Narrative chronology is a fluid thing; if the Modernists taught us anything, surely this is it. The warp and woof of time’s malleability, expanding and contracting within the Bergsonian experience of “duration,” is part and parcel of not only our own fraught internal histories but also the thematic concerns of high literature itself. Joyce’s Ulysses, perhaps the definitive Western literary statement, takes place in a single day, the hours bent and stretched to encompass the teeming pen of modern consciousness. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse treats traditional chronology with disdain, leaping forward through the dark, killing the Ramsays with impunity and tossing us gasping upon the shores of futurity with nary a warning. The list goes on. Our favored plots, like our lives, are constantly coiling inward, receding, casting backward, examining the speculative spaces on either side of a disintegrating present. This is all to say that literature has, for the better, I think, abdicated itself from time’s merry forward march. Chronology is no longer an imperative; it is now merely a tool.
In The Cold Eye of Heaven, the Irish writer Christine Dwyer Hickey proves to be a master of the narrative potential of chronology. Originally published in the UK in 2011 (and recently released in the US as part of Dalkey Archive’s Irish Literature Series), Hickey’s novel examines the life of an old, lonely Dubliner, Farley, who lays dying of a stroke on his bathroom floor. Over the course of the ensuing 70-year journey—which carries us backwards from his penultimate day to a now distant childhood—a past is carefully revealed, layer by layer, until we come to know Farley’s tics, foibles, failures, and quiet decency as if he were a cherished friend or brother. In Farley, Hickey has created something marvelously living and messily complex, a man for whom life proved to be (as it has for many of us, I suspect) something of a muddle, a confusion, but only insofar as it is, as Henry Miller said, “an order which is not understood.” He is sculpted with such grace and attention (the perfect brogue, the telling gesture) that he becomes that rarest of literary gifts: a being more real than anyone you know.
How we get to know him is a large part of the book’s considerable charm. In writing Farley’s life in reverse, Hickey is able to marshal a host of clever structural gambits replete with echo and irony. We constantly meet characters for whom we have no sense of context; rather, we’re armed with the alternately delicious and devastating knowledge that we’ll soon discover (in the next chapter, very likely) what they once meant to Farley: friend, foe, betrayer, idol. Questions hang suggestively from the narrative scaffolding: Why was Farley not invited to a particular funeral and why does this pain him? Why does the son of Farley’s boss seem to hate him? What happened to Farley’s wife? If the answers come in time, they do so with the accumulated emotional weight of a deliberate narrative simmer. Recursive and intimate, the details of Farley’s ordinary life are endowed with both dignity and profound melancholy when viewed in reverse. The apotheosis is no longer the point; the unraveling is all.
To dive into the specifics of plot would be to ruin that unraveling, to spoil the concussive effect of each new discovery. Much of the narrative thrust is built around Farley’s relationship with his best friend and employer, Frank Slowey, particularly the betrayals that well up within the cracks of their friendship. Indeed, I would argue that deception is in many ways at the heart of the novel, as Hickey penetrates the intractable human heart to lay bare the betrayals we levy not only on the ones we hold most dear, but also on ourselves and our dreams:
...all these places and names I used to read about when I was a kid...Places like Malaysia. Or Bombay. You know I always swore one day I’d do the lot. But of course, I never did. Because that’s the way it is, isn’t it? One thing leads to another, one year the next, and you postpone things and then postpone them again. Till you simply forget all about whatever it was you always wanted to do and, and by then it’s too bloody late anyway.
This elegiac tone is never overbearing or caricatured, avoiding the pitfalls of schmaltz by virtue of writerly precision and deft characterization. Hickey’s remarkable prose, shifting subtly into the different registers of Farley’s ever younger consciousness, is masterful throughout. I was especially moved by her ability to create vivid poetry out of the more prosaic elements of reality. Morning emerges as “tumbling ashes. Soft grey light hatching out of the darkness.” Farley’s stroke-induced headache lay “like a big, thick tongue, hanging over a rock, heaving.” This world-building works in concert with the vitality of her cast of Dubliners to create a tapestry we can unexpectedly find ourselves falling into. I often longed to call out to Farley, to warn him of what was coming, to plead that he mend what was fraying. This is a vicarious literature of considerable power, a testament to Hickey’s penetrating narrative acumen.
After finishing the novel, I found myself returning often to the epigraph, from Philip Larkin’s Aubade:
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
In experiencing Farley’s climb-in-reverse, the richness of life’s outrageous complexity is savored, wept for, and, finally, elevated and ennobled. The book compels us, too, to take inventory of the forces that underpin the direction of our present lives: what future self gazes back at this very moment aghast, proud, despairing, celebratory? In Farley’s final moments he sees himself as “a man, a boy, a child, a baby, a man again, all at once.” That emergent unity is what I left Hickey’s astounding novel with: the almost unbearable intimacy of the universal.
Dustin Illingworth is a critic and fiction writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Times Literary Supplement, Music & Literature, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, Full Stop Quarterly, 3:AM Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation, and various other venues. Follow him at @belaborthepoint.