The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice
Poor Jimmy Dice. The epic tale of the Diaz family may be little more than a catalogue of calamities, but it seems that its youngest son Jimmy – who loses a leg, multiple fingers, a few lovers and most of his dignity – has an unfair share of mishaps. As we chart our treacherous way through the Diaz pedigree from the 1930s to the present day, Jimmy’s near-absurd bodily injuries serve as signposts to usher us through more figurative family misfortunes. If the time-hopping sprawl or the brutally black comedy didn’t alert you, we’re in postmodern country here. But Ronan Ryan’s debut is above all kind-hearted, and his best plotlines are those that expose genuine feeling over inventive storytelling devices. Eamon and Grace, Jimmy’s parents, are all the more elegantly rendered for being slightly in the background; our narrator, who consistently reminds the reader of her presence during Jimmy’s story, relaxes during other plotlines.
Ryan is clearly an accomplished writer; at the best of times, his prose is fluid and full of texture and his characters lively and felt. But like Jimmy, he gambles, and his formal experiments sometimes flatten an otherwise compelling saga. Many novelists make use of an omniscient narrator; fewer find it necessary to justify their use. The chronicler of The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice, though, insists on her own importance – “I’m more than an echo,” she insists, “I refuse to be merely that” – but she distracts from, more than she enhances, the story. She is in fact Jimmy’s stillborn twin sister, who has latched onto him but can also peer backwards and forwards in time, look into some people’s minds (but not others), talk to the reader directly or narrate from the sidelines. She even allows Jimmy himself to tell part of the story, indicated by a childish handwritten font.
Kate Atkinson used a similar device to great effect in her 1993 debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. But Atkinson and her narrator leave the reader in the dark as to the mysterious and brazenly experimental rules of her world, and part of the fun of reading that novel is in exploring the limits of the storyteller’s knowledge. In Ryan’s novel, on the other hand, our narrator’s frank explanations and commentaries effectively pull the subtextual rug out from under each scene, sweeping away any delicate tension between characters. It’s a pity, because often the plotlines are clever, affectionate, and quietly moving.
Ryan has spoken about how he was inspired to write Jimmy Dice after a dear friend suddenly passed away, and it’s easy to appreciate the deep well of emotion just under the surface of the novel, especially in the love story that blossoms halfway through the book. Ryan’s publicists compare him to Colin Barrett, Kevin Barry, and Donal Ryan, and he certainly captures a changing face of Dublin that feels genuine, without playing to stereotypes. But here the contemporary Irish writing comparison ends, as Jimmy (along with his limbs and digits) gets lost in his own intricate plotline.
Words: Madeleine Saidenberg