Review of Roddy Doyle’s Smile

WARNING: contains spoilers
As soon as you reach the end of Roddy Doyle’s extraordinary novel, ‘Smile’, you’re tempted to go back and read it straight through again to work out whether you should have anticipated the narrative trick  Doyle has just pulled and whether or not the whole thing actually works.

I have done just that and I have to admit I’m not entirely sure – I’m still baffled, and I still get the sense that in ‘Smile’ the great Roddy Doyle might have, literally and metaphorically, and perhaps deliberately, lost the plot.

‘Smile’ is narrated by fiftysomething Victor Forde. He tells us how he dropped out of University to write music reviews, became an outspoken radio star, married Rachel, a TV celebrity, and started a book on the ills of Ireland that he never got round to finishing. Now, separated from Rachel he has moved into an apartment block and started to frequent Donnelly’s, determined to make the pub his local. One evening a man called Fitzpatrick walks in and approaches Victor, telling him that he had been his contemporary at school. Victor can’t remember Fitzpatrick, can’t quite place him, but he continues to see a good deal more of him in Donnelly’s over the coming weeks as he provokes memories of his schooldays and one memory in particular – the abuse he experienced at the hands  of The Christian Brothers.

All the great Doyle stuff is here – childhood memories, working class communities, the minutiae of popular culture, the rhythms of everyday speech, the bawdy irreverence for church and country, the realism, and, of course, the humour. As with so many other Doyle works, though, below the surface, below the apparent simplicity and directness of the prose, below the humour, there’s an underlying, and troubling, darkness. In ‘Smile’ this darkness is the horrifying, haunting darkness of abuse.

There is, though, another kind of darkness haunting the pages of ‘Smile’. This one casts perturbing shadows not over the narrator’s present life and troubled past, but over the reader’s present experience. It’s a darkness that clouds our sense of any narrative certainty, that muddies fiction’s claim to embody or reflect any kind of truth.

Two elements of the novel create this shadow. One is the way Doyle uses Victor as a writer. Throughout the book we are constantly reminded of the narrator’s acts of creation. Fitzpatrick says to him ‘You creative types – fuckin’ writers. You must always be working on some fuckin’ book – I’d say, are yis?’  The answer to his question is that that, yes, Victor is writing a book. It takes us some time, though, to realise that the book he is writing in the novel happens to be the one we are reading.

How do we know this?

On page 139 we have this –  ‘I sat at the table and wrote. She pulled me to the  floor by the sleeve of my jumper.Then she kneeled in front of me – she wasn’t smiling. She turned her back and dropped onto her elbows’.

The careful first reader, or the lazy second-time reader, will find this familiar, because on page 102 they will have read –  ‘She pulled me to the floor by the sleeve of my jumper.Then she kneeled in front of me – she wasn’t smiling. She turned her back and dropped onto her elbows’.

We are thus encouraged to see the novel as something that Victor himself was, at some time in the past, writing. We are also, though, encouraged to see it as something he is still creating. Take this, for example – ‘She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I look at that sentence and I hate it’. Here the present tense writer is being critical of the sentence he has just written. It is not unusual to have a present tense narrator who is writing the novel we are reading and describing past events, a narrator who steps in every now and then to remind us of the fact (think of Nick Carraway in ‘The Great Gatsby’ for example) but Doyle’s method is unusual and confusing. By having Victor writing the novel both in the past and in the present he makes it all very puzzling and we’re in danger of disappearing down a hall of metafictional mirrors.

The other question to ask about Victor is whether we can trust him. ‘If I’m being honest,’ he says at one point, immediately qualifying it with ‘ – and I’m still not sure I am.’ The words ‘unreliable narrator’ flash out of the phrase in glowing neon and by the end of the novel we are asking big questions,  not only of some strange gaps and silences (why, for example, are we told so little about his son?), but also of some oddities of tone and emphasis (why, for example, does he present his relationship with Rachel, in particular his sexual relationship with her, as such a raging success?) Is Victor’s memory, like all our memories, fallible and partial, or has something else been going on?

The other confusing and complicating element undermining the novel’s claim to ‘realism’ or ‘truth’ is the characterisation of Fitzpatrick. Look at the following descriptions of him:

  •   ‘I couldn’t see a younger version of this man. I didn’t like him. I knew that immediately’
  •  ‘I hated this man, whoever he was’
  • ‘there was something about him – an expression, a rhythm – that’ was recognised and           welcomed’,
  • ‘I didn’t like him but I wanted to remember him. I wanted that bridge’
  • ‘I wondered why I wasn’t like him – or if I could have been like him. How would I have been, who would I have been, if I’d stayed?’
  • ‘I tried to remember his father’s funeral. But all I could recall was my own experience’

The clues about Fitzpatrick are laid on thick but you don’t (or at least I didn’t) notice them at first and it is only when you reach the end that you realise the exact nature of the odd relationship between the two men.

‘Smile’ is  about regret, memory, guilt, and the horror of abuse. At its heart lies a sense, of, as Fitzpatrick puts it, ‘what your life would’ve been like if it had been a bit different…’. It’s about having a dose of ‘what-ifs’.  The problem, though, is that Roddy Doyle may have taken a fictional ‘what-if’ premise and stretched it too far, causing the novel’s whole house of cards to come close to tumbling down at the end in a trick that’s gone wrong.

On the other hand, Doyle could be in complete control, and this final card-collapsing effect could be intentional, the provocative finale undermining any sense of ‘realism’ (the quality for which, over the years, he has been rightly lauded) and making us question the ‘truth’ of all that we have read.  What, in fact, have we been reading? What, exactly, has the narrator been telling us? Are we to dismiss all of it as unbelievable? Are we to fear for the narrator’s sanity? Are we to see the whole thing as some clever post-modern trick , a literary rug-pull that leaves us floored but full of admiration?

Perhaps in this novel about suppressed and fallible memory it is appropriate that the ‘truth’ should be problematised in this way. Perhaps in a novel about duality ( a kind of ‘Jekyll and Hyde Ha Ha Ha’) it is appropriate that Doyle should pull his final narrative stunt. And perhaps in a novel about abuse it is appropriate  that the reader should close the book feeling unsettled – compelled to revisit it, to go over it again, to relive it and try to make sense of it all.

It could be that Doyle has simply lost the plot. Or it could be that his character, Victor Forde, has lost the plot, tortured by the memories of abuse at the Christian Brothers school, and condemned to write a novel which, like his book on Ireland, he will never finish. ‘I was crying,’ he says at the end of the novel, ‘ I couldn’t stop crying.’ His final words , though, are in the present tense. ‘And I can’t stop,’ he says, suggesting that for him there will be no comfort provided by any trite sense of closure.