealism or self-indulgence; it asks difficult questions and provides compelling answers. Indeed, if it is anything to go by, it solidifies Caoilinn Hughes’ reputation as one of Ireland’s great new writers.