Book Review: Being Alexander by Diarmuid Ó Conghaile

Diarmuid Ó Conghaile’s debut novel Being Alexander raises a curtain on the world of the economists and bureaucrats who operate behind the scenes of Irish business.

celtic tiger lit

Being Alexander by Diarmuid Ó Conghaile

Set in the boom-times of 2003/04, Being Alexander follows an unambitious economist, Alexander Vespucci, as he wanders through a familiar pattern of steady but undemanding work and an unexciting love life. Alexander is the usual everyman character, but his day job, managing the government’s economic advisory council, ensures he’s drawn into the machinations of far more ambitions people.

[The economic council’s] “role is to utter pieties from a business perspective… as part of an orchestrated national debate, in which all of the insiders get some of what they want.”

I rather liked Alexander in his inoffensive, plodding manner, his loyal support of his more hedonistic and emotional friends, and his essential human decency. However, Alexander has had a rather charmed and easy life thus far, and so, when temptation and the conflicting desires of others intersect with his comfortable path, he’s doesn’t have either the convictions or the practice necessary to fight his corner, and his life spins out of its comfortable rut. His larger difficulties are foreshadowed early on when he discovers that one of the junior members of his team has been misusing departmental resources. Despite being instructed to investigate by his boss, Alexander is unwilling to assert his authority or invite conflict, so he attempts to deal with the situation by trusting to the man’s innate sense of decency to make him stop. We all know that never ends well.

This is one of the rare occasions where the cover of the book is particularly apt, showing an invisible man in business casual. Alexander is a shell: from the outside he’s leading a productive existence, but internally, he’s absent, just a passive observer to his own life.

The common characteristic of the successful characters in Ó Conghaile’s Dublin is their instinctive self-regard and ability to take what they need without scruple. Alexander sees this — he’s one of those character who notices everything — but is unable to look out for himself in the same manner. At one point, he confronts his best friend, Danny, an alcoholic journalist and radio personality, about Danny’s ability to always land on his feet and know the right people. Alexander thinks of it as luck, this ability to act venally but without appearing crass and greedy, but Danny set him straight, explaining that making connections with the right people is a skill as vital as any other: “…you think that’s easy? Let me tell you: it takes dedication and talent.” Alexander is afraid of trusting people, afraid of entering the network of obligation and mutual assistance that he sees all around him.

When an ambitious dot.com entrepreneur wants the economic advisory council to recommend a scheme to install rural broadband at the government’s expense — so she can profit from it, naturally — she sets about manipulating Alexander sexually to ensure the report says just what she wants. Alexander enthusiastically goes along with her, but has no knowledge of how to operate in this milieu. When he later makes a clumsy attempt to blackmail her for his own financial gain — figuring everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t he — he turns her goodwill into hostility. This was where Alexander lost my sympathy, by losing sight of his own moral anchor and reacting to events as he thinks others would.

Alexander’s ill-conceived scheme to better himself slowly dissolves like smoke, and the novel’s focus begins to drift along with it. There are some very strong scenes late in the book at two family funerals, but the book drifts to a stop without a big moment or dramatic conclusion. But, this is ultimately a character-driven book, and Alexander is bruised and perhaps made wiser by his experiences, but he hasn’t really changed at all.

It struck me as odd that the first scene of real anger and emotion only occurs late in the book when one of Alexander’s distant cousins is incensed that Alexander inherits a deceased aunt’s farm ahead of him — odd considering that there had been deaths, break-ups, sexual adventures, and lots of debauched drinking before then.  The emotion and sharp language of this crude countryman contrasts sharply with the polite veneer of Dublin society, and highlights the difference between the passivity of the individual who’s had the more comfortable life, and the sharp focus of the one who’s self-made. Ó Conghaile — who trained as an economist, and works in governmental circles — is very good at satirizing the atmosphere of polite mutual back-scratching and quiet, back-room deals that characterize life in decision-making circles in Dublin.

While Alexander is a frustratingly weak-willed character, he works as a metaphor for Ireland’s economic downfall: The everyman who plunges into corrupt and ill-advised dealings because he believes everybody else is doing it, and he fears being left behind. It is a painful reminder of the ordinary person’s role in the irrational property madness that gripped the nation, the poor souls who bought houses at the height of the boom because they felt they had no other choice.

[Alexander] “…has sufficient imagination and intellect to recognise that there are better perspectives on the world, but he is nevertheless unable to rise above the dominant perspective of the day…. He has fully internalised the prevailing value system.

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (US cover)

The Devil I Know
by Claire Kilroy (US cover)

Ó Conghaile takes a different approach to exploring the roots of the crash than Claire Kilroy, another writer who has recently written about the movers and shakers behind the property bubble. While Kilroy (in The Devil I Know) chose broad satire to exaggerate the greed and cartoonish thinking that convinced people the good times would last forever, Ó Conghaile’s tale focuses more on depicting the shared beliefs and habits that gradually persuade even fearful characters like Alexander to embrace what everyone else appears to be doing: unthinking deference towards those with the trappings of wealth, traditional gender roles, and cronyism, among other fatal flaws. While Kilroy’s novel made us feel better about ourselves through humor, and places more of the blame on the bankers and politicians, Ó Conghaile’s novel doesn’t let us off the hook, showing how even well-educated, intelligent people can drift into huge mistakes. Being Alexander is more tragedy than comedy, although it’s a banal fall from grace.

Misfortune builds to a climax and that’s all I want to say about the last third of the book. Will Alexander grow a spine? Will the dishonest get punished? Will Alexander get to inherit the farm after all? You’ll have to read Being Alexander to find out. This is a very well-written novel that is firmly set in the recent present — perhaps too much so for some people.  I have a suspicion that there might be a sequel; seeing how Alexander fares during austerity would be an entirely appropriate and fascinating follow up — and a book I’d look forward to reading.

 

Notes

Being Alexander is published by New Island Press

The boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger is also explored in Claire Kilroy’s  The Devil I Know

Donal Ryan paints a very human portrait of the aftermath of the crash in his acclaimed novel The Spinning Heart

 

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