The Banyan Tree
SIXTY YEARS AFTER his death, James Joyce still eclipses Ireland's living literary talents. Any time a new writer blasts off into the stratosphere, there is Joyce waiting in monolithic splendor to swallow up all the glory. (That contemporary writers such as Roddy Doyle, Edna O'Brien, and Patrick McCabe should escape this umbra is a testament to their individual genius.) So it is with grudging reluctance that one brings up Joyce to describe Christopher "Christy" Nolan's first novel, The Banyan Tree. But there is no other way around it: More than any contemporary writer, Nolan has set his sights on confronting Joyce's stylistic legacy. In this new novel, Nolan proves what a fruitless quest that is. Though it should come as no surprise, no one can out-Joyce Joyce himself.
Still, in The Banyan Tree Nolan endeavors mightily to pull it off. Like Ulysses, Nolan's novel conjures the interior life of a primary character with charged, melodic prose. Thus we meet Minnie O'Brien, a luckless yet stolid Irishwoman who strongly resembles Molly Bloom. Nolan begins with Minnie churning cream on her dairy farm, then tacks backward to recount her life story. We see her as the waggle-toothed daughter of a butcher, as the innocent bride of a hearty Irishman named Peter O'Brien, and finally as a widowed mother of three, trying desperately to cull a living from a pasture of diminishing health. Along the way Nolan limns Minnie's consciousness: He reveals her insecurities as a mother, and most poignantly, her attempts to redefine herself in her husband's absence.
Like Joyce, Nolan bludgeons his characters with fate, and Peter O'Brien's death is the first of many sad events that befall Minnie. This run of bad luck includes her children, who virtually abandon her in old age. One goes to England to nurse the battered Englishmen injured in their oppression of Ireland; another goes to Africa and then America to be a bishop when his own townspeople could use a little faith; and the last goes to greener, more successfully farmed pastures. The departure of this son also coincides with the utter decline of the O'Brien homestead. As a result, Minnie is left with only the gnarled roots of her banyan tree, not its loving shade.
The plot twists that convey this unraveling of family life are rather mundane. There are weddings and wakes, small-town run-ins and churchly ceremonies, all decently portrayed. Given their typicality, the most important thing for Nolan is to capture their effect on Minnie. Yet he is not consistently successful in this venture. For example, in conveying how unhinged Minnie is by her aloneness, Nolan offers this sentence: "Minnie tried to sing that billhooked day, but her famished voice didn't remember, couldn't alliterate, wouldn't echo, for her epiglottis stayed closed astride her windpipe, a stunt which gagged sound, sold out on her jugular vein, and in all sternum-stopped her singing."
Taken by itself this sentence seems perhaps just a bit overdone--perhaps more than a bit. Yet in the context of Nolan's own biography this fiercely Joycean prolixity is rather startling. This entire book, it turns out, was composed using a device called a unicorn stick. Having been deprived of oxygen at birth, Nolan is mute and quadriplegic, and must write with a pointer attached to his forehead. It took 12 years and half a million keystrokes for him to finish The Banyan Tree.
In a sense, Nolan seems to have brought the same kind of epic effort to the crafting of each sentence, paragraph, and page of the book, and the ends are both fascinating and often flawed. The book veritably chokes on its language. Verbs become nouns and vice versa; neologisms bloom like out-of-control dandelions. In some cases, the effect can be beautiful, as when he describes Minnie's butter churn as a "druidic, dark drum." But too often Nolan winds up with sentences like "They had had the drama of their odyssey lurexed by cobwebbed immolation." String thousands of phrases like this one together and you have a very, very long cadenza, which drowns out the book's more plain, rustic song.