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Love Shifts The Self In 'The Lesser Bohemians'

Eily is 18, Irish, just barely removed from the "dun school skirts" of early life. She arrives in London — alive with "traffic all gadding in the midday shine" and "pigeons at infernal coo" — to audition for drama school. She is young, but as she steps into character, the judges can see that "in her I've done my time." She gets in, and starts a new life in grimy Camden of the 1990s: "Here I am and here is for me."

Eily's live, wriggling words construe themselves without the pens of grammar. She often inverts the verb and subject (walk I) which gives a kind of precarious immediacy to her sentences, like grammar can't stand up straight under the weight of the narrator's wild wants. By sacrificing grammatical precision she gets emotional and psychological sense — even as those things are in themselves impossibly and inherently imprecise, like light or color.

Modernist novels — and this book, ungrammatical, wild, inward, certainly is one — have a kind of bright and wheeling interiority. She writes: "Gaudy my mouth with cigarettes. Daub my soul with a few good pints til my mouth swings wide with unutterable shite. Laughing lots too, like its true. Worldening maybe, I think. I hope."

And later, in the bath: "Dream I am turned slender and high as an arch. Gibbing and joking, reserved and smart and faraway eyebrows — not soaking here, under scum. Not landlady screaming You've used my hot water up!"

I like these early parts best, before the love story begins, when we get our moonish unpunctuated lady with an "unflat stomach and vociferous wants" to ourselves. Her inner self, here inviolable and quiet and whole as a pebble, somehow loses its contours when she falls in love. No more the humming and whole sense of am, (however unhappy, however insecure). Instead her state is measured in lack or surfeit of the beloved, Stephen.

Modernist novels — and this book, ungrammatical, wild, inward, certainly is one — have a kind of bright and wheeling interiority.

And what terrible approximations of love we'll take if they're all we're offered! Stephen is a well-known actor in his late 30s: a pickup artist and a former junkie. When you're a teenager, it's easy to mistake unhappiness for depth, and easy to mistake grimy, vomitous nights and stumbles home on the night bus for adulthood. The first pages, before the love story, are such a queer and wonderful picture of an inner life, but that radiant thing then gives way to more boring passions: Does the dirty artist love me? Or does he not?

I'm being horrible and unfair — Stephen grows into a compelling character — probably for the same reasons I'm mean to my friends' new boyfriends: They take something private and whole away. In this case, I miss Eily's solitary eye, her solid self.

It's hard not to compare her to Clarissa Dalloway, that other lone walker of London streets. Even with her husband, she keeps hold of her luminous solitude: "There is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect." She married not the intellectual with whom "everything had to be gone into," but the man who respects the soul's sanctum.

For McBride's characters, though, love encroaches into and alters the inner self. We only learn our narrator's name halfway through the book, the first time he says he loves her, as if to be loved is to be named. Sex is the agent of constant dissolution and reformulation of identity: "Pity the finished. We do and lie quiet remembering which body's his, which body's mine." The Lesser Bohemians is a love story, yes, but it is really an electric and beautiful account of how the walls of self shift and buckle and are rebuilt.

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Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.