In the wake of hearing about Julian Gough’s rant about Irish fiction — see here — here’s my 2001 review of his novel. Appreciate that he has one or two relevant points to make, but I’d take Sebastian Barry over Gough any time…
Juno & Juliet
By Julian Gough
Reviewed by Nadine O’Regan
In the wake of the Celtic Tiger, the desire for new Irish novels about new Irish life has never been stronger. Publishers are searching desperately for books which neither tax the imagination nor show us an Ireland we don’t want to see. Bound together by only the thinnest of plots, their pages must be eminently turnable.
As former frontman of alternative band Toasted Heretic and UCG graduate of English and philosophy, Julian Gough may not seem ideally suited to provide this kind of mainstream fiction. However, as Gough testifies in the press release, his ambition was to rise above these reductive categories. He simply wanted to write “a serious literary novel that also worked as a great read”.
Good idea. Unfortunately, Juno & Juliet presents not the above but a collage of clashing genres combined with very funny but erratic prose and consistently weak characterisation. When you think about it, it is remarkably similar to the type of `light’ fiction for which publishers are hunting anyway.
The narrative begins when beautiful, identical twins Juno and Juliet leave their home in Tipperary to begin college in Galway. Juliet, as framing narrator, introduces the book as the account of their “interesting year”. But Gough stuffs the story so full of stalkers, poison-pen letters, drugs, drink and suicide that it soon resembles a year not so much interesting as impossibly over the top.
This excessiveness suggests that Gough lacks confidence in his own plot. On occasions, his characters even appear to defend and justify his style of writing. When Juliet encounters her English tutor, David Hennessey, for the first time, she hears him deliver an apologia of genre fiction to the class.
“At this point in the century, you’ll find some of the best and most vigorous writing is marketed as genre fiction. The literary novel is, in my opinion, suffering from a crippling self-consciousness. I mean how many of you can say in all honesty that you prefer John Banville to Stephen King?”
Meanwhile, although Juliet is supposed to be a “Victorian sentimentalist”, her voice resembles that of Joe O’Connor in drag. When David Hennessey mourns his lack of a beard, she thinks about it and realises that many of the lecturers in her English department do indeed possess beards.
“Professor O’Neill, the head of the department, had a pure white Santa Claus beard. Patrick Norris in Middle English had a black goatee. Donald Kruger (Modern English, though his accent meant you often had to take this on faith) from certain angles looked like a man drowning in hamsters. Even the department’s Old English specialist Pamela Henderson cultivated a wispy moustache, which she would stroke fiercely as she read from Beowulf in a heavy Derry accent.”
Although moments like these make for amusing, sometimes hilarious reading, Gough’s breezily witty prose style circumnavigates — even ignores — the nuances that render characters convincing.
Often his only aims appear to be to create more laughs and/or write an autobiographical story of his time at UCG. In a similar technique to Dave Eggers (A Staggering Work of Outstanding Genius), he attempts to justify this lazy attitude to characterisation by acknowledging it through the speech of his characters.
After one especially unconvincing scene, Juliet says defiantly: “Reasons aren’t really things that make you do other things. Reasons are things that you make up, much later, to reassure everyone that we are all logical and that the world makes sense.”
Gough is actually at his best when he abandons any attempt to write a story and simply offers up to the reader his version (albeit through Juliet’s eyes) of Galway. As he details sunsets, sea and rain-drenched streets, his prose becomes touchingly poignant, even lyrical.
Equally, when he abandons realism completely in detailing the manic leprechaun-sized, JCB-stealing Gleeson twins (friends of Juno and Juliet’s), his writing takes on a cartoonish air of surrealism that is far more compelling than his efforts at serious, character-based story-telling.
However, when it comes to the main focus of the novel — the lives of Juno and Juliet — Gough’s prose falls flat. With Juno & Juliet, Gough aims to present writing that is all things to all people. Unfortunately, he actually succeeds in showcasing only confusion, lack of narrative focus and character inconsistency. A frustrating read.