Patrick McCabe: interview

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Patrick McCabe's chilling 'Winterwood' is both myth and morality play

  • If Keats were alive today, he would almost certainly regard Patrick McCabe as a writer of ‘negative capability’ – one who is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Keats’s notorious and enigmatic contribution to the lexicon of literary terms refers to the absence of immediate intentionality (‘the pen chooses me,’ McCabe claims) and the aesthetic distance between author and work. Both these qualities are strikingly maintained in McCabe’s two best known and Booker-shortlisted novels, ‘The Butcher Boy’ (1992), about a boy who chops up his neighbour’s mother, and ‘Breakfast on Pluto’ (1998), narrated by a transvestite prostitute. They’re there again in his chilling and utterly compelling new novel, ‘Winterwood’.

    What happens on the level of plot in ‘Winterwood’ is fairly straightforward. Redmond Hatch is a journalist from Slievenageeha Mountain, Ireland, who pens a series of articles about old valley traditions, focusing on mountain man Ned Strange – ‘the happy-go-lucky fellow with the freckles who was forever singing’ and who embodies a culture under threat of extinction. Like many of McCabe’s characters, Strange is a bit dodgy. His hyperbolic ‘auld stories’ seem too unreal for the modern imagination and there is something sinister about his mythic love for his dead wife. As we follow Hatch through two failed marriages and a variety of jobs, we see him come to identify with Strange in a manner that unleashes an infatuation with his first wife and estranged daughter.
    What happens beneath the surface is more complex, as characters take on the roles of other characters and become archetypes in a story that unfolds like a morality play. ‘It’s a very traditional narrative,’ McCabe says. ‘Everything’s been done before. Whatever the ins and outs, there’s nothing new – at all.’

    It’s an assertion 55-year-old McCabe makes a few times during our interview and calls to mind the critic Northrop Frye’s theory that there are a finite number of stories available to us– that everything we do is a retelling of an earlier version. This may seem depressing to writers, but an awareness of it can liberate a novel from the tyranny of having to ‘do something new’ – that awful premium we now place on works of art when considering their merits – which may be why ‘Winterwood’ succeeds in being completely original.

    Part of this originality has to do with pace, for it isn’t until the second half that you begin to compute the degree of unreliability McCabe’s characters possess. And even then, you doubt your own instincts. ‘If your character is repugnant in all respects,’ McCabe explains, ‘nobody can read it. Having some narrative tricks in this day and age is essential, at least for the first ten pages.’

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Declan Duke
Declan Duke

just wondering does anyone know Pats email as i am a past pupil of his from St michaels ns Longford and would love to say hello to him