The First Verse has been reviewed in several places, and has recommendations from several well-known figures, including Colm Toibin. Toibin’s blurb on the dust jacket attempts to encapsulate the book as one about how easily the young are led astray. Toibin and I did not read the same book.
Though I cannot remember how the book crossed my path, I do recall that it seemed an excellent candidate as a text for the Literary Criticism graduate class that I begin teaching in a few weeks. The person recommending the book highlighted McCrea’s ability to harness the attraction of literature, the ways in which literature captures people, or opens doors into seemingly mysterious and compelling worlds. Since esotericism (textual versions of divination) often becomes thematic early on in literary theory courses, McCrea’s book seemed like a natural. Had to make my way through it, before placing it on the list of required books for the course.
The random readings and interpretations of those readings that occupy the main character, Niall, serve the novel well, and most readers will notice that McCrea’s acquaintaince with the setting seems connected to the author’s own academic and literary journey, a journey in its early stages. Since this is the first verse in more than one sense for McCrea, readers can look forward to more of his writing. In fact, McCrea has a piece about Dublin in this month’s Independent. While I have become a fan, the book will not become part of the reading for the graduate course for a few reasons, the first of which is that the esotericism functions as a driving force in the novel, and then brakes abruptly at the end, at a point when further rumination about the general issue of interpretation would have suited the main character’s intense curiosity as well as the novel’s seeming insistence on hermeneutics. My guess is that the length of the novel could be justified as an outgrowth of the author’s personal experiences. Yet, had the text been reduced by about a third, it might have sustained the dynamism that exists in the first third, when people and things come alive.
Part of the power of the book shows up in McCrea’s willingness to sustain the main character’s appreciation for the quotidian in the face of the temptation to dive completely into the wild world of esotericism. Stanley Cavell’s work on the interactions of the ordinary and the extraordinary comes to mind (e.g. Cavell’s reading of a Hoffmann tale that involves an automaton).
Is there a McCrea fan club on the web? If not, someone should start one.
Holiday reading will resume now with Netherland, a book that several people have praised. Netherland does not seem a candidate for the graduate course’s reading list, so the search continues.