Identity 101: The pretend class that everyone takes in college as they sort out their awesome, autonomous selves. Identity 202: The real “class” that all adults will hopefully pass one day when they realize that “identity” is a little trickier and nuanced than a list of clubs and professional organizations – or car magnets.
I can’t imagine that Roddy Doyle sat down at his computer and claimed that he would write about an amorphous notion of “identity” (because that seems like the territory of angsty 20-somethings attempting to write the next best thing) but, really, Smile reads like he did. That is a compliment, by the way, primarily because Doyle’s latest is more of the 202 variety while having a little fun with the 101 level. Doyle is a prolific writer and chronicler of Irish life (more on that in a sec) and Smile is his eleventh novel; he deserves a more mature course load.
Smile is different than most of his other novels, most of which play with a very specific idea of “Irish identity.” (The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van – i.e. The Barrytown Trilogy – along with The Guts and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha take place in Dublin’s working-class Northside; The Last Roundup Trilogy explores Irish identity in the Bloody Sunday era as well as early 20th century Irish emigration to America.)
When I lived in Ireland, non-American friends and acquaintances found Americans’ fascination with identity flummoxing and probably amusing in a not-charming way. “Why do Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with such…fervor?” “Why do Americans say they’re 1/8 this or that?” “Why do you only have two thriving political parties, and why does everyone seem to toe a party line?” “Why do you send out Christmas cards with your families’ faces emblazoned on them?” “Why do you showcase your university affiliations on your cars’ back windows?” (I think that the only bumper sticker that I ever saw on an Irish car was the “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas” one.) I have a lot of thoughts on this, but that is for another post or five. But let’s face it, Americans, we generally like to demonstrate to others who we are and where we stand – on everything.
Not that the Irish are immune from inward-looking fascination with its own knotty history. For a nation of less than 5 million that takes up a land mass approximately the size of South Carolina, much of the world knows all about Ireland if only in some superficial way. While Americans like to demonstrate and perhaps embellish the “bumper sticker statements” that pronounce us, you have to admit, Ireland, that you have a really tangled history that makes for some very specific stabs at “identity.” Ireland is used to putting itself – or at least having others put it – in certain categories: The nation that outlaws abortion. The country that blocked birth control until 1985. The place where divorce has been legal for only 22 years and takes years to finalize. And let’s not forget a powerful Church that still manages the majority of schools. On the cheery flip side, this is a population that prides itself on offering good “craic” and a seat at the bar. It’s a nation of storytellers. The Irish always have been – and maybe always will be? – a culture of migrants; most places an Irish person lands will have a built-in community waiting and welcoming. All of these qualities combine for the “car magnet” illustration of the green republic.
On the one hand, Smile is all about the Irish identity. North versus South Dublin; modern morality versus a repressive and controlled past; rugby versus footie: They all have a role and help to define individuals. But at its core, it’s a book about how identity is really just a thing in perpetual flux. As much as you may try to outrun stereotypes and parameters set by social codes, they’re always there to give you a little tap on the shoulder.
Smile is narrated by 54-year-old Victor Forde who is attempting to fit back into his old, Northside world after a divorce from Rachel, a caterer-turned-television-personality (from the traditionally upper-crust Southside, but of course). After spending years trying to assimilate to the more posh and refined world south of the Liffey while simultaneously trying to write a book about “all that is wrong with Ireland,” Victor has this as his goal: “I wanted to move house, get back across the river. Home.”
Victor tends to the small details that mark one’s identity: “Donnelly’s would be my local. I trained myself to feel that it was mine.” Similarly, as he walks by a Paddy Power every day: “It became – even just walking past and having a look at the World Cup odds in the window – part of the rhythm of my day. Another corner of my new home.”
He’s not quite of that local world, however, as his background as a radio personality as well as his attachment to Rachel (the two were often billed as a “power couple”) positions him as a “success story.” Victor, however, knows that he straddles both worlds: “I was on my way to becoming a successful man. I never became one.”
One evening at the pub, Victor meets an eager Ed Fitzpatrick – a former classmate who is a bit of a blur to Victor. Ed remembers Victor, but the converse isn’t true, although Victor somehow wills a remembrance of Ed. The overbearing and chatty Ed seems to always show up at Donnelly’s when Victor is there and takes him on repeated walks down memory lane until Victor’s school memories and remembrances become unbearable.
Smile is a departure for Doyle; some reviewers are calling his latest a “psychological thriller.” What I would like to think it reflects, though, is a subtle shift in our culture from pigeonholing ourselves (and others) into airtight identifiers – you know, that “car magnet” identity. Migration’s on the upswing throughout the world; it’s becoming harder and harder to align ourselves with every single identifier from this culture or that region. When we lived in Ireland, my daughter was friends with a New Zealander who lived in London prior to Dublin. Her mother called her a “bitser” – someone who had a “bit of that accent, and a bit of that one, and a bit of another.”
Think about some of the popular television shows in the past few years and their somewhat vague and amorphous titles like This is Us and Parenthood and compare to them some exceedingly specific titles of yesteryear: Eight is Enough, The Brady Bunch, Little House on the Prairie. (As a child, I apparently preferred reruns on Channel 13.) Are we moving toward illustration instead of explanation when it comes to defining ourselves?
As Doyle shows us in Smile, we can’t really shake off our past even if we’ve moved far from it – physically, emotionally, or mentally. Our identity is just an amalgamation of “stuff;” I’d like to think Doyle is telling us that “bitsers” are the future. Which is why, when I stuck a car magnet on my back bumper, I chose my home state with a big heart in the middle of it.