I’ve been familiar with Julian Gough’s work since the late 1980s; however, when I started reading his newest novel, Connect, it was not what I expected – not at all.
In the late 80s, Gough was a student at University College Galway; me a student at Stony Brook in New York. My parents were born and raised in Ireland, as were Gough’s. Like so many others, our parents left Ireland for economic reasons. I was produced in New York, Gough in London. His parents moved home, mine did not. However, all through my life, Ireland has been called “home”. In my parents’ circle of family and friends, no one ever said “Are you going to Ireland for Christmas,” or “this summer?” It was always “Are you going home?” And we always did. Every summer was spent in Longford, playing with cousins and friends, and when old enough, cutting, drying, and bringing in the hay and the turf: for a fella that left Ireland at sixteen, my father was really good with a scythe and a slane. And while Ireland was called “home,” it was a bizarre idea of a home: in the US, I was Irish, in Ireland, an American. Ireland was formative, but not everything.
When I was in my late teens, my parents let me go to Galway, with my friend Gerry, to stay with his older brother Frank, who worked for Telecom Éireann. The three of us grew-up in summers together. Frank was deeply into music; when we were younger, he introduced me to Dave Fanning and Joy Division. In the late 80s, he introduced me to a new band from Galway: Toasted Heretic – singer, Julian Gough. From the first listen, I loved Gough’s lines:
And all the words she wrote to you
Were spelt wrong or were lies
And she bought black contact lenses when
You said you liked your eyes.
(From Songs for Swinging Celibates – 1988; in Free Sex Chocolate)
Ah, affinity: I understood such rejection. Smart lyrics, unusual in Pop/Rock; as a Lit major, I appreciated them, as a guitarist in a band even more obscure than Toasted Heretic, I wanted to emulate such intelligence. I felt such a connection, but our paths never crossed in Galway.
Life happens, one gets married, gets a job, has children. I lost track of what Gough and Toasted Heretic were doing, but still played their cassettes, taught the songs to my children. Then in 2009, in Singapore of all places, the tropics, I met two Irish professors who knew Gough from UCG, and I learned of his writing career. I quickly bought Juno & Juliet and Jude: Level 1 (now titled Jude in Ireland). The wit, the cleverness, of his lyrics was in his prose, and Ireland was too. I hadn’t been home since 2003, and Gough’s writing brought me there: to the fields, to the old aunts, my grandmothers and their statues of the Blessed Virgin, to putting on kettles and tea, to the politicised farmers, to The Castle (a nightclub in Galway), to the hilarity of the Irish situation (see Late Late interview 2007). I kept up with Gough’s work and finally got to meet him, and chat, for a little bit, in 2017 at the IASIL conference in, strangely enough, Singapore. He was as funny and “charming” (see Gough’s website and the entry for Juno & Juliet) as his work, so for IASIL Japan 2018, I decided to speak about his oeuvre, about Ireland and the Irish as represented in his works, particularly his upcoming novel, Connect.
As I read into Connect I felt that Gough had thrown a monkey wrench at my planned paper: “Where’s Ireland, the Irish, the Irishness?” Connect is not set in Ireland, it takes place in the desert of the US West – about as far from an Irish setting, climatically, as one could get. There are no Irish in it: the main characters are a Chinese-American woman, Naomi, and her son, Colt. It is not a wild picaresque, satire of Ireland’s contemporary condition like the Jude books. Gough had torn my abstract for IASIL Japan asunder. However, as I was drawn deeper into Connect, affinity amongst Gough’s works, between the artist’s creations, became apparent to me. Yes, Connect is about high technology, about biological engineering, virtual realities, national security systems: it is about our current state and the very near future; it is a sci-fi thriller. However, as you connect with the text, you are immersed in the story, and our stories are vital: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms” (Muriel Rukeyser, quoted in Connect, p.183). Moreover, “the System of Systems”, tells us, that while Connect “is a novel,” “it is also true” (p.1). Yes, I can see the thrilling movie Connect might be made into, but I also see the truth within the notions of the work, which are evident in all of Gough’s work: lust, love, family, our relationships, and the social systems – religious, political, and economic – that affect all individuals currently sharing this point in time and space. Connect is a work that is extremely relevant to our paradigm: technology and the human are in a process of coevolution, we are merging: “‘First we build the tools, then they build us.’ – Fr. John Culkin, summarizing Marshall McLuhan, 1967” (quoted by Gough at beginning of Connect). Gough has thrown off the nets of Ireland, has dived right into the nets of our globalizing, high tech world and preceded to shred them with his kinch-like insights, exposing what matters in life: human emotions, human connections, our stories. Gough’s technique, his abilities, have developed over the years, but he has remained true to his ideology, to his art:
The poet, the artist, the sleuth – whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely “well-adjusted,” he [or she] cannot go along with the currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are … [t]he new environment[s] [are] clearly visible to [them]. (McLuhan, p. 88)
In his 2007 interview on RTÉ’s Late Late Show, Gough explained about his “ambition in life” to be an artist across different mediums, music, literature, film, that he chose to not get a regular job, to be impoverished, to be on the dole, so he could have the time for art.
Connect has a more serious tone than Gough’s earlier writing, but I do not want to call it a more serious work. Gough’s earlier, satiric, comic works deal with serious issues: political corruption, economic crashes, pedophilia in the church, death; moreover, Gough’s commitment to his work, his art, is serious. Connect is surely the work of an artist that has been refining his craft for decades, that strives to be relevant to the now and the future, an artist brave enough to be brutally graphic and touchingly poignant all within the span of a few passages. Gough is Irish, an Irish writer; for Gough, Ireland has been formative, but it is not everything. Gough is an artist existing within “the System of Systems” and seeing it as it really is.
Julian Gough. Connect. Picador: London, 2018.
—–. Free Sex Chocolate: Poems & Songs. Salmon Poetry: County Clare: 2010.
—–. Jude in London. Old Street Publishing: Brecon, 2011.
—–. Jude: Level 1. Old Street Publishing Ltd: London, 2007.
—–. Juno & Juliet. Anchor Books: New York, 2001.
Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore & Jerome Agel. The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Gingko Press: Berkeley, 1967.
Michael Kearney is the author of numerous articles, reviews, pieces of poetry, and chapters in books, including “Designing Identity: An Attempt to Manufacture Singaporeans,” in The Need to Belong: Perpetual Conflicts and Temporary Stability. Edited by Albin Wagner & Tina Rahimy. Oxford, United Kingdom; Inter-Disciplinary Press: 2015.