Troubled teens keep popping up in modern Irish literature. Is Conn away with the fairies and going to carry out his early threat, or is that just a phase he’s going through?
Title: Where do you think you’re going?
Wordcount: 102 000
Genre: Literary Fiction
Language: British English
Synopsis: Teenager Conn Murphy has a sense of humour and an awareness of the absurd. He needs both. Born into a fundamentalist Christian family, he encounters brutality from his teachers, marginalisation from his government, indoctrination from his Church and constant temptation from girls who aren’t remotely like his revered Virgin Mary.
You’re the only one I can tell. There’s some name for you and I’m trying to think what it is. Anyway, I’m going to kill them in the College chapel. They’ll all be together there and they won’t be expecting it. Just after the O Salutaris I’ll let on to be sick but I won’t go to the sick bay, I’ll go out of the chapel and round behind the Main Study. That’s where the toolshed is, that’s where the pitchfork is. I’ll get back in before the end of Benediction and walk up the middle aisle and tell Father O’Donoghue to put the host back into the tabernacle and then I’ll order the three commandants to stand up against the wall together in a straight line. That’s what I call them. The commandants. Everybody’s going to do what I tell them. Nobody will try to take the pitchfork off of me because I’ll be holding Bernard’s old dummy handgun. They’ll know I mean business all right. Maybe you don’t think I mean business. Maybe you feel like laughing when you think of somebody like me saying he’s going to do something like that. Well, you won’t be laughing anymore when I’m telling you about them lying there with their dead eyeballs sticking up out of their faces and their blood splattering all over the place. I won’t wear a mask because I want them to know who’s doing it. I’ll leave The Pogue to the last because he’s the worst so he’ll have to suffer more with the waiting, watching the other two getting it. I’ll wait for him to beg for mercy and then I’ll shove it up him too. As soon as he’s dead I’ll ask one of the other teachers to go the president’s office and phone the police so’s I can give myself up. They can’t hang me. They’re not allowed to hang you when you’re only thirteen. They send you to reform school. Well, that’s okay. Reform school’s okay. Reform school couldn’t be anywhere near as bad as this place.
I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it yet anyhow. I’m going to put it off for now but somebody’d better be praying for those cunts that Mammy doesn’t die before I leave the College. When you think about it, if I killed them and her still alive it would break her heart, she’d die of shame so she would. She’s just an ordinary wee woman, well, not to me, to me she’s a saint, but she’s dead proud of us and she’s always praying that none of us ever get into bother. She’s got blood pressure and varicose veins in her legs and heartburn and other things wrong with her too and I don’t know how long she’s going to live. How could anybody know that for sure? She could die anytime so I hope for their sakes they’re sorry for their sins because bad and all as they are I don’t want them to go to hell. Bastards. You probably think I’m backing out. Well I’m not. What’s the point of making Mammy suffer, killing her too when she hasn’t done anything wrong? No point. No point at all. So I’m not backing out. Definitely not. I’m just postponing things, that’s all.
The plan is drastic all right. I’m not going to argue about that. But once I thought of it I knew it was the right thing to do and I wouldn’t be able to look at myself if I changed my mind. Then I took a walk up Creggan Hill and I started to calm down a bit and then I wanted to forget about it but not for long. I said to myself, Are you some kind of a chicken or what? When I thought it up first the day before yesterday I was sitting in the house and I had this desperate headache and I was all tensed up because I knew for sure I was going to get the shite knocked out of me again the next day by Father Couchman even though I had the Divine Right of Kings off back to front. I have ways of making you confused. That’s Couchman’s motto. (Just to let you know, he did beat the shite out of me. Yesterday and today. Twice today. I was the first to be asked and then he asked me again just before the bell. He didn’t mix me up the second time but he knew I was switched off because I wasn’t expecting to be asked again. I knew the answer but I didn’t know the question and I stammered – Wa-wa-what, Fffffaller? And he gave me six for not saying Pardon). Why does he hate me? You tell me. I don’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing. I never saw anybody as sleekit at making you go wrong. It didn’t take me long to catch on that he gets some kind of a big thrill out of hitting me. I know and he knows I know and the two of us know there’s nothing I can do about it. He’s the one with the power and I’m just a wee skitter.
It’s not just Couchman. The other two are even worse. They’re fucken monsters the three of them. God forgive me, I shouldn’t be using that kind of language but that’s all they are. Anyway, there was me, sitting in the living room my lone. I was supposed to be doing the rest of my homeworks but I wasn’t fit. I was thinking about Mairead saying that drowning was the easiest way to die. I can’t leave the College. Mammy couldn’t take it, she couldn’t take it. And I’m not going to run away anymore. That last time, Jesus, that last time. I thought how quiet down the quay would be on a Sunday night and nobody would see me going in.
This is certainly a bold opening; it grabs you by the throat and promises nightmares. I have to say, the fact that he doesn’t then go on to murder the priests with a pitchfork is almost an anticlimax, not that it’s what I want to happen. It is quite hard to get the tone of the book from this opening though. Does it follow in the dark and homicidal tradition of books by other modern Irish writers like Pat McCabe (The Butcher Boy), Enda Walsh and Martin McDonagh? Is this (yet another) really dark and creepy story of a teen who goes off the deep end into some violent fantasy world of his own invention, wreaking havoc on all and sundry, or is it something else? You mention Dave Eggers as a major influence, and he is definitely not in The Butcher Boy space, as far as I know, so there’s quite a wide diversity of tone that you could be trying to achieve. In some ways that’s the fault of the way this website is set up. You only have fifty words to give a brief synopsis of your story here, whereas with a proper submission to an agent you’d probably be afforded the relative luxury of a one page, 500 word synopsis. That should clearly set out the type of book you’re looking to get the agent to represent, because what kind of book it is will definitely colour their decision about which publishers to send it to. We can’t really tell from these first few pages, but I think it would be unfair to pan the submission for that reason alone when, with literary fiction, quite often the beginning to the story is slower than other genres and the agent would be much more aware of what they’re picking up from what you’ve said in the rest of your submission package.
There’s a bit of repetition that creeps in and, although you’re going for a kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative, you don’t want to write it as an actual stream of consciousness because that would be very dull reading indeed – full of repetition, digression, non-sequiturs and dead ends. It’s actually quite tough to write in this style and keep it readable, and it’s very easy to overdo. The last paragraph in particular is a bit all over the place. We’re continuing from the previous para about the priests, then we’re in a conversational mode (“Anyway …”), then we’re thinking about a conversation with Mairead whom we haven’t yet met, then we’re back with Mammy not being able to take further trauma, then we’re thinking about suicide. You’re packing a lot in, and you’ve already said a lot about Mammy not being strong enough to take any more disappointment in life.
In his thought processes he seems to be a bit inconsistent. This might be a character trait, but it’s going to be difficult to ignore instances where he apparently contradicts himself in the first few pages until we know that it is a character trait, and not an authorial slip-up. For example, he apologises to us for using the word “fucken” in the last para, but uses the generally-held-to-be-more-offensive “cunts” without a backward glance in the second para.
One other specific point. Who is he talking to, at the very beginning? Is it some kind of confessionary spirit? Is this part of the book throughout? Personally I find the “breaking the fourth wall” – the “reader as listener” trope – a bit tired. I’m not even sure that’s the case here – there might be more significance to this imaginary interlocutor than at first appears – but the first paragraph is just as good, if not better, without the opening two sentences, I think, and instead of making an overt point about the character talking “to us”, it actually feels more immediate and impactful if you start with a straight “I’m going to kill them in the College chapel.”
I don’t think this is quite ready, but the writing is excellent and I’d be curious as agent to at least read beyond the first few pages to get a feel for the book, and see how you managed the fairly stylised narrative after the initial shock has worn off. It could be utterly exhausting to read, and a turn-off, or it could be quite compelling. It would only be then that I’d make my mind up whether I wanted to see the full manuscript. So it’s a partial win, for me!
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