One of the goals of this site is to make sure that the style of the articles in each series (with the possible exception of Your Friday Phil) encompasses a range containing everything from advice lists to simple reviews to deeper analyses. The Tuesday Tome series is one which has spent the past couple of weeks dealing in dense, analytical material, so it is due for a simple review. In fact, this week’s article will take the form of a straightforward recommendation. And the book which I would like to recommend is Breakfast on Pluto, a 1998 novel by Patrick McCabe, one of the two books for which McCabe has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
This is both the strangest and second-most recent book which I have covered in the series so far. Breakfast on Pluto‘s strangeness results from its recentness, as it presents a combination of a raw depiction of violence in Ireland during the Troubles with a wistful, campy narrative voice provided by transgender character Patrick “Pussy” Braden. If the concept of a male human being with typically feminine character traits and a typically feminine fashion sense is an affront to your taste, then this book is not for you. But if you are a reader who might be interested in a work that challenges genre (and gender) conventions in order to tell a violent and uniquely Irish history in a new way, then read on.
In Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto, subversion of traditional gender identity is central, and draws into its scope the seemingly unrelated issues of ancestry and violence. The novel consistently synthesizes private and public life by its narrative switching between Braden recounting personal narratives and pseudo-historical narratives. This does the work of juxtaposing broader Irish and English societal occurrences or trends with an individual’s experience of Irishness.
In her recent dissertation on “Irish Borderlands,” Aisling Bridget Cormack offers a somewhat more specific account of why McCabe accomplishes this juxtaposition: “In McCabe’s subsequent [novel] also set on the border—Breakfast on Pluto [. . .] the collective trauma of war is juxtaposed with personal traumas of loss and sexual abuse, which are just as avidly repressed” (40).
In light of Cormack’s perspective, one sees two additional dimensions to Breakfast on Pluto. First, the society which strives toward modernity remains pervasively conservative when faced with challenges to its moral rectitude and, paradoxically, to its status as modern, insofar as modernity is linked with societal perfection. Second, there is a concatenation of trauma occurring in the novel; traumas are added onto traumas until one has no trouble empathizing with the fragile mental state of Braden.
It is also important to note that these traumas in Breakfast on Pluto have no singular source. As in the early work of twentieth century Irish poet Seamus Heaney, no faction, nor nation, nor even individual, is presented as innocent. Paralleling the liminal identity of the narrator is the liminal, evenly critical political perspective of the novel; clearly the suggestion of imperfection on either political side of the Troubles is unacceptable to a pair of factions presented as entirely devoid of irony and self-awareness.
This single-mindedness and shocking violence on the part of the factions in Breakfast on Pluto seems almost atavistic. Again, a past which is meant to be idealized is, whether ideal, surely exploited for anti-modern sensibilities, as the townsfolk of Tyreelin, while accustomed to horrific violence, are scandalized by Braden’s identity. Braden’s liminality is furthered by her separation from a traditional family structure, for whose matrix Braden longs.
Yet the family to which Braden aspires, far afield from the ancestors in Heaney’s poetry, is made of the corrupt (her supposed rapist pastor father) and the corrupted (her supposed beautiful young victim mother). The comment seems to be that each individual’s experience of Irishness is composed of a striving for some future via an idealized past, followed by the discovery that the past is fraught with violence and fiercely conservative.
Braden’s physical limitations, which she laments at times and which are elsewhere in Breakfast on Pluto utilized for comedy, present the bleak premonition that liminal neutrality is without an heir, perhaps because its very nature (here represented by Braden’s gender) is oppositional to traditional values, or perhaps because the violence of the past is so permanently attached to the land. At any rate, it is clear that Braden’s issue of identity is one not limited to her gender, but one that extends to her nationality, a phenomenon explored earlier by Neil Jordan’s 1992 film, The Crying Game.
It is apropos to mention Neil Jordan in this context, as he has worked with Patrick McCabe on film adaptations of two of his novels (including an adaptation of Breakfast on Pluto released in 2005), and one of Jordan’s most acclaimed films, The Crying Game, also tells a tale of the Troubles with an accompanying gender complication (perhaps my Thursday Theater series will soon explore this comparison in more detail).
As a comparison, fans of Angela Carter’s classic 1984 novel Nights at the Circus will find themselves perfectly at home with the loud spectacle of Braden’s narration. Both authors utilize voice and tone with considerable technical facility. But more generally, anyone interested in literature or recent Irish history who can handle something unapologetically spectacular and bluntly violent should read Breakfast on Pluto.
Cormack, Aisling B. Specters of the Irish Borderlands: Writing Partition. Diss. University of California, Irvine, 2012. Dissertations Abstracts International, 2012. MLA International Bibliography. Web.