M.J. Hyland

mjhM.J. Hyland was born in London, spent her early childhood in Dublin, and her adolescence and early adulthood in Australia. Hyland now lives in England, where she teaches in the Centre for New Writing at Manchester University. Her literary career began in Australia, with her promising 2003 debut, How The Light Gets In. It was followed by the astonishing, Booker-shortlisted Carry Me Down in 2006. Gregory Day, who admiringly reviewed Carry Me Down for The Age in 2006, spoke to M.J. Hyland about her latest book, This is How for Readings' New Australian Writing Feature series.

M.J. Hyland took a lot of people by surprise when she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2006. The disturbing but ultimately redemptive Carry Me Down was the follow-up to her promising debut, How the Light Gets In. This second novel demonstrated Hyland’s fearless approach to the precarious psychological territory which inspires her, expressed largely through the unforgettable character of John Egan: a freakishly tall and dislocative 11-year-old, dangerously at odds with his peers and family. J.M. Coetzee went so far as to describe Carry Me Down as ‘writing of the highest order’ – and along with the Booker shortlisting came numerous other awards and plaudits. Most importantly perhaps, it became clear among that hardcore of writers and readers who take little notice of the literary prize circuit that a compelling new voice had emerged in our midst – a writer with a real-life urgency about her, possessing a rare combination of sympathy for the marginalised and an entirely unsentimental command of her craft.

Now comes Hyland’s third book, the disturbing and stoic This Is How. The time is the late 1960s; the place is a small English seaside village. Patrick Oxtoby, a self-conscious but efficient young mechanic from Manchester, starts a new job in a local garage after breaking up with his fiancé. He takes an upstairs room in a boarding house in the grip of an already tenuous clique, comprising two posh young university graduates and the attractive but recently widowed landlady. There, things start to go excruciatingly wrong.

The first half of This Is How carefully lays out a litany of disconnections and misplaced desires amidst a texture of insinuating everyday malevolence. As the reader becomes engrossed in Patrick Oxtoby’s perspective, one can’t help but be reminded of John Egan and Carry Me Down. The pathologies are close; both novels are characterised by Hyland’s first-person narration and the immediacy of her present tense. This time, however, through the tragic events that ensue, we are destined to go one step further – indeed one step deeper into the strata of Hyland’s world. ‘With this book, I couldn’t settle for two or maybe three layers. I thought no, let’s have more. I sent a depth charge down, and I really sent it down.’

The idea for This Is How came to Hyland while reading Life After Life: Interviews With Twelve Murderers, by the late English oral historian Tony Parker. ‘It was only a three- or four-page interview in Parker’s extraordinary book,’ she explains. ‘It was with a man who had served 14 years of a life sentence and was out on licence. He describes the murder he committed when he was in his early twenties and it happened in a lodging house. He went into an adjoining room and killed a man he hardly knew, for no particular reason. It floored me. This was in 2004 and I wrote in my notebook that I had to write a novel based on this story.’

Talking to Hyland, it’s clear that the composition of This is How took her way out of her comfort zone. She describes the book as ‘a monster, like a 100,000-piece jigsaw I had to put together without a picture on the box’. But she is adamant that the disturbing nature of the subject matter had nothing to do with the difficulties of the process. ‘Maybe I’m unusually dissociative or something, but the content is neither here nor there,’ she says. ‘I set out to write interesting drama, and for my money it’s always been the case that the best stuff – going right back to Aristotle, right to back to Greek tragedy, to the start of what it is that makes people enjoy reading fiction or enjoy drama – has got to be about the guttural, the big things, people at odds with the world. There are all sorts of gaps and breakages and faults, chasms between people, things go wrong all the time, so much goes wrong between people. That’s the lifeblood of my fiction: trying to, as best as possible, express those weaknesses in the fibre of relationships between people. If it can’t happen in a cave I’m not interested in it.’

Indeed, the second half of This Is How is set for the most part in a bare prison cell, where Hyland replaces opaque binaries of innocence and guilt with more complex investigations into Patrick Oxtoby’s largely somatic reactions to his crime. ‘In prison, his life has shrunk to a size that suits him better. And he doesn’t feel remorse for what he’s done, he feels embarrassed. It’s a heat travelling up his body, in the way that you suffer when you’re embarrassed, like he’s standing in front of a fire. He says it’s like when you leave something valuable on a bus. That’s how he compares his experience. The kind of: Oh fuck I wish I hadn’t done that. His body has acted, but his mind perhaps wasn’t fully engaged in the act. It happened in a split second and there was a dissonance between mind and body. I’d been reading the fantastic debates between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty where, amidst all Sartre’s crapology about ‘radical freedom’ and the like, Merleau-Ponty says something like, well, to put it crudely, “Yeah but what about our fucking bodies? How do we contend with that!”’

Hyland describes how many of her favourite books deal in the territory of what is sometimes called ‘the gratuitous act’. ‘Books like Andre Gide’s Vatican Cellars, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke, Crime And Punishment, and of course the obvious, Camus’s The Outsider. This is the kind of stuff I feed on, these books are catnip to me. I’ve always wanted to write literary crime.”

Hyland’s signature effect is to cast shadows into places where nobody much wants to look, to explore in fastidious detail the inner lives of character types about whom most people have a whole suite of generic preconceptions. These preconceptions are important ingredients in what Kafka famously called the ‘frozen sea inside us’ and Hyland does see it as her job to take an axe to that ice. She is very clear when asked if there is a social justice agenda behind what she writes. ‘There’s a great deal I want to say, yes, but fiction can go very wrong if an author is on a moral campaign. It’s got to be about what happens to people when they rub up against each other, when they fuck each other up, and fuck themselves up. Life is intense right? No-one would argue with that. But first and foremost, it has to be drama, a good story, and entertainment. God forbid, a book should be fun.’ Such a comment may seem a bit rich from a writer who is fast becoming the laureate of everyday damage, but the slightly perverse fact remains that for the most part, This Is How, while not exactly fun, is peculiarly entertaining. Indeed, it is hard not to read the novel fast, such is the sawn-off intensity of its rhythms, its terse dialogue and compulsive narrative traction.

At the end of our interview, on a hunch, I asked Hyland whether she’d noticed the thematic similarities between This Is How and the first track of Eminem’s latest record, Relapse. I’d been listening to it as I read her book and was struck by the link. I suggested that both works render the random brutality of our species as an ordinary quotidian truth. She agreed and was very pleased I’d brought it up. She told me she often played Eminem as a reward after a good writing session. I had to laugh. Many writers would consider playing Eminem a punishment rather than a reward. But M.J. Hyland’s not just any writer.

Gregory Day is the author of The Patron Saint of Eels and Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds.