Post-Millennial Modernism? Late Style and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

3rd July 2020

Liam Harrison, University of Birmingham

Content Note: Violence, Sexual Assault

‘I’m screaming in the blackness. Scream until I’m done my body. Full of nothing. Full of dirt the. I am’.[1]

This burst of sound and fury marks the beginning of the end of Eimear McBride’s visceral tale of trauma, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013). McBride’s debut novel has been discussed in terms of its modernist inheritance possibly more than any other novel in the twenty-first century.[2]  The discussions of A Girl’s modernist debts across book reviews and academic criticism have focused on its formally disjointed style, while the novel’s intertextuality has been praised as a sign of McBride’s modernist credentials. Instead of reading A Girl as ‘modernism’s return of the repressed’,[3] or describing it through Joycean and Beckettian superlatives,  I suggest we might turn to the notion of ‘late style’ as an alternative means of navigating McBride’s engagement with modernist legacies.

In his short book On Late Style (2006), Edward Said considers the last works of certain prominent artists as a testament to a kind of productive irresolution. Rather than these late artworks signifying the crowning glory of a lifetime’s labour, Said asks us to consider ‘artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction’.[4] One of many examples Said draws on is Henrik Ibsen’s final play When We Dead Awaken (1899), arguing that it ‘provides an occasion to stir up more anxiety, tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, and leave the audience more perplexed and unsettled than before’.[5] Said’s definition of late style as ‘unresolved contradiction’ in turn draws on an even shorter work, Theodor Adorno’s essay ‘Late Style in Beethoven’ (1937), where Adorno considers late style as a perennial work-in-progress, ‘but not as development; rather as a catching fire between the extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground or harmony of spontaneity’.[6]

The kinds of disharmonious ‘catching fire’ that Adorno and then Said have detailed, has been extensively explored and expanded upon as the critical traction of lateness has gained prominence in various discursive arenas. We can trace it in the late capitalism and late modernism explored by Fredric Jameson and Tyrus Miller,[7] in Ben Hutchinson’s comprehensive study Lateness and Modern European Literature,[8] and in Gordon McMullan and Sam Smiles’ edited collection Late Styles and its Discontents which dwells on the limitations of Said’s model.[9] These works by no means form a critical school of ‘lateness’, nor are they necessarily reliant on the brief definitions of Adorno and Said, but they nonetheless all draw on the paradoxical tensions that we see in ‘late style’ as a capacious mode of critical intervention. Recently, Peter Boxall’s work has explored the temporal and historical resonances of late style in contemporary writing, as he suggests it performs ‘the exhaustion of a culture, the growing old and tired of Western modernity itself’.[10] From the exhausted waning of historical affects, and the pervasive precarities of late capitalism, to the perseverance of modernist lineages under new guises, it seems fair to say that lateness, despite itself, is having a moment.

The word ‘late’ contains both an anticipatory and posthumous narrative persistence – an expectancy of a late arrival, as well as the voices of the lately departed. As Kevin Brazil writes, lateness implies ‘an affective relationship to time’ whether ‘missed, approaching, or receding’.[11] Boxall captures these conflicting meanings when considering the future of the novel in the twenty-first century, as he suggests:

This preoccupation with an immanent futurity – the sense that we are surrounded by a latent, untensed time that we cannot quite grasp, waiting for an instrument to arrive that might measure it, a language that might articulate it – is a structuring feature of post-millennial narrative life.[12]

In my own research on modernism’s legacies in post-millennial literature, I suggest that ‘late style’ can be transposed from Adorno and Said’s biographical models and their concerns with the proximate mortality of the author, so that we can consider reformulations of lateness through its ‘immanent futurity’. The emphasis here lies not on the author’s lateness, as they struggle to catch up to a belated or never-ending modernism, but in the stylistic lateness of literature, its ‘nonharmonious, nonserene tensions’, which in turn provides productive ground for considering modernism’s legacies in relation to an ‘untensed’ time and language that we ‘cannot quite grasp’.

McBride’s novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing provides one example where the critical vocabulary of lateness can shed some light on modernist legacies, and more significantly, on the ethical stakes of the novel. A Girl’s harrowing narrative tells the story of an unnamed girl defined by a love for her brother and the terrible abuse she suffers throughout her short life. The novel’s staccato sentences detail the fluctuations of the girl’s consciousness, while these internal rhythms are occasionally punctured by external speech. McBride’s own description of her writing as a ‘stream of existence’ rather than a ‘stream of consciousness’ emphasises how A Girl is just as concerned with the corporeal as the cerebral, as the novel painfully explores the inter-relation between the two.[13] In the opening lines the reader is plunged into McBride’s jolting syntax:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut your round. Wait and hour and day.[14]

The formative scene is written in a late, anticipatory tense from within the womb, addressed to the girl’s older brother, the ‘you’ of the narrative, whom the entire novel is directed towards. We get an early sense of the corporeal turn that the narrative will take, as the girl’s mother undergoes a Caesarean section, ‘in the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say’. The sentence is aurally pleasing in its rolling sibilance yet prescient of more bodily scarring to come, while the image of language being stitched upon the skin reinforces the fractious relationship between language and body that propels the novel’s narrative. The discord we witness in the opening paragraph performs a microcosm of A Girl’s late style through its disjointed temporal tense – ‘you’ll soon’ – summoning a prenatal voice from the margins, before the body has literally fully formed or arrived.

The narrative of A Girl is driven by the discrepant tensions in the novel’s language. On the one hand, McBride’s prose provides a descriptive account of sexual violence and trauma. On the other hand, the fragmented style of the language only gives a splintered expression to this violence while swerving away from mimetic representation.[15] This dissonance is viscerally displayed in the horrifying scenes of sexual assault, where the already fragmented language begins to collapse even further, ‘Scream. Kracks. Done fuk me open he dine done on me’.[16] McBride’s late style invites a reading of itself as both traumatic expression, and as a self-reflexive performance of how trauma ‘elude[s] the easy grasp of language’.[17]  It is by inviting both of these readings, I suggest, that McBride creates the novel’s ‘nonharmonious tension’, ‘a deliberately unproductive productiveness’, a style determined on ‘going against’.[18]

Unlike Said’s version of late style which is predicated on the twilight phase of an artist’s career, the significance of lateness in McBride’s work manifests locally in the sinews and textures of form. It similarly emerges in the novel’s relentless, unforgiving tense. The temporal variations of McBride’s prose accentuate its distinct strain of lateness, as a single scene often manages to flit between past, present and future modes of address, inducing a feeling of ‘time suspended’.[19] The switches between fluctuating tenses resonates with Roger Luckhurst’s description of trauma’s temporal disjuncture, as he writes in The Trauma Question (2008), ‘No narrative of trauma can be told in a linear way: it has a time signature that must fracture conventional causality’.[20] McBride’s style, under these narrative conditions, becomes a site for commenting on its own capabilities and failures of mediation. As Anne Fogarty puts it, ‘style is not just a literary accoutrement in this novel; it is an existential recourse’.[21] Similarly, by considering A Girl neither as a doctrine on the inexpressibility of trauma, nor as a homage to a bygone modernist aesthetic, I suggest we can focus on the novel’s stylistic tensions, as they help us illuminate how McBride’s ‘darkly compelling language excavates the affective dimensions of abuse’.[22] A Girl demonstrates how late style and modernist strategies can be recalibrated, to craft a form where untensed time and inexpressible trauma can strive and struggle towards belated, disharmonious articulation.


[1] Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, (Norwich: Galley Beggar Press, 2013), p.194

[2] For more on modernist comparisons and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing see: Ruth Gilligan, ‘Eimear McBride’s Ireland: A Case for Periodisation and the Dangers of Marketing Modernism’, English Studies Vol. 99 No. 7, pp.775-792; Paige Reynolds, ‘Bird Girls: Modernism and Sexual Ethics in Contemporary Irish Fiction’, Modernism and Close Reading, ed. David James, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp.173-190

[3] Jacqueline Rose, ‘Modernism – the Unfinished Legacy’, Critical Quarterly 60, no. 2 (2018), p.20

[4] Edward Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p.7

[5] Ibid.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven”, Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), p.567

[7] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991); Jameson, A Singular Modernity (London: Verso, 2002); Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)

[8] Ben Hutchinson, Lateness and Modern European Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[9] Gordon McMullan, and Sam Smiles, eds. Late Style and Its Discontents: Essays in Art, Literature, and Music. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[10] Peter Boxall, ‘Late: Fictional Time in the Twenty-First Century’, Contemporary Literature, vol. 53 no. 4, (2012), p.682

[11] Kevin Brazil, ‘An Embarrassment of Lateness’, Modernism/modernity Vol. 3, no. 4, (2018), n.p. Brazil also details some of the broader critical questions of ‘lateness’ in relation to modernist legacies, while considering the relationship between literary value and embarrassment.

[12] Peter Boxall, ‘Imagining the Future’, The Cambridge Companion to British Fiction: 1980–2018, ed. Peter Boxall. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), p.279

[13] Eimear McBride, ‘Eimear McBride: How I Wrote A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing’. The Guardian, 10 September 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/10/guardian-book-club-eimear-mcbride-how-i-wrote-a-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing

[14] McBride, A Girl, p.3

[15] For more on the difficulties of representing the trauma of sexual violence in literature, see Emma V. Miller, ‘Trauma and Sexual Violence’, Trauma and Literature, ed. J. Roger Kurtz, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 226–38

[16] McBride, A Girl, p.149

[17] Miller, ‘Trauma and Sexual Violence’, p.226

[18] Said, On Late Style, p.7

[19] Fintan O’Toole, ‘The Rape of the Narrator’, New York Review of Books, 20 November 2014, p.36

[20] Roger Luckhurst, The Trauma Question, (London: Routledge, 2008), p.9

[21] Anne Fogarty, ‘“It Was like a Baby Crying”: Representations of the Child in Contemporary Irish Fiction’, Journal of Irish Studies 30 (2015), p.23

[22] Ibid., p.24

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