The bee sting
By Paul Murray
FSG: 656 pages, $30
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Since its publication in 2010, Paul Murray’s second novel, Skippy Dies, has rightly earned its reputation as one of the best English language novels of the last 20 years. A deeply disturbing and hilariously risqué portrait of childhood at a Catholic boarding school in Ireland, Skippy Dies received numerous year-end nominations and awards. His follow-up: “The Mark and the VoidReleased five years later, “” showed Murray working in a metafictional mode, turning his attention to the world of finance and the writer’s plight. It’s intoxicating and deliciously scathing satire, but most importantly, it shows Murray’s range is wider than we knew.
His latest novel “The bee sting“, should cement Murray’s already high standing. Another change, it’s a triumph of realistic fiction, a big, sprawling social novel in the vein of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freiheit”. The agility with which Murray structures the narrative around the core of the family is virtuosic and sure-footed, a testament to an author at the height of his creative powers deftly shifting perspectives, style and syntax to maximize emotional impact. Hilarious and sardonic, heartbreaking and beautiful – there’s just no other way to put it: The Bee Sting is a masterpiece.
The Barnes family includes Dickie, the inefficient father whose car dealership is on the brink of collapse; Imelda, the glamorous mother who resents Dickie for not doing enough to save the company; Cass, the daughter, has just graduated from high school and is hoping to attend Trinity College Dublin with her best friend. and the young PFY, who is tragically afraid of getting in someone’s way, even if it means stuffing his sprouting feet into ill-fitting shoes until they blister. Murray takes each character through their own lengthy section of the novel, familiarizes the reader with their points of view, and closes with a final symphony of the four alternating narratives.
The novel begins with Cass standing with one foot in the door. She and her friend Elaine go to a local bar and meet up with some loser guys. Cass eventually deals with a “limp boy” named Rowan, who acts so apathetic towards her that she ends up asking, “If he even cared about her, and he immediately fired back as if he had on the question.” wait, I just care about dead rappers.” As a spirited teenager on the brink of adulthood, Cass sees her family as the obstacle between her and her future. So far our view of the family is only a side glance.
As PJ absorbs the story, the picture of the family begins to unravel, although PJ himself often does not realize what is being revealed. His mother’s fears about the car dealership collapsing were taken out on the poor boy. “I’m done with you,” she often yells at him. Later, as PJ assesses the damage to his toes from his undersized sneakers, he uses the same phrase to abuse his feet. It’s sad to see a serious child learn the language of abuse, but the tragedy is compounded when the next part takes the reader back to Imelda’s childhood – and we understand where she got such phrases from.
Murray uses linguistic choices throughout to distinguish perspectives, particularly in Imelda’s section where Murray dispenses with punctuation: no periods, no commas, no hyphens, no semicolons—only the occasional question mark. Add to that the fact that Murray, like many Irish novelists, doesn’t use quotation marks in dialogue, and the result is a narration that usually goes like this: “The manager came to the door and called his name I must.” Go, he said, he hugged her and kissed her.
But it can also look like this: “Her heart and her hair he loved running his hands through her eyes he would look into her mouth he kissed her ears full of his words her lungs breathing him in her mate.” She never let him in.” Her guts too, why not bury it all burn it all, who cares what it was like without him.”
Imelda’s story reads like a cross between James Joyce’s Molly Bloom segment in Ulysses and a frantically thumb-typed Instagram post, and builds a breathless, throbbing, utterly anxious energy that suits the character perfectly. Though it may sound punishing or difficult, Murray’s prose is always understandable and captivating. When dots and commas reappeared in the next part, it actually took me a few paragraphs to adjust them back.
The plot, when told clearly, seems tenuous: a family struggles with the consequences of uncertain financial circumstances. But that synopsis reads only flimsy because Murray instead handles each character’s storyline in parallel: Imelda must contend with the life she chose as a grieving young girl who just lost her high school sweetheart; PJ plans to run away and stay with a fellow player he met online. Cass learns the truth about the family that is finally about to leave her forever. and Dickie has to deal with the sudden presence of his father Maurice, who ran the workshop before leaving it to Dickie and retiring to Portugal. Murray assembles these overlapping pieces with utter mastery, creating a multi-pronged, pitchfork-like structure that can penetrate the soil more effectively than a single prong.
“How can a drought cause a flood?” PJ once asks his father. “How can everything that happens only leads to something worse happening?” There’s no answer to that, of course, but an inquiring and human work of art, The Bee Sting is as close as we can hope .
Clark is the author of An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom and the upcoming Skateboard.