Sex, Scripture and Lashings of Classic Twee Pop: A review of The First Day, by Phil Harrison

In the beginning Samuel Orr and Anna Stuart, two of the main protagonists of this novel, have nonchalant sex in Belfast. Lots of nonchalant sex. On the sly. In her lodgings. Because he’s married and she’s not.

“The way he looked at her, opened her up. The way a farmer looks at a field he’s about to plough.”

Things get biblical quite fast. In every sense of that word. We’re in their Belfast bedroom almost from the start of this roistering novel with all its concomitant smells, passions and guilty consciences. Guilt, glorious guilt. Hot sausage and mustard, as the song from Oliver goes. And if nothing else, Ireland does guilt like Germany does economic terrorism on countries with a liquidity crisis; rather well indeed, and with a vengeance Mein Herr, with a terrible vengeance. And so too does neophyte novelist, Phil Harrison.

Orr and Anna’s nascent relationship practically sweats scripture and semen from every crevice and cranny in fast, crisp, melancholy naturalist sentences that leave you gasping for the next. Naked, pared-to-the-bone, near-the-knuckle paragraphs describe beautifully their situation like early punk; three chords and the truth – no grace notes need apply. The tone, style and red-guitar swagger of Orr and Anna’s furtive relationship is sombre and reflective yet, counterintuitively, brimful of sex.

Orr recites learned-off-by-heart scripture constantly throughout this novel, giving his presence in any paragraph the gravitas of a funeral-parlour eulogy – despite all the whiffy sex, which is a credit to the technique and prowess of the writer. And it works, mostly. The quotations go on a bit too long at times and sometimes lose their meaning and the reader’s full attention as a consequence. However, they do manage to say acres and oceans about Orr’s personality and the future trajectory of his relationship with Anna in quite a subtle show-don’t-tell manner, if you can manage to stay awake until the end of the quote-gobbet, that is.

“Looking back, it struck Anna that she had no memory of the first time they slept together. Or rather, no single memory. Everything became memory, her entire body, not just her mind. He flooded her, she said.”

Orr is a full-time pastor in a mission hall. A married man in his late thirties with three children ranging from five to twelve. He’s working class by birth, a mechanic before he dedicated himself to his church years ago, but middle-class by deed. Anna is a Beckett scholar at Queen’s University in her mid-twenties. She is middle-class by birth and totally middle-class by deed. A budding poet to boot.

“It wasn’t really her he was after, but something inside her.”

The unreliable narrator incongruously refers to Samuel Orr as, Orr, consistently throughout the novel, crowbarring you into his mind with a microscope and a large prodding stick, because you have to find out the whys and the wherefores, whereas Anna is referred to as merely, Anna. Take from that what you will.

Predictably, Anna gets pregnant by Orr and the resultant volcano pricked into violent eruption by this simple fact of life belches red-hot lava for the rest of this novel up and down the generations on both sides of their families. With periodic quiescent spells interleaved. Which only make the next larva-spurt up into the air and down the sides of the volcano more fascinating. Well, it is Ireland after all.

For me, the crucial passage of this novel is towards the end where the narrator describes Orr telling a story about a trip to the Mourne Mountains that he and Anna undertook with their son, Sam, when Sam was no more than a year old. They see some fluffy clouds and Orr realises that for him they were indeed fluffy clouds but to his one-year-old child they were something else entirely, or a multitude of other things, unblurred by any definition of fluffy clouds that’s learned as you grow older, just a clump of disparate colours in the sky, for instance.

“If you don’t have useful words or good stories, then you see less. The world isn’t just there to be seen, but to be created. When we look at the world we create it.”

Is the overall cut and thrust of this novel the theory of positive thinking? It’s the way you look at and interpret creatively the world in front of your two nostrils that’s all important and nothing more, the story tells us, perhaps. Rather dispiriting if you’re not great at the old creative envisioning yourself. But we’re all creative if only we’d just focus in a certain way; positively, like watching fluffy clouds, the author seems to be whispering, positively in the background. You’re not trying hard enough. They’re not fluffy clouds if you don’t wish them to be fluffy clouds, guys. They can be something else entirely. Joni Mitchell. You have to look at clouds arseways as well as sideways. Upways. Downways. Roundways.

This perhaps chimes mellifluously with what art critic/writer, John Berger, in his Ways of Seeing, television series and subsequent books, posited in the 1970s.

“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world, we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.”

Orr seems to have stepped straight out of the Bruce Springsteen song, Adam Raised a Cain, from his 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. The father and son in this song don’t get on, in fact they despise each other is the nicest thing you can say about them without spitting in someone’s eye. This father and son relationship is portrayed musically with a viscously raw, rusty-razor-edged and jabbing electric guitar vibrato effect throughout Springsteen’s song. Like the relationship Orr has with his eldest son, Philip, after Orr’s affair and Anna’s pregnancy is revealed to the world at large. Novelist Phil Harrison, does the exact same job as Bruce’s guitar in Adam Raised a Cain, except with a sharpened pencil; he comes up to your throat and tries to stab you with it.

Anna, however, seems to have shambled brilliantly out of the 1980s twee pop band, Talulah Gosh. But in a good way, twee as fuck as the Spotify playlist declaims. But in a good way, as I said not long ago. For the relationship she has with Orr is written as tweeness personified.  They take a trip to Scotland together early in the narrative.

“For 4 days and four nights they drank tea, talked, sat in the shape of each other’s bodies on a bench in front of the cottage watching the dusk descent and the mountains fold in on themselves, the colour fading slowly until all was darkness.”

You can almost sniff those jingle-jangily guitars and scented yet bittersweet lyrics coming off the page at you like soft hailstone rain. Because of her station in life, an affluent academic, she hasn’t really got any money worries to weigh her down which means she can concentrate on her poetry to some extent. Elizabeth Price from the band Talulah Gosh won the Turner Prize in 2012 with her twenty-minute video installation, The Woolworths Choir of 1979.  Perhaps Anna will win the Nobel Prize for literature if she continues in this poetic vein beyond the last page of this novel. It all seems so effortless to her.

A working-class girl kills a butterfly viscously in the Botanic Gardens in Belfast when Orr and Anna are “courting” at the start of this novel.

“Anna wrote, much later, that we grow like trees rather animals; that that which distorts and hurts us is not shaken off a day, a week, later, but twists and gnarls, forcing us into further distortions, further convulsions of form.”

The tweeness of Anna and Orr’s relationship I fear means that it probably has to be a working-class person who inspires this “epiphany”. In her world posh people couldn’t possibly do such things. That note has been hacked off their piano long ago. As can be seen, the author cleverly manages to keep many plates swivelling in your mind simultaneously, however unpalatable or erroneous, and constantly adds more, as his page-turning narrative proceeds with ever more alacrity and aplomb to the edge of a very steep cliff and moves effortlessly from Belfast to New York.

“Class was never a major rallying point in Belfast: too deep and well exploited were more colourful histories of belief and tradition.”

The second half of the novel deals with Orr and Anna’s son, Sam, who now lives in New York, well away from his Belfast family. The pace gets more frantic and Quentin Tarantinoesque with violence apparently lurking around every street and every corner waiting for the mere sniff of Sam. He works in an art gallery with a huge sword of Damocles hanging constantly over his head – a sharpened sword from his past. At this stage of the narrative you’re anxious and racing to finish each page heart in mouth, saying to yourself, I’ll come back and read these pages again, to savour them properly, as soon as I find out what happens next. But you never do, because there’s always the next book waiting, isn’t there? And the next one. When I retire I’ll read them all again, you promise yourself. Ha.

Back in Belfast, Anna develops a close relationship with an old-fashioned painter with an impressionist fetish that lasts for years whom the narrator, Sam, refers to only as Curran in the text. His surname. Curiously, in the same way, he refers to Orr, his father, for the entire novel without let-up.

As the brutal and psyche-wrecking consequences of Orr and Anna’s relationship reverberate onwards through the narrative, like putting a bucket on your head and getting people to hit it with a mallet, Sam begins to realise it’s not all that simple. Good things sometimes come through total devastation. Like his love for Matisse. If his Da hadn’t have done the dirty on his mother would he ever have encountered the die-hard impressionist Curran?

“Did I love the early Matisse-like I said, or did I love that Curran loved the early Matisse, and have made Anna love the early Matisse and so me too, inevitably, begat, begat, begat, myself?”

In New York Sam develops a great friendship with a charismatic Nigerian student called Oki. After a tense meeting with Oki’s brother who gets into deep trouble with the police, Sam and Oki go out on the lash together and end up, extremely intoxicated, in Sam’s lodgings later that evening in the same bed. A fumbled sexual encounter ensues, delicately described and executed by the author. The next morning Oki can’t come to terms with his latent gayness or bisexuality so punches Sam’s face to ribbons. It’s not a life-threatening beating, but self-affirming. Sam survives. A metaphor for the novel, perhaps life itself.

“If you don’t have useful words or good stories, then you see less. The world isn’t just there to be seen, but to be created. When we look at the world we create it.”

(The First Day is published by Fleet, RRP £12.99.)

Camillus John

About Camillus John

Camillus John was bored and braised in Dublin, Ireland. He has had work published in The Stinging Fly, RTE Ten, Headstuff.org, The Lonely Crowd, Thoughtful Dog, Honest Ulsterman, The Cantabrigian, The Bogman’s Cannon, The Queen’s Head, Litro, Fictive Dream and other such organs of literature. He would also like to mention that Pat’s won the FAI cup in 2014 for the first time in 53 miserable years of not winning it.

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  1. Pingback: Sex, Scripture and Lashings of Classic Twee Pop! – Book Review now available to read on Litro.co.uk! | Janey Macken Street!

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