Kevin Barry is author of the collection Dark Lies the Island and the novel City of Bohane, which won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He spoke to me by phone from his home in County Sligo, Ireland.
Kevin Barry: We’ve changed very much as readers of texts, in recent years. We’re much more impatient now—I think, primarily, because we’re all online, all the time. Our attention flits very quickly from text to text. You know: that thing where you’ve got 10 or 15 wonderful books at the side of your bed, and you’re there looking at your iPhone.
There’s too much out there to be dealing with: music, amazing films, good stuff of every variety. So you’ve got to get them fucking quick. That really changes the way you’ve got to approach writing as a novelist. It’s more like a short story now, in some ways. You have to get the reader on the first page of a short story, you have to convince them of a world inside page one. As writers try to capture the scattered attention of readers, I think the novel is moving towards that degree of compression.
But one thing can still arrest us, slow us down, and stop us in our tracks: the human voice. I think this explains the explosion in podcasts and radio narratives. The human voice still holds our attention, allowing us to tune in to a narrative in a way we find increasingly difficult on the page.
Readers and listeners increasingly want their stories to come at them directly in the form of a human voice. While everybody says that book sales are dropping, there’s an explosion in literary events, book festivals, spoken word events. People want to listen, and they want to hear stories. And that’s what makes a text like Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood—which is, what, 80 years old—so fresh and exciting.
I think I first came across it, as a teenager, in an art house film club in the 1980s—it was a version from the ’60s, with Richard Burton as the narrator (a rather over-ripe narrator, looking back at it now). I do think that there is a particular time in a reader’s life when Dylan Thomas has a special reverb, and it’s in that teenage moment. He’s deeply romantic. And he’s in love with language. He’s pushing language to the extent of what it can do on the page.
It’s a play for voices, a radio play, with a straightforward setup: It’s the life of a night in a small Welsh town, in the late ’30s or early ’40s. It’s very much in thrall to Joyce and to Faulkner, though Thomas brings something different of his own to it, and he’s possibly a more generous writer than those two gentlemen. He’s very engaged in the process of giving us color and giving us the world.
My favorite bit remains the scene description that comes from the first voice, from the narrator. The play begins with a single voice, an extended monologue made up of scene directions written for their own poetry:
FIRST VOICE [very softly]
To begin at the beginning:
It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.
What I love is the ripeness of the language. Dylan Thomas would have been thrown out of the MFA class. There’s no way he would be allowed through with the sheer, ornate flourishes of the language, which are glorious on the page. Also, he’s writing pretty much in meter. Formal rhymes and formal repetitions spring the prose off the page.
Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood.
There’s also an oddness to the description, a weirdness that makes it hard to say just what’s going on. You think, what the fuck is “an organplaying wood”? But then you can hear a breeze going through the pipes, and you realize he’s trying to summon the sound of the woods by night in your ear, a breeze playing through the forest in Wales, in the early 1940s, and you’re transported there. He’s summoning images through sound.