Roddy Doyle’s ostensibly simplistic, effortless style mines the depths of human emotion without recourse to any pretension, literary or otherwise.

He is the Beatles of Irish literature. His dialogue is tuneful to a fault – capturing not only the wit, but also the woeful banality of daily chat. I read The Van at an early age and took it from there; his familiar and instantly engaging style is music to my ears.

His latest novel, Smile, is a great pleasure to read. Here again his genius is apparent, this time on the obscure functioning of male friendships: “it was the last time I went for pints with the lads. Two of them are dead. I miss them like I miss my father; I wish I’d known them.”

In language simple enough for an eight-year-old to understand, Roddy Doyle can suddenly break your heart.

Smile begins when the recently divorced Victor meets a man called Eddie Fitzpatrick in a pub. What follows is the story of Victor’s past, intersected by his encounters with Fitzpatrick.

It’s similar enough to the structure of Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors: essentially a character study that required a novel to contain it, sucking in Dublin and the whole world beyond it, and roaring it out with the rushing clarity of a fountain.

The Woman Who Walks into Doors allowed Paula Spencer to carry the whole structure of the narrative, and her voice was absorbing to the end. In Smile, however, Doyle doesn’t show the same confidence in his character, and this is a great shame.

He adds a new, distracting layer to the narrative, adding suspense techniques to grab the audience’s attention. Smile is unsure of itself: this is the reason it stumbles, and ultimately collapses.

The desperately whodunit blurb – “When you reach the last page you will question everything” – sets the story up, suggesting that the reader will be treated to a structural tour de force that keeps everyone puzzling until the last page.

The stage is set when Victor encounters a man who claims to know him, and, though he is familiar enough, Victor can’t quite place him. Chapter One ends with all the menace of noir fiction: “Because I found out later, he already knew where I lived.”

There are buckets of tension while the reader begins the guessing game, and the pressure and confusion build and build like a sophisticated thriller.

What connects the two men? When all the rational possibilities are quickly exhausted (and we keep on guessing, because the question is continually hammered into us), we turn to the canon for clues.

Maybe it’s like Fight Club, maybe the two men are alter egos, one out to destroy the other. But no, the other characters can see and engage with both men, and an internal logic has to be respected – if they both physically exist for the other characters, then they can’t be the same person.

This promises to be a game of wits, and it draws the reader in. But the rules of play aren’t respected, and the effect is disappointing.

Searching to the end, we’re waiting for a big payoff – that huge satisfaction that comes at being outwitted by a thriller’s conceit. Which makes it all the more disappointing when the ending proves to be both predictable and full of holes.

Worse still, there’s a terrible pedantic scrabbling for justification at the end. The nails-on-the-chalkboard screech of meta-drivel.

There is a spoiler coming, but it really doesn’t spoil anything, because the twist is no twist at all. Victor is the protagonist, it’s first person, he’s the writer, the characters are in his head therefore the two sides of his personality can appear to them in a physical sense because there is no physical sense: it’s all fiction.

It’s the kind of logic that might have a court case thrown out over a legal technicality, but it doesn’t take away from the flagrant injustice being inflicted on the reader.

Perhaps the character, deeply traumatized, and slave to his own fictions, demanded this structure. Perhaps some points about the way men have to invent themselves to create their identities are being made here.

To mimic themes structurally is difficult and interesting, but, in Smile, it may have been a mistake to incorporate a popular genre technique in order to do so.

So, if Roddy Doyle is the Beatles of Irish literature, with this latest release, I’m reminded of the Bill Hicks quote: “Shit, the Beatles were so high, they let Ringo sing a couple of tunes.”

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Author:

Sean Farrell: Sean Farrell lives in Burgundy, France with his partner and their three sons.

Reader responses

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Chris Edwards
at 1 February 2018 at 19:08

Sean, I’m not sure you’ve got the ending quite right. Victor and Fitzpatrick aren’t two fictional halves of a single personality. Fitzpatrick is “real”. He made up Victor. He created the character of Victor as a means of imagining the better life he might have had if he hadn’t suffered such childhood abuse. It’s in the name – Victor Forde, a bridge to success.

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