Ciaran Carson. The Pen Friend.
Ciaran Carson is a prolific poet, prose writer, and translator whose work has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Award for Irish Poetry, the Irish Book Award, and the T. S. Eliot Prize. The Pen Friend is Carson's sixth work of extended prose and follows his early compositions in that he establishes a fairly strong structure, which allows him to "fill it," so to speak, with extended discourses on a variety of topics. In Shamrock Tea (2001), for example, he created a book of 101 chapters, each titled a distinct color, and each offering a meditation or conversation on a range of topics from art and philosophy to the natural world.
In The Pen Friend, the structure is fairly simple. Gabriel/Angel Conway receives twelve postcards followed by a letter, with a thirteenth postcard inside, from Iris/Rainbow/ Miranda/Nina Bowyer/Buewer, a long-lost lover. Each postcard bears a simple phrase of sentence, the import of which Gabriel is to reconstruct. The images on the front also offer clues to the larger sense-making pattern that Gabriel seeks. Both language and image, however, have only tenuous relationships with the world. Their import is largely based upon associations, a point driven home by the highly associative nature of Gabriel's musings.
Running counter to this uncertainty is Gabriel's attention to the world of objects, from his collection of pens and Nina's collection of perfumes, to detailed accounts of material objects such as works of art, cityscapes, and the postcards themselves. The attention to detail is motivated in part by MO2, or Mass Observation, an unofficial organization begun in 1937 in England that set out to observe people and "the things surrounding people. Hence the mantelpiece ornaments, men's penknives, their pipes, their collar-studs, kitchen implements, women's hatpins, sewing kits, anything they thought might represent the people."
In the end, however, the observations reveal more about the observer than the observed, a point brought home by a chapter devoted to Gabriel's dreams. References may not be private, but they are all personal, and the sense that Gabriel makes of the world is a rehearsal of his own identity, nominally on display for Nina, should she ever read his responses to her postcards, but also seemingly shared by Nina, as evidenced in her final letter.
In the end, Ciaran Carson's prose works collectively reveal a mind at work, a mind that is well worth attending to as it begins to make sense of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Richard M. Henry