When it comes to weird fiction, it seems to me that many readers define “weird” in terms of plot or character or what actually happens in the story. Said strange stories might contain monsters or the supernatural, or perhaps skewed realities that make us uncomfortable. This definition is only one side of weird fiction, though. Weird fiction can take place in our reality and still be puzzling, still make us feel slightly weird.
Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is the latter sort of weird text. In terms of story, the tale the words on the page formed, there was really very little that surprised me in this book (spoilers follow). This is the story of a girl born to a family consisting of a single mother, an absent father, and a brain cancer-surviving older brother. The girl and her family have been metaphorically diseased by her brother’s cancer, and it is this disease that affects the girl’s entire life. Through a trajectory that seems inevitable, the girl is raped by her uncle, after which point she spends her life seeking out sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle and others in order to cope with the extraordinary emotional pain she feels.
I think you’ll agree that this summary does not depict an altogether unfamiliar story, horrific and sad though it certainly is. What, then, is so strange about this tale? What makes A Girl is a Half-formed Thing weird?
If you’ve heard about A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, it was likely in the context of its publication history or its narrative structure. The book had been turned down several times before being published (after nearly a decade!), and after McBride began to win scads of prizes, her novel received a good deal of press about how challenging the language is.
It is, then, McBride’s extraordinary language that makes her story strange. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is told in a style that might be best described in McBride’s words: it makes use of “stream of pre-consciousness, because it’s about gut reaction rather than processed thought, about before language has begun to form pre-thought.”
The novel, written entirely in this pre-consciousness format, can be said to authentically capture feeling, pre-thought. Take, for instance, this example:
“I the morning. I the day. When the air was. The air is. Today. Today. When the bones hurt no I’m young. When the everything’s sitting like. Right. What’s happened? For the radio’s somewhere play. In the house. I’m the house” (171-2).
Here, we experience the moment when the narrator first wakes up; here, we’re in the space between dream and thought, where we’re too incoherent for words. But it’s weird, right? As readers we aren’t used to encountering sentences like this. Heck, we can hardly be said to dwell in the incoherence that precedes our own thoughts.
So what’s the point of writing like this? It makes a book difficult to read, to be sure, though no less rewarding, and I doubt this style was easy for McBride to write. So what’s the deal here? Why tell this story in this particular way?
I have two thoughts about this:
- McBride has made use of storyline that is already somewhat familiar to us so that she can tell it in an entirely fresh way. I’m not sure this story would have been as interesting if told in straightforward prose; however, McBride’s use of such novel language reinjects this story with urgency and desperation that I’m not sure would be there otherwise. The telling makes the story weird and unsettling (which, as we all know, is a good thing). In some ways, this book does what much weird fiction does well: it makes the familiar strange. In the strange telling of this familiar story, McBride has energized this familiar storyline.
- My second thought is that this fragmented language is essential to convey the extent of pain the protagonist feels in her life. Story is only partially able to convey this pain; the language is responsible for completing our understanding of this girl’s life, which has been a parade of misery. To grasp this girl’s pain, why would we need to be told or shown anything beyond this: “There is no Jesus here these days just come all you fucking lads. I’ll have you every one any day. Breakfast dinner lunch and tea. The human frame. The human frame. The human frame requires. Give them something. A good hock spit for what it’s worth. They’ll say my name forever shame but do exactly what I say. I’m a laughing skirt up around my knees and feathery boy rosen cheek between. I found the shell I’ll rap until it breaks” (83)? What else could fully formed thought, complete sentences, and prosaic prose contribute to our understanding of the sadness, the repression this girl experienes?
For McBride’s story, one of what is, in our world, a far too common narrative of abuse and pain, maybe it’s okay that the story isn’t new. The language, the way McBride uses it, is fractured, it isn’t all there; still, the fragments let just enough coherence between the gaps for a reader to form a narrative, but the language is broken enough to mirror our girl.
The takeaway: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is strange. It is uncomfortable. It is worth reading to appreciate the full capabilities of language, and to see how “weird” might look in a realistic, not at all fantastical or otherworldly genre.