IN ELIZABETH BOWEN’S THE HOUSE in Paris (1959), the character Karen, on a ferry traveling from Queenstown to Holyhead, encounters a young Irish woman of approximately her own age who barrages her with freewheeling reflections primarily expressing her interest in attractive males and the hope that she might meet one while in England. Everything about this young woman is strange to Karen, from her bright yellow outfit (Karen thinks of her as “Yellow Hat”), to her open excitement concerning the early and most entertaining stage of the dating-and-mating process, to her general and apparently unfeigned joie de vivre. Observing her at a distance, Karen thinks that she and Yellow Hat seem hardly to belong even to the same species. She reflects that there really ought to be more than two gender categories, given the degree of difference that can exist between what are both nominally young women (89).1
Bowen’s Karen and Yellow Hat are so different, of course, owing to the very different spaces they occupy in the post–World War I world. Karen is awkwardly negotiating the mismatch between the domestic space of her liberal, well-educated, aristocratic family, which has remained largely unchanged for generations, and the cosmopolitan, gender-integrated postwar public sphere represented by her art school friends. And she is tacitly, shamefacedly wishing she could remain within the comfort, predictability, and privilege of the old order without having to forswear the challenges and opportunities, as well as the uncertainty and the risks, of the new one. Yellow Hat, on the other hand, though we know much less about her, clearly embodies an Irish “new woman,” eager to enjoy all that the interwar period has to offer: travel, fashion, fun, and the chance to be admired and sought after. Whatever domestic sphere this young woman was raised in, she is eager to leave it behind.2 We might think of gender in Tana French’s In the Woods (2007) in a similar framework, as a detailed literary rendering of some of the many genders proper to Ireland’s evolving public and private spaces in the later twentieth century, and to the role of childhood trauma, specifically sexualized childhood trauma, in constituting them.
Over the course of modern Irish history, certain spaces took on supercharged significance in the national imaginary, due to the various ways in which they mediated cultural, biological, and economic processes of social reproduction. In some cases, such as Kilmainham Prison or Dublin Castle, the reason for a place’s privileged position in Ireland’s socio-symbolic order invites little fine-grained analysis. These places are to Irish history what the Bastille is to French history: to learn about the culture and its history is to learn what these places mean, in learning what they are. In other cases, however, the role of particular places in conjoining economic distribution and biological reproduction with cultural significance and normative regulation has benefited from scholarly scrutiny. For instance, many who grow up in Ireland continue to read the Anglo-Irish Big House as an emblem of colonial and class oppression, yet work such as that of Declan Kiberd (1995) and Vera Kreilkamp (1998) on the role of the Big House in reproducing settler-colonial relations has helped us better understand its distinctive place in the Irish imaginary. In Transformation in Irish Culture, Luke Gibbons has cast light on the oddly paired, hypersymbolic position of the Catholic Church and the Irish pub after the Great Famine had razed all the other components of the native Irish infrastructure whereby a shattered social network might be recreated (1996, 85–86). Through the work of scholars and cultural commentators such as Kathryn Conrad, Mary Raftery, Frances Finnegan, Claire Bracken, James Smith, and most recently Catherine Corless, we can map how, in the post-Famine landscape, spaces of gendered incarceration and punishment like the Magdalene laundries emerged as both constitutive and paradigmatic of the broader, post-Treaty system of control and appropriation that Smith (2007) terms Ireland’s “architecture of containment.”
This work on the socio-symbolic meaning of particular spaces has great relevance for an understanding of French’s Dublin-based crime novels, which merit serious critical attention in part owing to her attentiveness to the complex ways in which specific Irish places—especially those peripheral to Ireland’s national self-definition—may hold multiple, contradictory historical and cultural meanings. In a nod to Kiberd’s observation concerning Elizabeth Bowen’s depictions of houses, we would add that for French, every place is like an operating manual that tells those in it how to conduct themselves (1995, 369). A recurrent theme of In the Woods is that how we read the instructions depends on how we define the space itself—that is, which elements in the space and its history are accorded significance and which elements are overlooked (see Lloyd 1993, 6–7; Pine 2011, 13–16).
In the hands of Tana French, the mystery/thriller genre affords rich opportunities to explore questions of how we make sense of finite social spaces and the incalculably myriad lives and histories each contains. Focalizing In the Woods to one specific and nationally liminal place, French deploys elements of unconscious fantasy, at once erotic and violent, that are never definitively corroborated or dispelled, and she thereby extends the inherent capacity of the mystery/thriller genre to complicate, problematize, and even thwart the very epistemophilic drive that it exists to elicit. Although the crime that sets the narrative in motion is ultimately solved, the elasticity of its sociohistorical context and psychosocial impetus forms a bewildering stay on the reader’s understanding of its setting, Knocknaree, with all of its “self-contained worlds,” inner and outer, “layered onto the same space” (French 2007, 222). In thus staging the difficulties and dangers of attempting to know even a single housing estate and the proliferating series of traumatic events at that single location, the novel unfolds what we might call a revisionist allegory: a framework that compels the reader to recognize that the initial temptation to treat various subject positions (gender, ethnic, spatiotemporal, etc.) as stable and binary rather than multiple and contingent can only serve to balk our comprehension of Ireland’s topological imaginary—that is, how a specific locus knots together diverse histories with their respective mythopoetic alloys.
“EMPTY YOUR HEART OF ITS MORTAL DREAM”: TRAUMATIC BILDUNG
The Dublin murder detective of In the Woods, Rob Ryan, a narrator both sympathetic and in every sense unreliable, prepares us to receive his account of a harrowing murder investigation gone horribly wrong with the terse caution, “I crave truth. And I lie” (4). His paradoxical confession illustrates French’s deft use of the police procedural to twist and intensify the dilemma posed to the reader by a narrator whose acute, introspective untrustworthiness intimates some ethically unsettling parallels between the work of the detective and the work of the fabulist or fiction writer. However, our primary interest in Ryan’s opening caveat is more literal minded. We are concerned with Ryan’s trumpeting of his systematic mendacity in enforcing the law as the first in a series of pointed comparisons between the work of detectives and other officials whose respectable status, income, and attitudes operate in the service and defense of the Irish state, and the mentality and conduct characteristically identified in the novel with psychopathologies of a broadly criminal type.3
It is perversely appropriate that the nexus connecting these respectively licit and illicit psychopathological performances in the novel should also be the primary vehicle of normative (and normatively traumatic) psychosexual development—that is, the signifier in its inherently enigmatic aspect. As noted in earlier chapters, as desiring subjects, parental figures inevitably impart to their children ambiguously eroticized psychic messages, encoded material to which Jean Laplanche has given the name the “enigmatic signifier.” Such symbolic rudiments serve to enable and even enjoin, without positively enforcing, sexual constructions and responses at the unconscious level. For Laplanche, the introduction of (adult) sexuality into the child’s life horizon elicits a traumatic enjoyment that binds the child to its symbolic occasions and thus furnishes the very condition of their subjectivity. The conduit of this traumatic enjoyment, or jouissance, is precisely the signifier in its extrasymbolic (as opposed to presymbolic) dimension, its infusion of the meaning it bears with a sensory and affective force that exceeds it. Jouissance nests in the material lining or penumbra of the signifier (the grace of a gesture, the kink in an expression) as an interval of undecidability, wherein what is imposed and what is invited grow indistinguishable. The act of seduction merges with the experience of being seduced; the subject and object of libidinal cathexis are confounded. That is to say, the enigmatic signifier is the site, the support, of a truly constitutive transference, the coming together of the (sexed) subject in the field of the other.
Because the signifying form is inherently iterable, the jouissance that is vested in moments of infantile sexual initiation remains available to be reactivated across a wide array of circumstances. The profound impact of primal libidinal excitation thus proves a contingently renewable resource that fuels various manifestations of sexual, sexualized, and sexually tinctured behavior. Moreover, because it functions as a penumbra of undecidability, wherein a certain confusion obtains between the impulses or affective stirrings of the parties involved, the enigmatic signifier is also the primary mechanism of psychosexual misrecognition and manipulation, which can likewise extend along an eroticized chain of association to all other matters of import for the subject in question.
What we are calling the psychopathological performances, of both the law enforcers and the lawbreakers, represent an extreme subspecies of such beguilement. The profound relationality of desire is drawn on and exploited, but in the mood of absolute refusal. That is to say, the radical transferential entanglement that results in the child’s traumatic jouissance is reenacted along severed, dichotomous lines, with the psychopathological agent rising to the imaginary jouissance of a plenary subjectivity by submitting the other party to the trauma of violent objectification or instrumentality.
The psychopathology of everyday detection is so vital to the narrative structure of In the Woods that Ryan offers an illustration thereof even “before you begin my story,” as a framing device for the whole (4). He details the stock interrogation tricks whereby the Murder squad detectives mount deceptive shows of vulnerability, empathy, and confidentiality to inveigle their marks, while inducing them to mistrust and ultimately betray their own friends and confederates. In the case at hand, Ryan begins by flirting with a girl named Jackie, the paramour of a robbery-murder suspect. Such flirtation is an exercise in eroticized indefiniteness, or undecidable eroticism, which pivots on a chain of enigmatic signifiers—vocal tone, suggestive gesture, ocular intensity, and so on—whose imperfect legibility allows them to function as indeterminable expressions of and lures for desire. Ryan proceeds to engage Jackie in a dialectic of transference, casting himself as an especially avid, committed version of her boyfriend (“telling her I can see why he would want to stay home when he’s got her”) and, by implication, casting her attractiveness as the gravitational force in their colloquy (3). He gives her this taste of sugared erotic agency precisely, and psychopathologically, as a means of brutally reducing her to a useful object: first within the fictional scheme her boyfriend had supposedly hatched (“He’s claiming that she . . . gave [the unmarked bills] to him”; 3) and second within Ryan’s law enforcement fiction that her boyfriend had thus implicated her. What Ryan calls his “delicate crosshatching of discomfort and compassion at her man’s betrayal” encapsulates the performative contradiction at the heart of psychopathology, the proffer of intimacy as a self-interested strategy of dissociation (3). And it is precisely the enigmatic signifier that facilitates this strategy by veiling its central contradiction, that fools a woman like Jackie into believing she figures in the scene as a desiring and desirable subject long after she has been relegated to the status of a disposable tool.
Ryan’s effective deployment of the enigmatic signifier to seduce persons of interest into betraying hidden truths depends on his already-assumed or established credibility as an official and a man. Conversely, in a sort of double bootstrap, his credibility as an official and a man happens to derive in large measure from a classic repository of the enigmatic signifier, the lilt and grain of the voice, in which meaningful verbal counters register, and by which they are inevitably, if ambiguously, inflected. Ryan’s credibility specifically inheres in his “good” English public school accent, a particularly valuable social and professional asset in Ireland, as he observes. The residual influence of what Valente has termed “the myth of manliness” lends Ryan’s anglicized tonality an aura of intelligence and competence unmatched among the other Irish-accented officials around him. Of special import, accordingly, is the derivation of his “perfect BBC accent” (9), and hence his manly cachet, from a boarding school that he attended only as a refuge from the continuing childhood trauma incurred “in the woods” at Knocknaree. The vanishing of then-Adam Ryan’s friends, by choice or by force, at the prompting or the hands of another, also marks the disappearance of Ryan’s childhood into his adult condition, a departure likewise indeterminably sought and suffered.
If French’s allusions to W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Hosting of the Sidhe,” by way of the novel’s mythic locale, Knocknaree, serve to affiliate Ryan’s lost friends, Jamie and Peter, with the stolen children of faery lore, they simultaneously link the psychosexual growth of Ryan, punctuated as it is with this inconceivable rite of passage, to the related Irish myth of the changeling.4 On the one hand, the eerie crisis that befalls Ryan on the cusp of sexual maturity banishes him to the woods permanently, in a sense. Allegorically speaking, he remains lodged within the substructures of the national imaginary. Having vanished from public view almost as surely as his friends, he has, like them, run “into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear” (2), while in the public sphere, reports of their uncanny mishap are still periodically circulated by that modern organ of mythology, the tabloid. On the other hand, Ryan has been substantially deracinated, losing not only his country of residence, at least temporarily, and the friends who have been his social ground of being, but also his name and his ethnic idioms. While his own embedded history is definitively Knocknareean, he cannot claim it, tell it, or expect it to be recognized as his own. In this respect, Ryan’s childhood has indeed been stolen and traumatically replaced by a dissociated adulthood that retains only a haunting, profoundly alienated (and alienating) trace of his child self. The present Ryan feels continuous not with that prior being but only with the experience of his disappearance and all that surrounded it. There no longer exists the aboriginal Irish Adam(ite) Ryan; there remains only an anglicized replicant whose name, Rob, punningly testifies to the enigmatic theft that his manly BBC voice obscures.
To say that Ryan undergoes a changeling course au bildung is to say that he straddles the traumatic séjour: he remains in the woods of his childhood dispossession, and he has, concurrently, come out on the other side; he lives the ambivalence of a being doubly inscribed in time, and he has been driven to surmount that ambivalence, more or less effectively, in his daily rounds. Ryan’s psychopathological performances as an investigator recapitulate this self-agon. On the one hand, Ryan’s nagging if shadowy consciousness of a catastrophically lost childhood sustains his self-deprecating awareness of the inauthenticity of his accent and the arbitrary mystique it confers. On the other, he finds himself unable to overcome his prejudices concerning the credibility and even the basic worth of various regional gender and class variants more suited to the modest social milieu of his Knocknaree childhood than to the tony English boarding school of his adolescence. Painfully uneasy about his own past—as his compulsory, awkward Sundays with his parents attest—Ryan repeatedly musters (even while self-consciously deprecating) his own contempt toward the déclassé subjects he encounters at work. Under the circumstances, this pattern of self-refuting snobbery seems to represent a projective attempt to override the discomposure of his traumatically staggered subject position. His ruthlessly manipulative interrogation techniques, in turn, are not just about ferreting out the truth in others but also refashioning the truth of himself. In entering into, only to repudiate, an affective connection with his lower-caste suspects, Ryan forcibly asserts a hierarchical distance from them and, in the process, from the associations they trigger of his own interdicted boyhood. His psychopathological forensic performances are thus designed to ratify his status as a “made man” in every sense: a vested member of the elite Murder squad, yes, but also a fully actualized, unassailable male persona.
As a new member of Dublin’s elite investigations unit, Ryan suffers a certain amount of pro forma hazing, but the general unquestioning acceptance that he receives stands in stark contrast to the unit’s collective response to their next addition, Cassie Maddox. Whereas the veteran detectives take the competence of fellow newbie Ryan at face value, they presume Maddox to be both unqualified and sexually manipulative, her demonstrated acumen as an investigator notwithstanding. Her gender, coupled with her youth, serves, in their minds, as prima facie evidence that she cannot have merited her position. Her youthful female embodiment stands, like Ryan’s good accent, as an infallible index of her overall worth. Clearly, she has made some kind of illicit use of her attractiveness, through seduction, blackmail, or both.
It is, in fact, fair to say that Maddox, who becomes Ryan’s partner, matches or surpasses his skill in executing the psychopathological performances endemic to their investigative métier, including the deployment of enigmatic signifiers of relationality. She is, however, considerably less comfortable than he with these institutionally prized stratagems. Whereas Ryan views the ruses of police interrogation with self-reflexive irony, as an extension of the primary imposture that upholds his entire professional standing, Maddox feels her bad-faith debriefing of subjects to be of a piece with the other performative feints and subterfuges required by the ongoing, gender-based precariousness of her professional position: a strenuously nuanced campaign of (de)sexual(ized) self-presentation to her coworkers; silence about the legitimate, even admirable grounds for her promotion to the Murder squad; confirmation of her heterosexuality without palpable emphasis on her femininity or sexual appeal; and so on. Unlike Ryan, whose manipulative interview style aims to draw a bright, because assured, line between the suspect classes (in every sense) and his own community of detectives, Maddox cannot draw on a similar sense of tribal solidarity with her peers, and the affective lines inscribed by her manipulative practices accordingly come with a blurred or double edge.
Maddox’s superb mastery of the psychopathological performance, no less than Ryan’s, derives from a traumatic episode that has had a formative impact on her mature personality and course of life. On the cusp of adulthood, while at University College Dublin, Maddox fell victim to a full-blooded, clinical psychopath, with a supremely insidious talent for playing on the affections of his companions. Seizing on the complexities that imbue youthful cross-gender friendships among heterosexually identified subjects—a felicitous scenario for enigmatic signifiers—Maddox’s college friend successfully exploits the lurking erotic possibilities in their relationship so as to conduct a protracted slanderous campaign against her: he contrives to exile her from their social circle on the grounds that she has sexually victimized him. Having driven her out of the university and, by a circuitous route, into law enforcement, this ordeal prepares her, serendipitously, both to navigate the suspicions of her new circle of associates, the Murder squad, and to cultivate the self-doubts of the alleged offenders she interviews.
On the strength of this experience, Maddox becomes the squad’s resident expert on psychopathy, its unofficial profiler. Thus, it is no coincidence that it is she who most pointedly summarizes the detective-psychopath correspondence and figures psychopathological manipulation in terms of sexual aggression. “After all,” she says of the drug dealer who stabbed her (thereby qualifying her for the Murder squad), “he had a point: I was only pretending to be his friend to screw him over” (15). The novel extends her analogy to state officials generally, who routinely simulate care, solicitude, protectiveness, and outrage for complete strangers (voters) who are of merely instrumental concern to them. Ryan speculates that half of all government positions are occupied by psychopaths, and in the novel’s climactic scene, the head of the Murder squad, O’Kelly, observes that one psychopathic suspect’s bent for destructive manipulation is ideally suited to government work. For its highest authorities and its lowliest delinquents alike, success in the Celtic Tiger social order seems to rely on the assumption of an empathy one does not feel in order to sell plausible lies one does not believe to people one secretly loathes in the pursuit of ends diametrically antithetical to their interests and expectations.
As the novel unfurls, Knocknaree looms as a narrative emblem and national microcosm of this modus operandi. Built just prior to Dublin’s belated transformation from a Victorian cityscape catering to a small metrocolonial elite and a teeming underclass, the remote Knocknaree was touted as a groundbreaking, modernizing initiative that would make middle-class housing, replete with shops and movie theaters, available to Dublin’s burgeoning caste of low-grade bureaucrats and office workers. If we are to judge by results, however, Knocknaree was, in fact, a highly effective bait-and-switch scheme whereby politicians conspired with developers to build cheap houses on inexpensive outlying land, then to sell them at inflated prices using flashy brochures that promised to support an infrastructure that was never to materialize. This essentially predatory collaboration between the state and Irish venture capitalists is recapitulated in the novel’s present, in which a coalition of anonymous real estate investors and corrupt city councilors reenact the crime of Knocknaree’s inception by forcing the construction of a motorway through the iconic woods adjoining the estate. The novel’s motorway controversy is a fictitious counterpart to the real-life furor that surged around the Irish state’s decision to extend the M3 motorway directly through the Hill of Tara in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Writing during the years when the M3–Hill of Tara uproar was raging, French represents her culturally, historically, socially, and environmentally destructive motorway as a government/investor boondoggle that Knocknaree’s residents are powerless to reject or even, thanks to threats from the powerful, to cash in on. As becomes clear over the course of the novel’s central murder investigation, the corrupt machinations propelling the unwanted motorway’s construction follow the same pattern of self-interested motives and malevolent intentions hidden behind reassuring expressions of care that are ascribed in the novel to both the skillful detective and the psychopath.
The woods of the novel’s title, the site on which all the housing estate amenities were to be built, contain thousands of years’ worth of Ireland’s lived historical legacy, which a coalition of Knocknaree residents, archaeologists, historians, and concerned citizens have been fighting a losing battle to protect. These woods are also, for Ryan, a lost childhood paradise and the scene of that bizarre and still unexplained catastrophe that determined the course of his adulthood. Having been marked in the Irish media and social imaginary as the redemptively found child, the survivor of an incomprehensible sylvan tragedy that left him tainted, guilt-ridden, and vaguely suspect, the adult Ryan reenters these mythic woods after workers at the archaeology dig—desperate to salvage artifacts before the construction starts—find the body of a murdered twelve-year-old girl.
These woods are also home to ancient, occult, dangerous entities: a winged-voiced creature, a disembodied laughter, the pooka that is sometimes blamed for spiriting away Peter and Jamie, and so on. Their collective presence is associated not only with the vanishing of Ryan’s friends but also with its precursor episode, witnessed by these same children: the rape of the Knocknaree girl named Sandra by a trio of adolescent boys, one of whom, Jonathan Devlin, grows up to be the father of both the murder victim, Katy, and the murder’s architect, Rosalind. These baffling entities would be most properly designated cryptids, monstrous creatures like the Thunderbird, Sasquatch, the Black Dog, or the pooka itself, whose collective existence has been widely attested but cannot be reliably verified or scientifically proven. In a sense, the cryptid is an existential version of the enigmatic signifier, in that it occupies a zone of indeterminability between a traumatic visitation of the other and an uncanny fantasy of the self, a positive or negative projection of desire. Entangling the appearances and reports of such cryptids with the criminal episodes to be investigated, In the Woods lends a phatic dimension to their enigmatic function: the cryptids embody the capacity of the horror/mystery genre, in its more sophisticated forms, to solicit and to thwart allegorical readings in one motion. The cryptid figures of In the Woods might be taken to signify the spectral power of the state, the pervasive influence of capital, the furtive predations of child sexual abuse, or the ineluctable corruption of human relationality by psychopathic energies. But they cannot be definitively affixed to or even affiliated with any of these points of reference. In its undecidability as a symbolic counter—built upon its ontological uncertainty—the cryptid proves an especially apt objective correlative of the novel’s signature mode of moral-political obliquity. Evil and corruption, the text announces, originate just here, at the site of enigma—at the crux of the X—where interpretation is necessary in proportion to irresolubility.
“THE CRUX OF THE X”: DANGERS OF UNSANCTIONED MEMORY
If, as Ernest Renan contends, the formation of a national identity requires selective forgetting (1990, 11), then any significant transformation of that identity and its attendant ethos, such as the unaccustomed and unforeseen prospects of the Celtic Tiger era, must enjoin similarly strategic species of amnesia on individual subjects formed during, by, and within these tectonic shifts. It stands to reason, for example, that the sudden influx of capital and the mutation in the social compact resulting from this altered terrain of economic power and dependency could not but generate intense if largely unconscious pressures and anxieties among those vertiginously in the ascendant, thanks to Ireland’s giddy emergence on the world stage. For this neoliberal elite, revived memories and inklings, disruptive to the precarious social and moral coherence of the new national dispensation, would constitute a particularly sinister threat. No such revived memories could more grievously shock the Irish conscience than did the stream of nonstop turn-of-the-century scandals documenting systemic violence, sexual and otherwise, against Irish children. And no such revelation could more thoroughly shred the Irish social fabric than that this systemic violence against children had long been covered up by the same authorities, the same institutions, that were building and benefiting from the new order of affluence. No brute reality, accordingly, was more liable to the distracting mummery of the fairy-tale construct, the legendary explanation, or the paranormal excuse.
Composed along this historical fracture, where the excavation of these memories imperils the phantasmatic social architecture reared upon their entrenched repression, In the Woods stages in small this looming crisis at work within its narrator-protagonist, Rob Ryan, as a terrifying and obtrusive sort of nachträglichkeit or “afterwardsness.”5 Ryan finds himself bereft of crucial and terrifying memories, the recovery of which threatens to undo his mature persona. And as these memories continually shift and morph in an oneiric zone, just beyond the pale of conscious apprehension, they engender in Ryan a habit of anxious self-scrutiny that mirrors the anxious, hypervigilant moral atmosphere of Celtic Tiger Ireland. Ryan likens himself to someone living “on a fault line” (212). Because his approved but consciously fabricated version of manliness is predicated on the traumatic disappearance of his friends and the obliteration of his own juvenile identity, his every intimation of the past cannot but prove at once boon and bane, a promise of lost childhood recovered at the cost of manhood compromised. Ryan’s superlatively, impossibly successful Celtic Tiger masculinity teeters on the brink of implosion; he is perpetually unsure whether some resurgent, long-suppressed memory will be “trivia or . . . The Big One that blows your life and your mind wide open” (212). Still more disturbingly, he cannot in his psychomachia distinguish his dread of such a quake from his desire for its mnemonic trigger. Of necessity, Ryan continually practices a secret forensics, an internal probe into his own personal and pathological history that resonates both with his detective work and with the archaeological enterprise that hosts his latest crime scene. French constructs her narrative precisely to articulate together these various types and scales of “digging.”
The twelve-year-old Knocknaree resident Katharine (Katy) Devlin, whose death Ryan and Maddox are called on to investigate, is found laid out on a prehistoric sacrificial altar in what initially looks to be an easy invocation of Ireland’s purportedly deep-rooted atavism. The dead girl on the prehistoric altar would seem to constitute a clear sign that in Ireland what Seamus Heaney terms “the old man-killing parishes” are still at it (1972, 47). However, the mythic series of violent, paranormal, possibly supernatural, upwellings affirmed in Ryan’s narrative proves disastrously misleading. By the novel’s end, it is clear that attempts on the part of both the detective and the reader to make sense of a contemporary child abduction and murder by construing it as a link in an inexorable chain of unmotivated human sacrifice have both impeded the investigation and abetted the ongoing misappropriations of which the murder, correctly understood, is an egregious symptom. The most flagrant vehicle for “recurring violence so exceptional as to be inexplicable” is folklore, on which the novel draws for its creepy ambience. French’s never-abandoned realism, however, simultaneously proposes sensational media coverage as the modern-day counterpart to oral accounts of monstrous visitations and faery abduction. For instance, the modern newspaper scandal and the Irish oral tradition that informed Bram Stoker’s famous vampire dovetail when Maddox draws a picture of a property developer with blood-dripping fangs in a corner of the visual map of Knocknaree that she and her partners are using to investigate the crime. Ryan recalls that he flinched every time he caught sight of it, a detail that makes clear that the property developers are no less frightening than the pooka, the folkloric evil that haunts Ryan’s most terrible visions.
Maddox’s account of her near molestation by a school custodian likewise blurs the line between the stuff of newspaper scandal and the stuff of fairy tale. She tells Ryan how she abruptly grasped the significance of this disturbing encounter thanks to the flood of revelations about child sexual abuse in the Irish media of the 1990s. In this regard, her epiphany recalls and could even allude to that of Veronica Hegarty in Anne Enright’s slightly earlier and similarly preoccupied Celtic Tiger postmortem, The Gathering (2007). Like Maddox in this moment of recollection, Veronica in The Gathering has suppressed traumatic memories brought to mind owing to the Irish public sphere’s constant infusions of child sex scandal: “Over the next twenty years the world around us changed and I remembered Mr. Nugent. But I never would have made that shift on my own—if I hadn’t been listening to the radio and reading the paper, and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and people’s homes. It went on slap-bang in front of me and still I did not realize it” (Enright 2007, 172–73). Understandably, for both novels, the burgeoning exposé culture of Celtic Tiger Ireland serves to disambiguate the enigmatic signifiers of childhood seduction for the adult women involved, whether as subject or witness. For Maddox, this éclairissement comes in the form of disenchantment, the custodian’s original proposition having made an appeal, albeit unwittingly, to her juvenile capacity for magical thinking, a sensibility nurtured on fairy tale and the fantastic. She recalls that she had thought her would-be rapist might have been offering her marvels instead of marbles, that to enter his woodshed was potentially to become one of those children who pass through the wardrobe. Maddox’s memories of the incident swerve from folkloric accounts of supernatural childhood abduction, the fairy tale in grown-up dress, to the gothic empiricism of media scandals and back again, with their point of intersection acting as a magnetizing hub. As Ryan notes, Maddox “has a mind like a cloverleaf flyover” that can “spin off in wildly divergent directions and then,” unexpectedly, “swoop dizzily back to the crux” (French 2007, 196).
In the Woods thus suggests that modern media scandals both mimic and complement ancient faery lore in their double-sided treatment of childhood ab/se-duction. At one level, the narratives circulating in either mode of discourse carry a certain frisson that rehearses, at a safe distance, the traumatic jouissance imbuing all such solicitations—whether they be to sexual contact, venal intrigue, or flight and disappearance—a blend of danger and blandishment, wonder and wounding. Both narrative genres, that is to say, translate the primal enigmatic signifier of infantile seduction into a more emotionally digestible form. At a second level, and in the very process of doing so, folktale and scandal copy seek to blunt the menacing aspect of these solicitations by locating their source or context outside the bounds of accustomed experience or credible expectation. Newspaper scandals update faery lore in this respect by replacing, as the characteristic site of child enticement, supernatural visitation with unnatural deviancy, the paranormal event with the abnormal impulse. Both genres, that is to say, also function as social palliatives, anesthetizing the fear of child endangerment by turning such instances into unfathomable anomalies, unlikely exceptions to the beneficent rule of nurture. In modern Ireland, as we shall see, public accounts that emphasize childhood predation as peripheral and inexplicable, through the idiom of folklore or scandal, create opportunities to reinforce the Irish nation’s self-definition as a good mother, whose children are never exposed to jeopardy or, as Ryan proclaims, virtually never disappear without a trace.
The reassurances provided by the fairy tale and the scandal report turn on their systematic omission, mystification, or disavowal of the sort of low-grade psychopathic performances we have noted, which might be termed the psychopathia of everyday life: that is, displays of interest or intimacy for the purpose of instrumentalizing the other. The manipulation and exploitation of the affectively charged enigmatic signifier in child seduction or predation is, after all, but an especially odious manifestation of that practice. Psychopathic conduct is not simply unethical; it stands outside, withdraws itself from, the ethical order, insofar as it lacks or suspends the recognition of socially accepted interpersonal norms. At the same time, it remains a fairly representative vein of human relationship itself. In this sense, psychopathic performance enacts the paranormal or uncanny motive so beloved of Irish folklore and scandal copy: it is literally para, outside or alongside the norm, as a departure from that is also a subset of the normal.
This is all the more true, or perhaps only becomes observable, in a social regime informed by a principle of universal commodification, including and most decisively the commodification of subjectivity. In the late capitalist order exemplified by the Celtic Tiger, psychopathic conduct as defined above exemplifies what Lacan calls the logic of the exception. It is an exceptional instance, specifically an exception to ethics as such, that discloses, even crystallizes, the truth of the system at large.
In the Woods attests as much in several key respects: symbolically, diegetically, and thematically. Symbolically, the methods of police interrogation detailed above tend to identify psychopathology with the Law itself in Celtic Tiger Ireland. Diegetically, the murder mystery centers on the intergenerational ties among three cohorts: the 1980s adolescents (Jonathan Devlin, Sandra Scully, Cathal Mills, and Shane Waters), the present-day adolescents (Rosalind Devlin, Katy Devlin, and Damien), and the investigative unit (Maddox, Ryan, and Sam), and each cohort is informed in both its internal dynamics and its relation to the other cohorts by the members’ own experience, enactment, and/or (mis)apprehension of psychopathic performance. The homosocial psychopathia that issues in the rape of Sandra profoundly affects Jonathan’s paternal bearing toward his psychopathic daughter, Rosalind, and her victim, Katy; Maddox’s collegiate tangle with psychopathy leads her to doubt Ryan’s capacity to distrust Rosalind; Rosalind bamboozles not only her co-conspirator, Damien, but also Ryan, resulting in an amorous bond between Maddox and Sam; and so on. Psychopathology operates everywhere, every day in the novel as the chief determinant of its multilayered plot. Thematically, psychopathia cements the plotlines of In the Woods to its sociohistorical context. The murder of Katy Devlin occurs, of course, on a tract of land to be developed in a naked profit grab and in spite of the adverse ramifications for nearby residents and the despoliation of precious archaeological resources. Of greater structural moment, however, is the psychopathic resonance of the two events: the objectification and instrumentalization of the other, instanced most shockingly in child victimization, finds its collective mirror image in the wholesale commodification of heritage that was endemic to the Celtic Tiger regime, whose dizzyingly abrupt onset was also shocking, in its own way, to the traditional phronesis of Ireland. Rather than treating child sexual assault as a deviant outlier set against the backdrop of a more respectable economic and financial corruption, French intertwines the exposure of these private and public outrages so as to peg them as cognate outcroppings of a morally unsound political economy. And it is precisely this narrative strategy that raises In the Woods from the rolls of genre fiction to the dignity of the novel of manners.
VIOLENT GROUP DYNAMICS
Ryan’s surprise upon finding that the murder victim’s identity has been established discloses his predisposition to view the case as a replication of his own childhood trauma, an inexplicable and sui generis visitation somehow connected with the disappearance of his friends. As he reflects on the identification of the deceased child, Ryan seems to bear out his opening caution, “And I lie.” For it is just here that he first informs us, all evidence to the contrary, and with the solemn credibility of a trained criminologist, that “a little girl—especially a healthy well-groomed little girl, in a place as small as Ireland—can’t turn up dead without someone coming forward to claim her” (33). Doubling down at a later point in the novel, Ryan assumes that an ongoing sense of guilt haunts the detectives who could not determine what had befallen his childhood friends, because “in all Ireland’s brief disorganized history as a nation, fewer than half a dozen children have gone missing and stayed that way” (156). It is this very assumption that makes the novel’s individual disappearances so sensational, so seemingly mythic, and so plausibly linked; while in turn the sensationalization of the disappearances, both in Ryan’s narrative and in the press, ratifies the common wisdom that Irish children never, in fact, disappear.
French invokes such popular wisdom to create added buzz within the story for its lurid central events. But she simultaneously and insistently exposes Ryan’s repeated assurances that Irish children are altogether safe as a comforting but egregious lie, a self-serving instance of collective amnesia, outstripping thereby the generic conventions she so deftly employs. Scattered across the whole of the novel are numerous other near and quasi-child disappearances that recall the materially, socially, and culturally specific realities that underlie the novel’s fantastic, gothic surface. Indeed, French systematically references virtually every category of juvenile disappearance that has been pervasive in modern Ireland.
Among these allusions is Maddox’s account of her near molestation by a public school custodian, a plausible case of a near disappearance. Forcible incarceration and suicide are alluded to in Ryan’s recollection of a Knocknaree resident named Mad Mick, who was said by Ryan’s friend Peter to have made a girl pregnant. Peter told his friends, Adam and Jamie, that the desperate young woman hanged herself in the woods and that her face turned black, a detail that suggests that Peter was giving a firsthand account. After the young woman’s suicide, as Ryan recalls, as though from his own firsthand knowledge, “one day Mick started screaming, outside Lowry’s shop,” and “the cops took him away” (174).
The incarceration of girls and women in the Magdalene laundries and the involuntary removal of infants from their unwed mothers both haunt the birth story of Ryan’s other best friend, Jamie. In the early 1970s, Jamie’s mother had an affair with a married friend of her parents, got pregnant, and insisted on keeping the baby. When Maddox and Ryan praise her courage, noting the ruin such a decision could have brought upon her, she tells them, “I think: [it was] a rebellion against the patriarchy” (182). As Ryan observes in response, “She had been lucky. In Ireland in 1972, women were given life sentences in asylums or convents for far less” (182). Finally, French calls attention to the large numbers of Irish children and young people over the course of modern history who suffered a kind of economic erasure through forced emigration or descent into the internal exile of extreme poverty. Of one Knocknaree youth whom Ryan remembers from his own childhood, the murdered girl’s father, Jonathan, explains, “He was a casualty of the eighties. There’s a whole generation out there that fell through the cracks” (234).
Only once does Ryan specifically reflect on the paradox central to his extravagantly contradictory accounts concerning children’s status in modern Ireland: in a passage that attempts to reconcile his frequent claims that Irish children are always safe with the novel’s relentless accounts of children disappearing en masse. In a meditation on why, before 1990, Irish adults had earnestly believed that Ireland’s children were safe, even as it became evident they were not, Ryan struggles to find these adults at worst naive and misinformed, and therefore truly innocent: “It seems ingenuous to say that the 1980s were a more innocent time, given all that we now know about industrial schools and revered priests and fathers in rocky, lonely corners of the country. But then these were only unthinkable rumors happening somewhere else, people held on to their innocence with a simple and passionate tenacity, and it was perhaps no less real for being chosen and for carrying its own culpability” (75). The quality of innocence that Rob Ryan so desperately wishes to salvage and to valorize as the defining element of 1980s (pre–Bishop Casey) Ireland does not, however, protect even those children who ultimately were not casualties of 1980s Ireland, when “a whole generation” disappeared (234; emphasis added).
Crucially, in all the most significant tales of disappearance or abduction narrowly averted, the traumatic severance of communal bonds appears, in retrospect, to have been not averted at all, but merely forestalled. Maddox, for instance, is not raped, abducted, or murdered by the school custodian, and yet over the course of the novel the cruel severance of her singularly cherished bond with Ryan, her partner and friend, at last delivers the long-deferred blow that she has seen coming but cannot evade. Jamie’s mother, too, evades being sent away to a Magdalene laundry only to wind up overwhelmed by the relentless demands of single motherhood in 1980s Ireland, and she ultimately resolves to relinquish (and then catastrophically loses forever) the daughter she had risked everything to keep. Conversely, when Adam, Peter, and Jamie put up a strong and unified resistance in order to keep Jamie in Knocknaree, they believe they have succeeded, only to find toward the end of the summer that Jamie’s mother has been secretly proceeding with her plans to send Jamie away, a staggering blow that both precedes and seems to precipitate the mysterious disaster in which Jamie and Peter are lost.
Central to the trajectory of Maddox’s inexorable loss of the community she had found with Ryan is her status as a sort of changeling (not unlike Ryan himself), a survivor of both a childhood calamity and the psychopathic cruelty of her classmate at Trinity College. The latter experience, far more than her parents’ premature deaths in an automobile accident, her near molestation, or her stabbing by a deranged Trinity drug dealer, represents her defining trauma. The strong and verbally commanding Maddox is able to talk about these other occurrences and their psychic aftermath readily, yet she can only explain the devastating harm done to her by the psychopath’s multiple outrages on her personhood—his claim that she had falsely accused him of rape, her resulting social expulsion, and his subsequent threats to rape her with impunity—as his having “[done] his thing” (246). When Ryan learns that Maddox’s habitual nightmares rehearse her collegiate ordeal, he surmises that they involve her bodily violation, that “his thing” is rape. In retrospect, he realizes that positing physical assault as the deepest trauma one might suffer represents a fundamental error in judgment, perhaps his most disastrous misapprehension. He doesn’t explain why he feels this way, however, leaving the reader to extend his insight and in the process to discern its pertinence to the larger narrative.
In strictly personal terms, Ryan’s supposition that only trauma with a distinct bodily dimension, such as rape, can have severe and protracted psychic effects prevents him from fully cognizing the extent of the damage he endured in surviving the notorious vanishing, years before. Interpersonally, Ryan’s confusion of psychosocial invulnerability with absolute invulnerability allows him to be manipulated by his psychopath, Rosalind Devlin, and causes his singular bond with Maddox to be broken. Finally, Ryan’s failure to appreciate how Maddox’s most painful ordeal could be caused by a purely symbolic as opposed to a material or somatic transaction badly misprizes the power of psychopathic performance in the very story he is given to narrate—a failure consistent with his beguilement by Rosalind Devlin. Although Ryan and all of us to a degree associate the psychopath with bodily violence, Maddox’s ordeal reminds the reader that psychopathy primarily seeks to destroy the other as a subject—that is, as the bearer of a symbolic position, mandate, and value, of which the other’s physical presence may or may not figure as the chief repository. To equate serious trauma with physical trauma, Ryan’s self-confessed blunder, is to underestimate the prevalence of the psychopathic, both in the novel and in the cultural milieu it depicts. Accordingly, it is also to misunderstand in a fundamental way the novel itself, which is all about such underestimation.
Sparing the body yet leaving deeply eroticized scars, the changeling experiences of Maddox and Ryan are emblematic of the perils of growing up. After all, developmentally speaking, the disappearance of children happens as a matter of course, the approved course. It is constitutive of maturation.6 For its part, sexuality is the component of the maturation process that furnishes its most definitive biopsychological impress. That is because it is the component that, having been already channeled and activated in infancy, perpetually harbors traces of the vanished child within its precincts and periodically stages the possibility of their recrudescence. This aspect of sexual being proves especially fraught in the property-based societies that French’s Celtic Tiger Ireland epitomizes to the point of parody. Under broadly liberal regimes, where the ideal of individual sovereignty and private ownership are jointly enshrined, to pass from immaturity to maturity, from citizen apprenticeship to citizen subjectivity, is to become one’s own person, to come into full possession of one’s self, as opposed to remaining, legally and otherwise, at the disposal of another, indentured to another’s will. In this context, sexuality constitutes an especially decisive stile in the growth process precisely because it is also, developmentally speaking, the most routinely contested. At sexuality’s origin, as we have seen, lies a profound equivocation, vehiculated by the enigmatic signifier, between external solicitation and endogenous fantasy, the traumatic imposition of the other’s unconscious designs and the enjoyable realization of the self’s nascent desires, between a seductiveness that inheres in the actions taken and a seductiveness that inheres in the interpretation given, in the gestures made and the impressions left. The amphibolous nature of infantile sexuality persists even into the relatively secure identity formation of adulthood, wherein the subject might indeterminately be said to give oneself to and to take possession of the desire of the other.
Here we have the key to why psychopathological performances regularly involve forms of sexualized violence even when they do not, as in French’s novel, necessarily entail bodily assault. By brutally objectifying, instrumentalizing, and depleting the other, these performances look to secure the (narcissistic) boundaries of the self against the unconscious traces of traumatic inmixing or embarrassment endemic to infantile eroticism. Psychopathological conduct, in short, sustains the impossible fantasy of plenary self-ownership through the effective, if localized, “owning” of another. Indeed, Rosalind may only come to be apprehended because she had been so hell-bent on directing Damien not only to kill her sister but also and in particular to rape Katy before doing so. She thereby evinces a self-aggrandizing will to instrumentalize her boyfriend and “own” her sister in the most gratuitously and sexually cruel manner imaginable.
Given the high existential stakes, psychologically speaking, for all parties to the psychopathological performance, it is perhaps unsurprising that those who undergo and/or rebel against such treatment in the novel often wind up behaving psychopathologically themselves. For instance, Jamie’s single mother behaves manipulatively if not psychopathically in allowing Jamie and her friends, Peter and Adam, to think she has relented in her decision to send Jamie away, so as to stay their resistance until the moment of separation. It is shortly after the three friends have discovered that Jamie’s mother had only pretended to abandon the boarding school plan—as Jamie protests, “all the time . . . she was just lying!”—that Jamie and Peter mysteriously disappear, leaving the young Adam Ryan in a state of complete dissociation. He recalls, “We had lived that whole summer trusting that we had forever. . . . I wanted to tell her I would go instead; I would take her place” (277–78), which, as it happens, he does, when he is sent away to boarding school in England in the aftermath of the vanishing. In a desperate, initial response to this perceived betrayal, and without regard to parental authority, the young Adam unexpectedly kisses Jamie, laying symbolic claim to a right of association and combination that was now being abrogated.
As attested by Ryan’s osculatory assertion of prerogative, the conflict over Jamie’s fate, immediately prior to the catastrophe in the woods, involves the ownership of a juvenile subject, a child citizen. Does Jamie’s mother have the right to dispose of her at will, to impose on her an uprooting and displacement that is, after all, the moral equivalent of abduction or internment, if done against the child’s wishes? Or is the child citizen already her own property and so collectively the property of, proper to, her own chosen “we”? As is simultaneously indicated by Ryan’s kiss, this irresolvable generational conundrum remains deeply imbricated with, if not subsumed within, the sex/gender system against which Jamie’s mother rebelled in the first place. For if Ryan can be read as sealing with a kiss the covenant of friendship joining Peter, Jamie, and himself as “proper” to one another, it must also be seen to mark Jamie as the outward sign, the totem, of that covenant, as symbolic property. With this new assertion of connection, Ryan enters the lists of heteronormative masculinity at the point of its central and most insidious contradiction: the enactment of intimate, interpersonal, and especially eroticized bonds harbors within itself the likelihood of psychopathological objectification.
To underscore this point, French links Ryan’s eroticized assertion of solidarity, by both analogy and narrative coincidence, to the rape of Sandra in the previous Knocknaree generation of lost youths. For this purpose, she contours Ryan’s narration so that he reflects on this episode not just as a possible antecedent to the crime at hand or as a counterpart episode to the disappearance of his friends, but also as an event to be mined in its own right for a triangulated sexual politics that he himself has lived and will live again—as Adam, with Jamie and Peter, and as Rob, with Cassie and Sam. Of Jonathan’s susceptibility to the manipulation of the novel’s other onstage psychopath, Cathal, who orchestrates the gang rape of his girlfriend, Sandra, Ryan muses, “He had been lost somewhere in the wild borderlands of nineteen, half in love with his friends with a love passing the love of women. . . . I wondered what else he would have done for his cause” (233). In an epiphany recalling the diagnosis of a homosocial-homosexual continuum in Eve Sedgwick’s classic work Between Men (1985), Ryan discovers in the motivations of the three boys who raped Sandra a desperate, because unadmitted, passion for one another, remarking that famous biblical aphorism of brotherly devotion, “surpassing the love of women.” But if Ryan’s cognate experience gives him insight into the group dynamics surrounding Sandra’s violation, it also sets significant limits on his vision. He does not, cannot, recognize the profound ambivalence at work in the misrecognized and displaced homoerotic attachments that he discerns.
Sexual maturity in the novel tends to endanger the cohesion of cross-gender groups of children, because under the broadly patriarchal arrangements and assumptions still operating in Celtic Tiger Ireland, some group members, typically the girls, are shunted from being subjects to being (sexual) objects, and hence from partners to property. This shift transforms the remaining group members, typically the boys, into both partners and competitors with respect to the newly ordained property; they are ushered into a decisive homosocial attachment and antagonism, with the latter fueled by but also concealing the eroticized aspect of the former.
Surpassing the love of women yet acknowledging only the love or at least the desire for women, this homoerotic adherence (as Sedgwick famously established) threatens the very heteronormative masculinity it informs. It raises the specter of a certain gender instability at the heart of that masculinity and, as such, engenders an internal antagonism in the individual boys, experienced, however inchoately, as crisis. The erotic fellowship in question does not, as a result, merely surpass the love of women; it overtakes and poisons it. This is the psychopathological dimension of the homosocial dynamic with which Ryan fails to reckon. The group rape of Sandra is literally an effort to deposit the male antagonisms here described in the body of the other. But the rape does more than license the expression of this animosity as sexual violence. In combining Sandra’s physical possession by the group with her violent moral expulsion from the group, the rape offloads and thus assuages that male antagonism in both its inner and outer forms, salvaging the homosocial affirmation of masculinity at the expense of its female vessel.
Or, it would be more accurate to say, attempting to salvage. For Ryan himself observes the irony that while the whole point of Sandra’s rape was to bring the boys back together, it in fact set them irreparably at odds. The homosocial violence in question, and in general, is all about resolving that primal scene of traumatic enjoyment, the enigmatic signifier, which stages a profound con-fusion of subject and object, in the form of an internal prompting externally inflicted. Precisely because it is a scene of both wounding and enjoyment, abjection and the accession to subjectivity, this primal scene resists final resolution or, more precisely, takes its only possible resolution in the mode of repetition. No sooner, in this case, is the masculinity of the boys consolidated, their gender instability settled, and group cohesiveness resumed—through the violent reduction of Sandra from person to property—than the boys themselves are transformed into competitors over that property, menacing the group adhesion anew. Not only does the divisive question of sexual possession (who has the strongest, the original, the preferred, the most sustainable claim of possession on the phallus as the objectified female other) threaten to trump the bonds of shared male sovereign subjectivity, it casts doubt on those very bonds. Insofar as masculinity has been identified, in the very act of rape, with masterful possession, the admission of disputes and degrees of possessiveness reintroduces gender instability, reactivates the primal trauma of subjectivity, and releases homosocial antagonism on that basis.
Cathal’s continuing claim on Sandra as his “real” girlfriend has the effect of dispossessing both Jonathan and Shane in their very (sexual) possession of her; indeed, the gang rape dispossesses them more assuredly than if they never took possession, if “taking her” had remained a future prospect. That Cathal himself proves one of the real, clinically diagnosable instances of psychopathy in the novel is surely no accident. As we have seen, psychopathological performance regularly unfolds here as the manipulation of intimacy to secure advantage and aggrandizement, and Cathal’s stratagem works not only on his central victim, Sandra, but on his partners in crime as well.
The one indisputable thing to be said about the rape episode is that Cathal alone emerges with his fortunes unscathed and his life prospects intact, a successful socioeconomic agent in Ireland’s new liberal order. If madness might be understood not as an extreme deviation from some absolute standard of rationality (which has never been established) but rather as a dysfunctional departure from the operational norms of a given society, from its forms of life, then Cathal, of all the participants in this squalid episode, is the least mad.7 His psychopathy, psychopathy in general perhaps, looks like the very antithesis of madness in the commodified world of the Celtic Tiger.8 To the contrary, a psychopathological course of personal bildung, from childhood to sexual maturity, would seem most closely aligned with and appropriate to the course of national development that incubated in that neoliberal, late-capitalist beast.
If we read the proprietary kiss that Adam Ryan bestows on Jamie as the most innocent point of a spectrum that includes, at its far end, the sexual outrage of a generation earlier, we might well deduce that the three musketeers would have come a cropper in the end, even had the great disappearance never transpired. In addition to the various metaphorical parallels between these incidences, they are metonymically linked to one another and to the larger narrative context by their locale: both occur in the purlieus of the heritage dig of Knocknaree, wherein the central homicide was committed and its victim’s body displayed. Dedicated to the unearthing of Ireland’s ancient origins, the site is also, for that very reason, expressive of Ireland’s modern roots in the enterprise of revivalism, which from the fall of Parnell to the founding of the Republic served to conjoin the cultural nationalism of the Abbey Theatre with the revolutionary nationalism of the Fianna and the Volunteers. In this overlap of temporal registers, connecting the affect and the act of ethnological discovery, the venue coalesces and monumentalizes the evolution of Ireland from tribal territory confederated by blood and belief to liberal state held together by civic identification and property relations under law. Between the crimes and the scene of the crimes, then, there exists an analogy of growth and development—personal on one hand, national on the other. Is this analogy more than casual, more than a coincidence in narrative detail?
By digging deeper, so to speak, into the revivalist-cum-revolutionary heritage of modern Ireland, we can see that this is so. From the “98” through the Easter Rising to the Anglo-Irish War, Irish nationalists strove to overcome colonial, ethno-sectarian divisions and hostility through intensely homosocial paramilitary violence in the cause of reclaiming a country habitually figured as a woman (the Sean-Bhean bhocht, the SpeirBhan, Eire, Mother Ireland, the Blessed Virgin, etc.). In this regard, Sandra’s rape (retrospectively) and Ryan’s kiss (proleptically) reenact in personal terms the gendered dynamic of this insurgency, fought by youths loving each other with a love surpassing the love of women, youths whose rebellious assaults likewise ultimately pitted the participants against one another in a civil war, rather than consolidating the fraternity they sought. French’s odd yet strategic phrase to describe how Sandra’s assailants conceived their partnership—as “the cause”—serves to underscore the allegorical resonance of their seemingly unexampled rite of passage. In her depiction of a traumatic gendered ontogeny recapitulating Ireland’s national phylogeny, French fashions the bodies of growing Irish children as ideologically sex/gendered time bombs, destined to burst into adulthood at their own expense.
In the decades after the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1922), residual division and animus—between capital and labor, landowner and tenant, Anglo and Celt, Protestant and Catholic—gave way to a new crisis of possession and dispossession of the sort miniaturized in the childhood cohorts of In the Woods. The Irish underclasses had come, following the era of revolutionary struggle, to occupy a position that was essentially analogous to their middle-class compatriots, or that could be made analogous in a nationalist rhetoric in which all committed patriots were the valued children of Mother Ireland, a condition explicitly invoked in the Easter 1916 Proclamation. But as a relatively small, insular elite laid effective claim to the cultural heritage of Ireland and, on its authority, captured the state apparatus—the instruments of governance, economic administration, and mass communication—other, more populous groups became or remained substantially if not formally disenfranchised. Their loyalty was in turn retained and national cohesion secured through the displacement of their class abjection—dispossession writ large, if you will—onto the women and the children metonymically affiliated with them. A new hegemonic narrative reorganized all of the existing histories of Ireland with reference to a teleology combining masculinist theodicy with middle-class triumphalism. The social order reflected in and served by this narrative exploited and instrumentalized women for the twinned purposes of biological and ideological reproduction, by mandating their conformity with an ultrarespectable, desexualized yet maternal ideal of femininity already identified symbolically with the nation itself (Mother Ireland as Blessed Virgin) and soon to be so identified legally in the Constitution of 1937.
Interlocking arms, the companionate, male-dominated institutions of Catholic Church and Gaelic state ruthlessly disposed of female and juvenile bodies within an “architecture of containment”—including orphanages, industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, and, yes, the surveilled family home—in order to enforce their moral authority as political fiat and their political power as morally unimpeachable. For most of the twentieth century, the Irish state not only routed vast numbers of women and children into the Irish Catholic Church for training and indoctrination but also institutionalized those, under the same aegis, who were understood to have refused such indoctrination or who behaved in any manner deemed contrary to its precepts of (sexual) morality. National cohesion was thus induced under a peculiarly gendered mode of duress, wherein women (and children) functioned as what Giorgio Agamben (1998) has theorized as the exception: they are included in the symbolic order but only as the excluded portion, vital agents of social belonging but only in being deprived of agency.
The lineaments of this distinctly gendered predicament reappear graphically in the case of Sandra and virtually in the case of Jamie. On this score, In the Woods mounts an organic species of historical allegory. The group dynamics of the novel’s childhood cohort allegorize this rooted cultural psychopathology and mirror its homosocial contours, precisely insofar as they are its historical effect, its legacy. Hence Ryan’s desperation to implicate Jonathan Devlin—one of Sandra’s tormenters, who was peripherally present at the disappearance of Ryan’s friends—in the death of his daughter Katy. It is the one finding that could weld Ryan’s personal past and his professional mission into seamless unity, satisfying his imperious urge to impose cohesion on an irreparably ruptured life trajectory and make sense of his fractured experience.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this finding might also have served as a facile means for satisfying the reader’s cognate urge for tidy narrative closure. But French is specifically concerned in her sampling of historical allegory to treat the discontinuities of the Irish boom with its own prehistory as a resource for complicating the itinerary of her crime plot. To this end, the vanishing of Ryan’s cohort and the attendant voiding of his own place in the Irish social landscape of the time is made to stand for the voiding of the symbolic contract of middle-class theocratic masculinism that had defined his social terrain.
Now to say that this contract was voided is by no means to suggest that the effects of its long, robust implementation did not persist and persist robustly. As Raymond Williams (1973) has theorized, the residual aspect of any social dispensation remains fully in force in its amalgamation with that moment’s emergent aspect. Accordingly, the cultural psychopathology indexed in the rape of Sandra or Rob’s proprietary claim on Jamie does not simply dissolve as either a motivating factor or an explanatory gauge. Witness Maddox’s nemesis at University College Dublin, who pointedly exploited obsolescent but deeply sedimented attitudes about sexual decorum and its manipulation not only to frame Maddox but also to rally all their peers, male and female, to ostracize her. Nevertheless, the emergent impact of the neoliberal winds blowing through the European Union and its member states did engender a new variation of that cultural psychopathology, which the novel’s criminal mastermind, Rosalind Devlin, has been fashioned to represent.
Against Ryan’s expectations, the reader’s expectations, and the entire historico-ideological groundwork in which those expectations are embedded, the main psychopathic villain, like the victim of the featured atrocity of In the Woods, a rape-homicide, is both female and a minor. French flips the script, reverses both the gender and generational coordinates of the fictive and documentary annals of sexual outrage and violence that have magnetized the public imagination of Ireland over the past two decades, from the Murphy and Ferns reports to the Ann Lovett and Kerry Babies scandals to the Magdalene laundries and the recent Tuam Mother and Baby Home disclosures. This does not mean that French’s choice of a homicidal psychopath is intended to allegorize a like reversal in the gendered and generational scheme of dominance that has obtained in the Irish republic since its inception. In casting so dramatically against type, however, she does prod her reader to apprehend a certain mutation in that scheme and in the particular brand of psychopathology it sponsors.
To be sure, the psychopathic tendencies of Rosalind Devlin germinated in the established postcolonial symbolic order, with its officially sanctioned and enforced sex/gender system. Her father, Jonathan, never outpaces the traumatic sense of guilt, isolation, and dispossession he incurred in raping Sandra. His subsequent decision to marry the girlfriend he accidentally impregnated, a heroic attempt to turn himself into a proper citizen-subject, can only lock himself and his loved ones securely within what Kathryn Conrad (2004) has called the modern Irish “family cell,” a carceral structure buttressed by a religiously saturated notion of respectability premised on compliance with normative gender hierarchies, sexual regulations, and reproductive imperatives. The angel of this (prison) house, Jonathan’s wife, languishes in a state of chronic depression, which connects her to yet another female persona of Ireland, Mise-Eire, who is enshrined in an eponymous poem by Patrick Pearse as an emblem of Ireland’s distress under colonial rule (French 2007, 323) but could easily be repurposed as an image of women’s woe in the Irish republic. Given Cathal’s assertion that she was insensible as “[yellow?] wallpaper” (240) and the fact that he has not seen Jonathan for many years, the evidence suggests that her depression preceded Rosalind’s earliest experiments in manipulating her family members/inmates. Although her mother’s incapacity cannot have caused Rosalind’s psychopathy, her mother’s affliction and resulting inadvertence in managing domestic affairs certainly supplied Rosalind with the opportunity to assume authority over, as well as responsibility for, her siblings and to learn young the psychopathic art of parlaying intimacy into power. Indeed, Rosalind ultimately contrives to reconfigure her family unit to her preference, eliminating the sister who was threateningly brilliant and self-motivated and bringing the other, weaker sister entirely under her control.
Rosalind is, in fact, gunning for the biggest game in her family ecosystem, her father, whom she has taken care to position so that he may, if she chooses, be incriminated in the rape-homicide she herself has orchestrated (370). Certainly, Jonathan has harbored (and been silenced by) his well-founded fear of Rosalind’s formidable capacity to mount reprisals for any perceived infractions. And ultimately, Rosalind does “take down” her father, by the rumors she commanded Damien to circulate alleging that Jonathan had been sexually abusing Rosalind under Katy’s instructions. After the novel’s various final adjudications—Rosalind receives a three-year suspended sentence in exchange for testimony against her catspaw, Damien, who is sentenced to life imprisonment—we learn that Rosalind has ultimately succeeded in stigmatizing her father as a pedophile and forcing her family to leave Knocknaree. As Ryan recalls of his last conversation with him, Jonathan has met these injustices with stoical resignation: “Allegations of child abuse, no matter how baseless they may seem, have to be checked out. The investigation into Damien’s accusations against Jonathan had found no evidence to substantiate them and a considerable amount to contradict them, and Sex Crime had been as discreet as was humanly possible; but the neighbors always know, by some mysterious system of jungle drums, and there are always plenty of people who believe there is no smoke without fire” (414). Rosalind’s leverage over her father abides in the scandal context of Celtic Tiger Ireland, the revelations of rampant child sexual abuse and its cover-up, itself an outgrowth of Ireland’s institutional deification of paternal authority, which put minors, especially female minors, at a discount. Owing to his involvement in the assault on Sandra, Jonathan is especially sensitive to even the tacit insinuation of this kind of blackmail, and his remorse over that incident gives warrant, in his estimation, to the threatened punishment. For her part, while Rosalind presumably does not know about her father’s crime, she apprehends perfectly well the pall of suspicion cast by the ubiquitous child sex scandals of the time, and she is fully cognizant of her own profile as a potential victim. More importantly, her flirtatious overtures to Ryan, combined with the care she takes to conceal her status as a minor, indicate that she is both savvy and cynical enough to turn the recriminatory atmosphere to her advantage.
But even as the dimensions of Rosalind’s criminal psychopathy depend on the broader framework of Ireland’s modern cultural psychopathy—up to and including her insistence that Katy be not just killed but sexually violated, and by a man—her brand of turpitude neither aims nor conduces to carrying forward the ideological terms of that cultural psychopathy nor to reinforcing the gender hierarchies that it reflects in extremis. Indeed, what renders the disposal of Katy’s body at the heritage site so ironic for the reader and so strategically misleading for the detectives is that the violent and vindictive perversity animating Rosalind’s sororicide does not align itself, by design or by accident, with the sexual, generational, and institutional politics on which it is propped, like Katy’s corpse on the ancient altar. So while Maddox and her crew eventually solve the murder, its underlying meaning, the social implications of Rosalind’s scheme, remains illegible to the very end. Drawing on her prior experience, Maddox dismisses Rosalind’s miscreancy as an interiorized and individualized psychic malady, an empathic default at once self-absorbed and self-delighting.
A further irony concerning the crime scene, however, extends the novel’s historical allegory to situate Rosalind’s psychopathy firmly in its cultural milieu: the heritage site on which Katy lies is to disappear imminently under the bulldozer of highway construction at the behest of real estate developers. So, in exerting a form of absolute possession and control (over her dupe, Damien, over the fate of her plucky sister, over her entire family), Rosalind’s murderous sexual violence bears no communal impress or historically shared impetus, yet it chimes metaphorically with the will to possession of the Irish moguls and robber barons, determined to screw the Irish community out of any possession or control over the shared history lodged at Knocknaree. In the past crimes that frame the present ones—the gang rape of Sandra and the vanishing of Jamie and Peter—In the Woods reenacts the formation of community in violence, specifically the movement from a mythical state of universalized but unconstrained childhood or immaturity to the establishment of permanent bonds among citizen-subjects connected by guilt and sublimation. In the psychopathological performances of the police interrogation, of which Maddox and Ryan are past masters, In the Woods shows how the monopoly of violence exercised by the state serves to reenact the formation of the modern community or nation along its original exclusionary lines, abjecting and exploiting the “usual” gender, generational, and class suspects. By this means, infractions against the community are harnessed by the state to legitimate and harden the social hierarchies that form its very foundation. By contrast, while the present felonies at the heritage site tap into the same social hierarchies and feed on the sociopolitical environment delimited thereby, they do so for self-aggrandizing purposes at complete variance with the received agendas of the Irish people-nation at large, symbolized by the site itself, or of its legal and institutional manifestation, the state apparatus. At the same time, the malefactors pursue those antisocial ends with either the intentional cooperation or the inadvertent connivance of the state officials in charge. That is to say, here the transgressions harness state power to legitimate (in the case of the developers) or to exculpate (in Rosalind’s case) their infractions. The script is flipped in both crime and punishment.
In the earlier scenarios we flagged, individual psychopathic performances metaphorize the insanity of state practices of self-preservation and aggrandizement; personal psychopathy stands as a microcosm of cultural psychopathy. Conversely, this climactic pairing of illicit activities, two different versions of rape-murder, features psychopathological performances that emblematize the hijacking of public institutions to private interests diametrically opposed to any communally approved good—whether it be the success of a local child celebrity like Katy or the conservation of prized heritage sites. This mutation in the Symbolic Order, which In the Woods looks to narrativize in all of its complex transactional relations to the original Gaelo-Catholic genome, is an Irish species of neoliberalism born in, but surviving beyond, the Celtic Tiger era.
1. Karen thinks to herself, “She and I belong to the same sex, even, because there are only two: there should certainly be more” (Bowen 1959, 89).
2. See F. O’Toole (2009).
3. The novel’s central paradox concerning the structural, not to say moral, equivalence of lawful and criminal or illicit psychological profiles is foregrounded when Ryan recalls Rosalind’s enigmatic conclusion that he was perfectly suited to investigate her sister’s murder: “You’re the perfect person for this case, Rosalind had said to me, and the words were still ringing in my head as I watched her go. Even now, I wonder whether subsequent events proved her completely right or utterly and horribly wrong, and what criteria one could possibly use to tell the difference” (167). Jon Ronson’s recent work of cultural journalism, The Psychopath Test (2011), fascinatingly probes into the dizzyingly involuted definitional and ethical difficulties that attend any attempt to positively identify individual psychopaths. He ultimately concludes that the dangers and costs of maintaining psychopathology as a psychological diagnosis are unsustainably high. We are not in disagreement with Ronson’s conclusion that the simultaneously medical and legal status of psychopathology as a DSM diagnosis constitutes an insidious gap in the (in any case sievelike) civil protections of modern democracies. However, taking our cues from the text itself, we are approaching the term from the angle pursued in the documentary The Corporation (Bakan 2005) and by the work of Philip Zimbardo in the Stanford prison study, documented in The Lucifer Effect (2007). Both media retain psychopathology as a legitimate, even crucial category for our understanding of individuals only when individual affect and behavior are understood within an institutional (that is, material and ideological) framework.
4. For the definitive work on changeling lore, see Bourke (2001).
5. This defining quality of the enigmatic signifier has been translated, from Freud’s English-language translators, as “belatedness” but was retranslated into English by Laplanche as “afterwardness” to account for the enigmatic signifier’s uncanny temporal bivalence. It serves as an originary message that can be apprehended (though by definition, never known) only in relation to a later, reactivating traumatic prompt that is itself apprehended only owing to the enigmatic first message. See Caruth (2014, 11–13).
6. For an especially insightful critical essay that reflects with great theoretical precision on a literary representation of “growing,” see Norma Alarcón’s classic article on Maria Helena Viramontes’s short story “Growing” (Alarcón 1998).
7. In The Secret Scripture, Dr. Grene, Sebastian Barry’s protagonist/commentator on the general state of Celtic Tiger Ireland’s mental health, past and present, makes plain the pre-Treaty origins of Tana French’s Celtic Tiger psychopathy when he observes of his mother’s nemesis, Fr Gaunt—a figure for the Irish Catholic Church in its longstanding role as unanswerable arbiter of both sanity and morality—that he was “obviously sane to such a degree it makes sanity almost undesirable” (2008, 278). In writing about the post-bellum American South, a peripheral space merging into its metropolitan center, not unlike Knocknaree, William Faulkner designates the most rebarbative character in The Sound and the Fury, Jason Compson, the only “sane” character in the novel (1929, 420).
8. Perhaps the most satisfying of Maddox’s and Ryan’s many gendered, minutely coordinated psychopathological performances is the one that they ruthlessly launch against Cathal, interrupting him in the middle of a business meeting and placing Maddox in the dominant position, publicly barraging Cathal with sexually humiliating questions and suggestions that extract a certain childish pleasure (and the childish pleasure this scene provides is certainly part of its point) in subjecting Cathal, securely ensconced within and surrounded by his adult male cohort, to an act of malevolent humiliation that is satisfyingly akin in kind, if not in degree, to that to which Cathal subjected Sandra.