Both of M.J. Hyland’s novels – only two so far – are written from the perspective of weird adolescents. Both books are strong, awkward and unobvious in ways that get under your skin. How the Light Gets In (2004) presents the world in the first-person present tense of Lou Connor, an Australian teenager who escapes from her family, which is impoverished in every way, by staying with a family in America. She wants to remake herself as an American with nice teeth and a warm bed, and she wants to persuade her host family to let her stay and go to college in the US. She has an abnormally high IQ and a normally low ability to understand her own behaviour. She suffers from sleeplessness and a skin complaint that makes her blush easily, and she also drinks, smokes and steals. All these things drive her away from her shiny American hosts. Eventually she steals and does drugs so openly that she is sent by the (unnamed) ‘organisation’ which set up her exchange to a sort of young offenders’ institute for children who have been thrown out by their host families. Lou specialises in performing actions which hurt people and then writing florid letters of apology and adoration afterwards. She’s certainly weird, and not only does she get under your skin but is preoccupied by doing so: whenever she needs to decide whether she likes someone she asks them what ‘desquamation’ means, and is always disappointed when they don’t share her knowledge of the awful peeling of the skin which beset Edwardian polar explorers.
How the Light Gets In is recognisably a first novel: it relies on an episodic structure to suggest that Lou is driven compulsively to repeat self-destructive actions without ever learning anything from them, and so risks treading the same ground more than once. But it sets out Hyland’s real skill, which is to create in her readers almost physically painful cringes of embarrassment and awkwardness, those quintessentially adolescent emotions. When the granny of Lou’s host family is taken to hospital, Lou makes sure that everyone sees that she is crying and then says, just as they’re ready to leave: ‘Is it true that I can’t have any more money?’ Her host mother says: ‘I beg your pardon?’ Hyland turns you into the kind of anxiously loving parent that her characters crave, while also forcing you to share in the winces of adolescent experience. Embarrassment is often to do with noticing what you failed to notice at the time you said or did something, and is therefore the great emotion of growing up and of fictional representations of growing up: the mind that enables you to realise that you’ve said something dreadful is a little older than, or at any rate comes a little after, the mind that did whatever it might be. The major risk for a writer of first-person adolescent novels is that they can easily come to seem like bad creative-writing exercises, in which the divergence between what the narrator sees and what the rest of the world sees becomes the main object of attention. But when a reader squirms and blushes, brat-lit has worked: the adolescent novel has succeeded in concealing its mechanisms for manipulating points of view.
Carry Me Down is sparer than its predecessor, and, although it too concerns a child who is stuck in behavioural grooves, it has the scrupulous meanness of a writer who is learning fast. The first novel sometimes goes overboard with appositional clauses (‘The building is hushed, still emerging from hibernation, stale and sleeping; lights out, eyes shut, stuffed full of things that happened last year, scarred by the scuff marks, graffiti and smells of those who have moved on’). The new one does things simply: ‘I say “so” and he says “so” and we push each other around for a while. “So?” “So?” “So?”’ – and so on. The narrator of Carry Me Down is John Egan, an overgrown 11-year-old, who wants to find a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the first ever human lie detector, or polygraph, as he prefers to think of himself. (Hyland’s adolescents have the autodidact’s love of big words.) Bad lies make him sick; small ones make his ears tingle. His talent first emerges when his father kills some kittens in the bathroom and then denies that killing them has made him feel bad. John is sick. He is sick again when his granny lies about having won money at the races. Then his family is thrown out of his grandmother’s house because his useless father has hit her. They have to move to the notorious Ballymun high-rise flats on the outskirts of Dublin, where kids crap in the lifts.
This isn’t just a novel about a freak, however, or about urban misery in 1970s Dublin. John’s special talent for lie detecting is a way of controlling the skewed perspectives which naturally come from having an adolescent narrator. It turns an 11-year-old’s incipient perceptiveness about emotions into harsh moral judgment of the sort adolescents like to make. It also gives John the kind of magical skill which adolescents are keen to attribute to themselves: G. Stanley Hall, whose study of Adolescence, published in 1904, more or less invented the modern concept, said that ‘youthful dements wrestle with great problems and ideas; their delusions are of royalty, celestial and internal beings, telepathy, hypnotism, spiritism, great inventions, the highest themes of politics and religion, but their powers are inadequate and they grow mentally dizzy, confused and incoherent.’ John Egan’s ability to detect lies does not quite have this flavour of X-Men superpowers, nor is it exactly a metaphor for the effect of a first-person narrative, but it is a powerful tool that enables Hyland to show her character at once sensing and mistaking other people’s emotions while he invents a myth about himself. Anyone who masks their feelings, or tries to protect John from something he won’t be able to handle, becomes in his eyes a kind of criminal; at the same time he tries to accommodate the fact that people don’t always seem to say what they feel. Sometimes this point is pressed too hard, as when John’s mother gently lies to him about the reason she is not treating him the way she used to: ‘It’s not the kind of lie my father tells; it’s a white lie, a lie about how she feels; a lie to make me feel better. But it’s a lie.’
Hyland presents the daily misprisions and the small betrayals of the human lie detector with absorbing delicacy. It’s endings that are her weak point. She has said she doesn’t like endings in general; her own rely too much on the slightly ironised cliché. At the end of How the Light Gets In Lou’s mother in Australia writes to say that she has run off with a man who has won the lottery, and that Lou can come and live with them. This means she can go home without having to endure the bitchiness of her sisters and the poverty of her old house, and it means she can do so just as she’s being thrown out of her American dream for her drinking, drug-taking and stealing. It’s a tinny ending, archly dependent on a huge improbability to enable the story to end with a shrug and half a wink. Carry Me Down is harsher. John’s desire to detect and expose lies leads him to tell his mother that his father has been seeing the tarts upstairs in the Ballymun flats. His father leaves, and his mother sinks into sleepless misery. The early stages of this are represented with the double vision which comes from a fully realised first-person unreliable narrator: the son sees her laughter turning into a tonal flatness which looks like a punishment for him; the reader sees a depressed woman. John, who has enjoyed an almost Oedipal closeness to his mother, tries to help her sleep, and then finds himself climbing on top of her and trying to suffocate her: ‘I lay down on her, on top of the pillow, and I make myself heavy … When, at last, she stops struggling, I take myself off her body and look at her: She is calmer again; she is prettier. I get up off the bed. It is over.’ His mother survives, panics, calls the Gardai, and the boy is sent to see social workers and psychiatrists. Finally, and implausibly, the household and the family is reconstituted around the child: the parents reunite to save him, and return to the grandmother’s house in the country – though John’s mother retains an understandable reluctance to be alone in a room with him.
These relatively weak endings are not uninteresting weak endings. They are part of a complex attitude to analysis and to punishment. Hyland spent part of her childhood in the Ballymun flats and her moves from Ireland to Australia, and then to America, leave a clear imprint on the story of Lou Connor. Two years ago, before her first book was published, she wrote a piece in the LRB about her life and her novel and said that when her alcoholic father rang her to claim that he had cancer she ‘knew he was lying by the time he got to the end of the first sentence – I’ve become very good at lie detection.’ These are not in any simple way books about her own life, and they are not at all novels which bolt happy endings onto stories about deprived teenagers. Both depend on what might be called occluded diagnosis or resisted therapy: the central character has some condition, but you don’t know what it is, and the character doesn’t know what it is either. Both adolescents become at the end of their books enmeshed in structures of discipline and care that attempt to analyse their reasons for behaving as they do, and neither ever quite fits into these analytic frameworks, just as they never simply allow their readers to define what’s right or what’s wrong about them.
The counsellor in How the Light Gets In wonders aloud: ‘How did pretty young Louise with the big IQ get herself into this mess?’ Lou doesn’t answer, since she thinks he’s a jerk who’s offering hand-me-down self-help. In Carry Me Down, John is eventually asked a similar string of rhetorical questions: ‘Did you know that most lie detectors develop their super-sensitivity to emotion early in life? And this heightened sensitivity is often due to unusual childhood circumstances?’ Unusual circumstances being alcoholic fathers or extremely irritable mothers. These hectoring questions asked by grown-ups are a neat way of unsettling readers who want to know too much. They turn the intrusive diagnostic judgments that we might be tempted to make (‘Aha, an abused boy’) into acts of moralising flat-footedness by characters within the fiction with whom we can then feel irritated. And the translation of life into art here involves not making but breaking or blurring the causal diagnosis between lie detecting and home environment: Hyland, daughter of a drunk, can detect lies and ‘alcohol on somebody’s breath at a hundred paces’. Her fictional alter ego resists this simple equation: although John’s father is maddening, disappointing, sometimes funny and often angry, and although his parents’ relationship is opaque to him, he does not quite fit the profile of a traumatised super-sensitive lie detector. At the moment Hyland’s work both wants a therapeutic resolution and winces at the thought of it, as though she is working out the past and then refusing the easy formulae which first occurred to her as the means for doing this.
An adolescent consciousness that needs no diagnosis and which can be enjoyed for the often funny peculiarity of its vision is one part of what she wants to create; but the other part is a fiction of care, categorisation and control, all of those forces which close in on her heroes as each of these novels ends. Somewhere in the mix is a comforting belief that medical certainty and diagnosis are valuable even if only as the thing which fiction has to resist – that, as it were, the adolescent novel needs irritatingly over-analytical grown-ups against whom to rebel. It is symptomatic of this love of the analyst that almost the only person for whom Lou is able to feel unreserved affection is Gertie, the carer at the home for students who have been kicked out of their new families. She is the only person able to answer Lou’s question about desquamation, and it is because she is a trained nurse: ‘It’s a scaling of the skin. It can be caused by too much vitamin A. My nursing days come in handy sometimes.’