Author: Keith Donohue
After Kate Atkinson’s “Started Early Walked The Dog,” I recognized the title of Keith Donohue’s Centuries of June as another Emily Dickinson line. I wish I had the enthusiasm for Centuries as I did for Started Early. I love Flann O’Brien, and absurdist and post modernism Irish fiction and plays. By producing a play of mime, with only a description of the visual action, and no dialogue, Beckett denies Joycean language and reiterates O’Brien’s theme in The Third Policeman that like the bicycle, the rider can go anywhere but will still come back senselessly and aimlessly to the same place. These writers also make a statement on Joyce’s aesthetics of stasis and art (in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce views aesthetic stasis as the necessary component for the deconstruction of myth, while O’Brien and Beckett serve up myth as absurd, futile but amusing) . Shaw integrates the political (John Bull’s Other Island) state of Ireland’s passivity while O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock characterizes Ireland’s war torn isle in the character of Johnny. Other Irish absurdist existentialist literature goes further than the political with the statements on futility and art, and the existentialist question, why are we here and what are we doing? For Joyce, it is a question of language and deconstruction, and then reconstruction to create art, while for O’Brien and Beckett, it is a question that art may exist, but man only endures within the absurdity of time, which negates the importance of art. Or lack thereof. Art like time is a conceptual abstract, but both resonate emotionally and intellectually in the subconscious. While Waiting for Godot denies the existence of time, and The Third Policeman endures time, Centuries stops time. Why? It does not add to the concepts of art as language (storytelling) or myth as timeless. Does not history denote time as a given? So why are we hearing a 500 year history of American women? To what gain in the novel, as an artistic tool that recreates the colors of emotion? Please help me out here, Mr. Donohue.
“I’m interested in how time works and notions of eternity. One of the key aspects of the book is the narrator’s stopped watch and how time seems to slow down on this particular June morning. The moment becomes more expansive, allowing in stories from the past five hundred years, in much the same way as the characters jam into the tiny bathroom.”
OK, I know, I’m boring you. However, I read Donohue’s first chapters realizing that he is an academic who has published on Flann O’Brien and that his novel reflects many of the same aspects of art. His novel is based on Gustav Klimt’s The Virgin, as a mosaic of eight women with their stories. He speaks of integrating myth via women storytellers (Native American is the first story) and history and absurdist humor, but the novel simply does not integrate, it flounders in a miasma of mess. The novel begins with an absurd character who has a hole in his head and lies in the bathroom talking to his father, who later becomes Beckett. The character has no idea if he is alive or dead (again, The Third Policeman) and the circularity does not intertwine well with the storytelling. I can’t get a grip on what Donohue is trying to achieve, as he is trying so hard to implement too many tools and styles and the writing becomes, as the novel, lethargic. Unlike Van Gogh, the colors bleed rather than cohese. In an interview, Donohue states:
“Likewise, the inspiration for Centuries of June is a mash-up of ideas and images. I knew I wanted to write about American myths and came across the painting The Virgin by Gustav Klimt – which depicts a group of naked women resting in a clot beneath these wild and colorful quilts. I began to think about what their stories might be and how those tales might be interwoven with this speculation on time, memory and the American story. In the actual writing, all sorts of other notions shoehorn their way into the book – from Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space to the stateroom scene of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. The novel becomes a mosaic, like the patterns in the Klimt painting.”
While I understand Donohue’s ideas, and grand ideas they are, they do not coalesce for me with the combination of the absurd with American history or American women. Very ambitious, but for me, a flop.
As I read chapter one, Keith Donohue’s Centuries of June gathers dust motes and scatters them frivolously throughout a novel rife with – boredom. Fragmented perhaps, but not aesthetic or compelling. A seeming compendium of tales, Centuries appears a parody of O’Brien’s absurdist humor but I missed the absurd button. I felt the first two chapters floundered on terminal boredom. Lack of wit, pedantic language, profuse with stifling plots meant to incorporate illusions of Klimt’s The Virgin, Centuries tries too much and too hard. Mentioned one too many times in this plodding first chapter, the stopped clock and later the cat feels like a bang on the head metaphor. There is no time – I get it, stop with the metaphor already. PLEASE! I don’t want to be hit over the head with a metaphor mallet. And I found Donohue’s efforts forced and repetitive, leaving the reader with a “do you think I’m stupid” feeling.
As Donohue treads further into the mire, he produces female storytellers that do produce fine stories. There are moments of acuity and a try at greatness in this novel, I just missed the mark too many times. Also, I compared Donohue with the Irish greats, and he came up lacking.
While the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as most other reviewers, seem to revel in this kaleidoscope of a novel, I read what I find compelling and ignore what I find intellectually boring. This is a leap of a novel and I admire greatly what Donohue has attempted and in that this is a novel that creates an aura that many will admire and enjoy, it requires work for the reader. As a reader, I don’t want to work that hard for an empty nest. But that’s why I am only a blog reviewer.
The concepts sweep through this novel in huge leaps, and it should be read as I concede, I sometimes miss the mark. But give me Frank Delaney for the concepts of aesthetics and Irish passivity anytime, for his language lulls me into a deep wave of creation, and Donohue’s novel (literally) put me to sleep.
Centuries of June: A Novel is available for purchase at bookstores now.
Ratings are based on a 5-star scale
Review by Broad “A” – Ava
We received a copy of this title for our book review. All opinions are our own.
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