The Prophet in His Own Land: Paul Lynch by Peter Murphy

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Prophet Song

By Peter Murphy

Prophet Song is a terrifying book – this much you’ll have gathered from peer blurbs, readers’ reports and media reviews. Paul Lynch’s fifth novel comes direct from the can’t-happen-here school of near-future dystopian, but the book’s real mojo originates not with the plausibility of the premise (the Republic of Ireland deteriorating rapidly from right-wing populism to outright civil war), but the crawling-on-skin effect of the language.

The novel is a 300-page panic attack. It starts with a hum of dread, as the main protagonist Eilish’s denial gives way to the realisation that her country’s government is morphing into a murderous regime. Her husband, a union leader, has been interned by authorities, and her eldest son is eligible for conscription. Eilish repeatedly talks herself out of evasive action (in this case, the chance to flee the country), because she’s paralysed by disbelief and dismay. She has a career to attend to, an elderly father to watch out for, children to rear, until one day she is forced to admit that the parameters of her life have been redrawn into an inconceivable new normal where school runs and kids’ bellyaches are supplanted by airstrikes and abductions.

The register Lynch strikes is somewhere between the rising anxiety of classic noir (James M. Cain or Jim Thompson) and the high formalism of a McCarthy or a Woodrell. There’s not an ordinary sentence in the book. Lynch thinks himself so deeply into his protagonists’ mind-states that the narrative transcends the emotional and the visceral to become a sort of philosophical abstraction. A scene at the beginning of chapter 8, in which Eilish leaves the house to search for her son Bailey, only to blunder into an explosion, is particularly nerve-rattling:

‘… she is moving for the front door with Bailey’s name in her mouth, her hand sliding open the patio door, her eyes reaching for the street thinking there is no milk to be bought when soundlessly she is raised from her feet and borne through the air rearwards with her arms held out in some counter-time of light and darkness holding pieces of cement in her mouth. She is lying in a mute darkness beneath an immense and flattening silence. Something rests inside her mouth that is not blood, blood rising around the bitten tongue, the blood building around what lies in the mouth, it is not cement but something else, her eyes opening to the hallway clouded with glass and dust and Molly leaning over her to lift the bicycle off her body while holding Ben in her arm, Molly shouting with a silent mouth and Eilish cannot understand as she is pulled by the wrist into sitting up.’

Prophet Song

Prophet Song has numerous cinematic equivalents: the horrifying kitchen sink realism of Threads, the shellshocked trauma of Come and See, the relentless impetus of Alfonso Cuaron’s (almost) continuous eleven-minute shot in the last act of Children of Men. Yet, for all its terrors, Prophet Song is Lynch’s most commercially successful work to date. I wrote to him shortly after his being longlisted for the Booker. Ever the stonecutter, he asked if we could conduct our interview by email.

Read on.

Peter Murphy: What was the spur to move your writing from period-rural or maritime novel to a near future (sub)urban setting?

Paul Lynch: To speak about such matters is to rationalise after the fact. For me, art begins as feeling, an intuitive act that must be divined onto the page. I don’t choose the novels. What I’m seeking always is a story that can contain my obsessions, a sense of great mass and energy hiding behind an opening scene. I found Prophet Song after spending six months writing the wrong book. One Friday afternoon, I closed the document and said this is the wrong novel, I will start something new on Monday. I could sense there was something else there, but what, I didn’t know. On Monday morning I sat down and wrote the first page of Prophet Song pretty close to what you can read now. That’s a deeply intuitive act and those first sentences were deeply encoded and speak symbolically to the meaning of the book, and yet I could not have known at that time what I was embarking on. 

Tell me about the register of the language. The vocabulary, the syntax, the pace.

The initial register of the language is part of that intuitive act and everything else follows from there. I don’t subscribe to the ideology of Flaubertian realism though I admire it as a reader. Excessive adherence to formalism does not reflect life, and so my sentences must be protean. Literary style should be a way of knowing how the world is met in its unfolding. And so I shape my sentences around the truth of the unfolding — in other words, my realism is memetic and presses its way into feeling, atmosphere, emotion, etc. Vocabulary, syntax etc., like mobilised troops, follow this initial command.

Was there any one spark for this book? An image or a real-life occcurrence?

My editor Juliet Mabey of Oneworld has poked fun at me for alluding to at least three ‘origin stories’ for this book in different interviews. This isn’t intentional. The truth is, you don’t sit down with one single idea in mind. When I find a novel, it is the result of many months, or years, of different ideas nucleating around a central obsession. They begin to coalesce, often subconsciously, until I sit down to write. In other words, I write and follow the images. 

In 2018, there was a profound sense of chaos and political disruption, but deeper than that, I could sense an unspoken and unacknowledged spiritual crisis unfolding across the west. I also remember a quote by Rudolph Giuliani where he said, ‘truth is not truth’, and at that point I could see we were skirting the abyss. 

Around that time, I was reading George Elliot’s Silas Marner and there is a scene where Silas has a ‘cataleptic fit’ during a prayer meeting and ‘another member observed that this trance looked more like a visitation of Satan than a proof of divine favour, and exhorted his friend to see that he has no accursed thing within his soul.’ I began to think about this ingenious accusation, and it evolved into a political question where Larry (living until now within a liberal democracy) is asked by the newly formed secret police to prove that his behaviour as trade unionist is not seditious towards the state.

Is this book a response to ‘new father’ fear, that terror of the world that comes with parenthood, that Amis spoke about?

Not at all, though I did realise later on that perhaps I wasn’t truly writing this book for my generation or older, who are within living memory, or living record, of the horrors of the 20th century. I may have been writing for a reader who does not remember, whoever that may be. 

Was it draining to sustain the atmosphere of dread and anxiety that underpins the book, or could you keep it quarantined in the work?

Writing is draining, full stop. Though the atmosphere of dread and anxiety that I hope the reader feels is a product of the form that enmeshes the work. What goes into the novel’s form? For a start, there are the long sentences and there are no paragraph breaks in the book. There is a deep undertow of inevitability at work, a sense of inevitability, and the long sentences and the lack of breaks lock the reader into the same claustrophobic space that Eilish inhabits. She is straitjacketed by events, and has nowhere to turn and is carried onwards by the sense of rolling momentum. So too, the reader, pulled ever onwards by the rolling sentences, locked into the text with no breathing space. It was also important to keep to the background the politics, the true nature of the threat. What lies unseen or beyond our comprehension belongs to the sublime and therein lies our feelings of terror. 

What were your benchmarks of excellence, in terms of writers or novels, this time out? What were the totem books in relation to Prophet Song?

I used to have touchstones for every book. When I teach creative writing, I remind students that a shelf of classics is a source of energy and great works raise your consciousness and remind you of what the standard is. And if you spend all your time reading nothing else but contemporary fiction, you will have no concept of what the standard is. It can be hard work, too, to sustain the standard when you are digging through hard rock for three or four years. With this book, however, I sensed I had pushed out into a space that was truly my own and there were no totemic novels that I consciously used as guidance. There were, of course, novels I was aware of that had shown me how this kind of novel might be done — Saramago’s Blindness for one, McCarthy’s The Road is another — but they weren’t direct influences. And Virginia Woolf was in my thoughts in the more intimate sections involving Eilish. However, I could sense in the enormous energy of this book that it was doing something unique and that I had reached my own terra incognita. I’ve seen that others have compared this book to Orwell or Atwood, but they were not in my thoughts. I consider those classic ‘dystopian’ novels political in direction, whereas Prophet Song, along with novels such as Blindness and The Road, is metaphysical.

How much deliberation did you do over the choice of occupation, the teachers’ union, at the heart of the story?

How do we define the liberal democracies so many of us have grown up in, the democracies we have taken for granted? One way of doing it might be to say that we all enjoy the right to march and make our opinion heard. When the right to march ends, we are in deep trouble. That is the tipping point for this novel. It is the tipping point for all democracies.   

Could you recommend other well-written books, old and new, and also to name your favourite well-written passages?

Though the night sky is so full of stars, I find myself returning frequently to Conrad and Faulkner. As I Lay Dying is a book worth savouring slowly as it has writing of such extraordinary texture, intensity and penetration.  At times, Faulkner seems to be pushing past the known and the visible into some other dimension. His noticing is unsurpassed: ‘The lantern sits on a stump. Rusted, grease-fouled, its cracked chimney smeared on one side with a soaring smudge of soot, it sheds a feeble and sultry glare upon the trestles and the boards and the adjacent earth. Upon the dark ground the chips look like random smears of soft pale paint on a black canvas. The boards look like long smooth tatters torn from the flat darkness and turned backside out.’

Conrad has an extraordinary ability for crafting an image that speaks to a profound metaphysical truth. There is a passage in Typhoon where the boatswain, in the midst of a storm, drops into a black coal bunker — black within black — and then proceeds to the hold which is full of Chinese coolies returning home after years away doing hard labour. As the ship is tossed by the high seas, their money chests have been smashed open and in the darkness of the hull, in the midst of the storm, they are tossed into a single mass of limb and belongings, fighting each other over their silver coins. And there you have Conrad’s vision of man. 

Any prose tips Auraist readers won’t have seen elsewhere? Pet peeves, etc?

I have noticed a trend in contemporary fiction where certain writers do away with one aspect or another of traditional grammar or formatting without any justification within the book’s form for doing so. It’s the worst kind of pretentiousness. Every decision you make in the writing of your fiction must associate back to the meaning at the heart of the text.

(c) Peter Murphy

The full version of this article will appear on Wednesday 22nd November 2023 on Auraist, which selects the most stylishly written books from major prize shortlists and reviews, and interviews the prose experts who wrote them.

Peter Murphy – aka Cursed Murphy – is a writer, musician and journalist from Wexford, Ireland. He is the author of two novels, John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River (Faber) and numerous short stories, including the audio-drama The Hands of Franky Machine. His work has been published and translated worldwide, and his journalism and non-fiction have appeared in Rolling Stone, the Guardian, the Irish Times, Hot PressStinging Fly and Winter Papers, among other publications. He performs and records with the punk-poetry art-rock troupe Cursed Murphy Versus the Resistance, who have released two albums to date, the eponymous debut (2020) and Republic of the Weird (2022). Peter is currently writing his third book, working title Ghost Voltage.

Paul Lynch is the internationally-acclaimed, prize-winning author of five novels: PROPHET SONG, BEYOND THE SEA, GRACE, THE BLACK SNOW and RED SKY IN MORNING, and the winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2018, among other prizes.

PROPHET SONG was published to ravishing praise in August 2023 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the An Post Irish Novel of the Year. John Boyne in The Sunday Independent called Prophet Song “entirely original”. The Observer called the book “a crucial book for our current times… brilliant, haunting”. The TLS called it “thunderously powerful”. The Guardian called it “an urgent, important read”. The Literary Review called the book “a masterly novel”. 

Paul Lynch was born in Limerick in 1977, grew up in Co Donegal, and lives in Dublin. He was previously the chief film critic of Ireland’s Sunday Tribune newspaper from 2007 to 2011, and wrote regularly for The Sunday Times on cinema. He is a full-time novelist.

About Prophet Song:
Prophet Song

The explosive literary sensation: a mother faces a terrible choice as Ireland slides into totalitarianism.

On a dark, wet evening in Dublin, scientist and mother-of-four Eilish Stack answers her front door to find the GNSB on her step. Two officers from Ireland’s newly formed secret police are here to interrogate her husband, a trade unionist.

Ireland is falling apart. The country is in the grip of a government turning towards tyranny and when her husband disappears, Eilish finds herself caught within the nightmare logic of a society that is quickly unravelling.

How far will she go to save her family? And what – or who – is she willing to leave behind?

Exhilarating, terrifying and propulsive, Prophet Song is a work of breathtaking originality, offering a devastating vision of a country at war and a deeply human portrait of a mother’s fight to hold her family together.

Order copies online:

UK/Ireland: https://oneworld-publications.com/work/prophet-song. US/Canada: https://groveatlantic.com/book/prophet-song/ 

About the author

Peter Murphy – aka Cursed Murphy – is a writer, musician and journalist from Wexford, Ireland. He is the author of two novels, John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River (Faber) and numerous short stories, including the audio-drama The Hands of Franky Machine. His work has been published and translated worldwide, and his journalism and non-fiction have appeared in Rolling Stone, the Guardian, the Irish Times, Hot Press, Stinging Fly and Winter Papers, among other publications. He performs and records with the punk-poetry art-rock troupe Cursed Murphy Versus the Resistance, who have released two albums to date, the eponymous debut (2020) and Republic of the Weird (2022). Peter is currently writing on his third book, working title Ghost Voltage.

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