Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island; 224 pages; 2013.
New Island is one of my favourite independent presses and perusing its website is the perfect way to discover (new-to-me) Irish writers. While I’ve only read a handful of its titles over the years, I’m yet to be disappointed. Diarmuid Ó Conghaile’s debut novel, Being Alexander, is no exception — and I have to tip my hat at Natasha, on Twitter, who first alerted me to it when she told me a friend of hers had thought very highly of it.
Dublin in the boom years
The book is set in Dublin, Ireland, in 2003-04, at the height of the economic boom and it focuses on Alexander Vespucci, who is bored by his job, his friends — and his life.
Alexander is employed by the National Economic Advisory Council and is senior economist on the Council Secretariat. He manages a small team of people, which he finds a rather tedious task:
The people he manages mostly just want stuff from him: attention; approval; meaningful work, but not too much of it; development opportunities; days off; tolerance of their mood swings. In return, he is responsible for the shit they turn out and the deadlines they don’t care about; plus they constitute an extra set of people he has to avoid if he is late, or hung over, or wishes to disappear early.
Included in these tedious tasks is finding out which staff member has run up extremely high phone bills by calling astrology lines and attending a Council meeting in which the availability of broadband for small businesses is top of the agenda.
Bored with life
If his work life sounds boring, his personal life isn’t that much better. His relationship with his long-term girlfriend is falling apart without him even realising, his best friend keeps tapping him up for money and his family are constantly nagging him to visit a dying aunt in the hope she’ll look favourably upon him in her will.
He’s the type of guy who looks as if he’s doing okay on the surface, but scratch a little deeper and you see he’s merely lurching from one almost-crisis to the next. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s scared to push himself for fear of failing.
‘Don’t you guys find that life is really difficult?’ he says suddenly in a moment of reckless honesty, of madness. ‘I sometimes feel like I’m drowning, you know? I’m up to my throat in water, turning my face to the sky so that it won’t flood into my mouth.’ He feels his eyes scrunching up, not that he is getting teary, but he is filled with a rush of emotion that concentrates itself in this part of his face. Paul looks at him blankly, glances at Danny, drinks from his pint. Danny is stern. ‘In fairness, we don’t talk about that kind of thing,’ he says.
I have to admit it took me awhile to get into this book, and I think that’s largely due to the fact it’s character based, not plot based, so the narrative kind of drifts along — a bit like Alexander’s life — although there is a key pivotal moment about half-way through, which involves a tragedy, that came as something of a shock to this reader.
I did find myself enjoying the way in which Ó Conghaile creates a whole world and peoples it with interesting characters, none of whom are particularly likable but all of whom are drifting in their jobs and personal lives, despite the fact the country is awash with cash and Ireland’s citizens have never had it so good.
And there’s something about the very real frailty of Alexander that gets under the skin — I often wanted to reach into the pages of the book and give him a good kick up the backside, to tell him it wasn’t so bad and that if he wanted to change his life he had to grab it by the horns and not wait for someone else to do it.
An ‘office novel’
It’s real strength lies in the depiction of the work place — this is a proper “office novel” — in which the tedium of each day is the only steady thing in Alexander’s life, though that soon begins to crumble when he gets embroiled in a sexual harassment case and is pressured into some high-level corruption involving the aforementioned supply of broadband to rural communities.
There’s a handful of funny set pieces and some great one-liners, which had me chortling over my Kindle, such as this one:
‘Do you reject Satan and all his evil works?’ asks the priest. ‘Yes,’ says the congregation, half-heartedly. Alexander moves his lips, but emits no sound. He thinks: Why pick on Satan? Why not reject something really odious, like Brown Thomas’ department store or Sky Sports.
However, for the most part, the tone of this book is one of, if not despair, then certainly a kind of apologetic hopelessness, as if Alexander knows he’s rubbish and just wants everyone to accept the fact so he can get on with being miserable — preferably alone.
Being Alexander perfectly captures the sense of ennui which creeps up on all of us at some point in our lives. And it does a wonderful job of depicting the kind of aimless existence that characterises my generation of 30 and 40-somethings. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s an enjoyable romp and marks Ó Conghaile as a writer to watch.