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Nick Laird Is Getting Free

His new novel asks: What happens when everyday life is overloaded with political significance?

Photo-illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Zadie Smith.

Nick Laird has a story to tell about cults. In the 1950s, David Attenborough went to Vanuatu, an island in the South Pacific that had been an American airbase in the Second World War, where he spoke with the leader of a popular, small religion. The cult’s messianic figure—due for a return, they believed—was called John Frum. It had been 20 years, Attenborough said: It doesn’t look like he’s coming back. “And the leader of the tribe says to Attenborough, ‘Well, you’ve been waiting for 2,000 years for Jesus Christ,’” Laird told me one June morning in New York. “And I thought, yeah—I like that.”

Laird’s new novel, Modern Gods, takes up the lesson of this story and wrings from it a full world. Like Utterly Monkey (2005), his first, it is partly set in the fictional Northern Irish town of Ballyglass. But it is also set in New Ulster, an island Laird invents off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Ballyglass-born Liz, a PhD in anthropology, sets off to film a documentary about a cargo cult, or a millenarian religious movement that develops after contact with more technologically advanced societies, often in reaction to the trauma of colonization. There, she finds much about her own home reflected in the island’s violent religious conflict. Meanwhile, back in old Ulster, her sister Allison marries a chap who turns out to have a nasty, secret past. “I wanted it to be strange and full of weird detail,” Laird says. New Ulster mirrors Ulster, but it also pushes Liz and Allison’s world through the looking glass.

Laird’s novels have been pigeonholed as “lad lit” in the past, but they are more ambitious than this gawky sobriquet suggests. He takes as his material everyday things, but for the purpose of showing how ordinary life is in fact complicated and extraordinary. Over a significant and underrated novelistic career, Laird has worked to destabilize the known world to make it more knowable. “I’m full of love for them,” Laird says of his characters. “But at the same time, I’m full of disdain for the structures in which we all find ourselves.” Into that middle point, the crux where human beings meet the political and regional and family identities into which they are born, Nick Laird’s fiction falls.

Utterly Monkey was about a pair of childhood friends from Northern Ireland, while Glover’s Mistake (2012) centered around two flatmates in London who come to grief over a woman. When we met near Washington Square, Laird claimed not to remember much about those two novels, but it was hard to tell whether this was just self-effacement (he kept laughing, apologizing, then looking away whenever I reminded him we were there to discuss his writing). Although these first two novels attracted award nominations and good notices, it is fair to say that Laird is better known as a poet. He has published three collections: To A Fault (2005), On Purpose (2007), and Go Giants (2013).

He worked as a lawyer for years, practicing international litigation. To be a lawyer, he says, is “to take a large amount of experience and find the relevant factor, the salient detail, the thing that would persuade.” Lawyers instrumentalize language in a way that parallels a poet’s work: It’s a “use of the language in which one has designs on the reader. One wants to initiate a response of some kind.” I remark that turning language into a tool is what Seamus Heaney wrote about (“Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests”), and he lights up. “Yeah yeah yeah! I dig with it!”

MODERN GODS by Nick Laird
Viking, 320 pp., $27.00

Like Heaney, Laird is from Northern Ireland. Born in 1975 in Cookstown, County Tyrone, Laird went on to study English at Cambridge (where he met his wife, Zadie Smith) before practicing law at the “magic circle” firm Allen & Overy. He has lived with his family in New York for nine years now, but Northern Ireland has been key to Laird’s project as a novelist, with two of his now three novels tied to Ballyglass.

Modern Gods takes some inspiration from a very real act of violence, the Greysteel massacre of 1993, in which seven people were killed by a loyalist gunman the day before Halloween. The novel thus attempts two very difficult tasks. First, Laird conjures an imaginary place in Oceania, where real brown people live, thus engaging with the fraught literary tradition of using people from faraway places as a mirror for whites. Second, he conjures an imaginary episode of violence in Northern Ireland, which connects to real Irish people who died. On the former count, Laird has pulled off the novel admirably. Belef, the leader of the cult, is a beautifully realized character. She’s motivated by grief, but is not painted as a holy martyr. She’s funny, but she is not a clown.

On the second count, Laird is more experimental. A novelist making use of real violence is in a difficult spot. It felt “kind of distasteful” to turn that incident into plot, Laird says. It is also closer to home: “I lived with many real incidents that were like it.” And the violence gives rise to Laird’s most interesting structural move, a series of “final hours” sections devoted to each victim of his fictional shooting, scattered among the central plot’s narration.

When he was writing the book, Laird called these sections “violent interruptions.” Now they are just titled by the character’s name and their age. The technique recalls John Hershey’s Hiroshima, which was an influence for Laird. “You have these people going about their daily business and then comes a bright light in the sky,” he says. “Priest, you know, going about his day, then: a bright light in the sky.”

“You want the people who are going to be killed to have a kind of life,” he says, which is especially important when describing a sectarian conflict. “I’m writing about Protestants and that side of it; I also want to write about the other side.”

Laird’s introduction of the fictional island of New Ulster represents a new way of attacking an old chestnut. “I didn’t want to write straight, old Irish things,” Laird says. He was more inspired by books like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, he says, “where you follow the character off into a different space and bring them back,” rather than “being trapped in this very small Northern Irish scene.” If a writer chooses to move out of the home and into the world, he has the opportunity to discover and elaborate on connections that animate every place.

“How do you talk to the dead?” Laird asks. “What do you owe the dead? How do you interact with the past?” These are among the questions that propel Modern Gods. Though Laird “set it up a bit bluntly” with the names Ulster and New Ulster, New Ulster is not just a crude reflecting pool for Northern Ireland. When Liz and her colleagues arrive in New Ulster, they walk “past a hand-painted New Truth Mission sign” that’s been put up by a group of American evangelicals. “CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS: WASH YOUR HANDS,” it reads. “THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH BUT GOD’S GIFT IS EVERLASTING,” goes another.

In another section of the novel, Liz drives past a hall that is painted with the same slogan, “The wages of sin is death.” But as we talk about the parallel, Laird slips up with the place names, describing Liz driving through Cookstown, Laird’s birthplace, not Ballyglass. The real gable is in fact there, “on the side of the Gospel Hall and it’s these massive letters and it’s incredibly cheerful. And all the way through, as soon as you drive through Ulster, you’re just assailed by sides of the halls saying things like, JESUS WHERE Or you know, TIME TO MAKE YOUR PEACE WITH GOD. It’s quite awkward.”

This scene also takes place in Utterly Monkey, when the characters Danny and Ellen are driving through Belfast. Danny sees “some loyalist murals on the gable ends” of a new estate. But he “couldn’t be bothered to point them out, and then have to discuss them. He couldn’t even be bothered to see them.” A slogan painted on a wall is the most straightforward way of declaring the meaning of a place, in the world and in a work of fiction. And both novels deal with a core problem surrounding identity in Northern Ireland, a place that very few Americans seem to understand. (Laird doesn’t mind: “It’s a small country, I don’t expect anyone to know anything about it.”)

The problem is that Northern Ireland, he says, is “the last place in Europe where politics are subsumed by identity. So who you vote for is just an accident of birth.” It’s an atavistic type of political existence, one that actively alienates other considerations. “It doesn’t matter that the DUP politician says, ‘We’re going to raise taxes and charge water rates,’ and the Sinn Fein guy will say something opposite. It doesn’t make any difference, for who anyone is going to vote for.”

These books are—in different contexts, and different ways—about the problem of being born into an identity. And one of the things Laird is interested in is “refusing those big narratives you get given, from the church or the state or, in Northern Ireland, from politicians.”

Laird says he tries to “complicate those narratives and subvert them,” and to “avoid this idea of this big generalized movement.” Inevitably, he points out, these movements exhort their followers to wait “for some day of glory that will never come.” Just like the followers of the cult in New Ulster, “all of those things that have to do with nationalism, religion—they’re all about this big, glorious thing in the future.”

Modern Gods also features American characters. When Liz arrives in New Ulster, she finds that a family of attractive and extreme Christians are attempting to convert the cargo cult’s members. These Americans reflect the mania for certainty in Irish sectarianism, but Laird also connects their extremism directly back to Trumpism. “The DUP and the Trump voters are the same. Look at them!” Laird exclaims. “Anti-abortion. Anti-climate change or don’t-believe-in-climate-change. Creationism. One of the DUP MPs suggested last year that Creationism should be taught in schools.”

Laird’s characters are always constrained by larger structures, of religion or sectarian identity or family strife. This produces a question: How can you live your everyday life when it is so overloaded with political significance? It’s a tension artfully bought out in Modern Gods, but it also connects to the actual experience of being in the world. The solution to the problem of atavistic identity politics, for Laird, lies in transcendence; in a fiction that looks for the little things, and locates its art there. The transcendent is also the eternal: the stuff a person “can just find everywhere in the way something moves,” Laird says. “Your characters apprehend things in certain ways. Partly to do with metaphor, I think. And partly to do with the recognition that everything is like everything else.”

This is the chief leitmotif of Laird’s writing. It is the meaning of metaphor itself—“Things are connected. That’s what metaphor is. You look at something that’s like something else”—but for Laird it is also a kind of political belief. It is “a refusal of simplicity and acceptance that things are separate.” In this sense, Laird’s fiction rejects the Irish border; rejects the idea that place A and place B merely mirror each other; rejects the kind of clannish thinking that elects Trumps. Most importantly, it rejects the distinction between the aesthetic and the political. As Belef says to Liz when she arrives in New Ulster, “Welcome to here.”