Roddy Doyle takes the literary notion of the ‘unreliable narrator’ to its ultimate end with a Walter Mitty-type character it is very hard to like, mainly because Victor Forde doesn't like himself. The book Victor Forde fails to write in ‘Smile’ is another literary conceit Roddy Doyle brings before the reader. The core of the story is loneliness, assuaged by middle-aged fantasies. The foundation of the story is rape.
With the recent reactions surrounding the alleged rape on trial in Belfast, Roddy Doyle's novel is a timely delving into the concept of consent and of the consequences when it is not present. Consent is a fragile concept, readily broken, mis-used, mis-understood and trodden underfoot. In the case of a man raping a woman, it is wholly askew to ask if the woman consented to the sexual intercourse in the first place. Already there is a yawning field of doubt for bad justice and worse law to plough. It is as if the woman has no agency but to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what a man asks her to accept in matters of sexual congress. This is the model of sexual relations most favoured by heterosexual pornographers. It is not consent that is being tested. It is mutual agreement. Do both adults agree, as equals and without coercion, to the sexual intercourse? And, if not, then the crime of rape is committed.
In ‘Smile’, multiple rapes, committed by an adult on children, are revealed and recalled, late on. The adult rapist is more powerful physically and institutionally. There can be no doubt coercion, direct and indirect, is involved.
The raped narrator, Victor Forde, lives a victim’s life, often minimising the crimes perpetrated upon him, blaming himself and creating a fantasy of edgy public admiration, daring efforts to shock on national radio and in other media and socio-sexual success that borders on heroic.
As the story unfolds, Victor Forde shyly re-connects with men and women his own age. His social and sexual capacities are tested. At the point he may be about to find ease in such society, a former school-mate, another loner, but one more caustic and chilling, confronts Victor Forde’s fantasies in a laddish bout of violence, because Victor Forde may have ‘stolen his girl’, a middle-aged woman, whose husband ‘is working away’.
Victor Forde is hapless. All the men are hapless, to varying degrees. Only Fitzpatrick, the bully, also deeply traumatised by a paedophiliac Christian Brother at school, appears to have some agency. Only Fitzpatrick appears to be ‘doing’ something, even if it re-traumatising one of his fellow victims.
‘Smile’ is not an easy read, for a number of different reasons. There are longuers of middle-aged men swallowing pints and talking shite. There are detailed, unbelievable sexual encounters with a vivacious, compliant and intelligent woman, Rachel. In another novel, Rachel would not have stuck it out with Victor, the failing writer. She would not have had a son with him.
But she does in this novel. For her, consent and agreement are part of Victor’s fantasies. She is only saved from victimhood by being a literary fiction. All this leaves the reader wondering about their son, the one Victor never meets. Perhaps he is too much of a fiction to even appear.
The rape by the Christian Brother, so long repressed by Victor Forde until asserted by Fitzpatrick, is visualised as wrestling by a bigger, more powerful man on a smaller, weaker boy. It is named as grimly as Iago’s infamous call that ‘they are now making the beast with two backs’. Except the boy has not agreed to this tussle, groping and violation. This crime.
Perhaps there is another Victor Forde novel in which the narrator gathers agency and moves from victim to survivor? Perhaps Roddy Doyle will create another less hapless character, more enabled by his future than disabled by his past? He is a master novelist and certainly capable of anything he choses.
For the present, readers can frown, or like Victor, simply cry, for there are no smiles here, despite the angsty Dublin crack and the timid social and cultural references.
Smile, Roddy Doyle, Vintage, 2018; ISBN-10 1784706353