There’s been a lot of talk this year about the political legacy of the Good Friday Agreement, though mostly from the vantage point of the present. To those curious of the outcome hoped and imagined for it back then falls the onerous task of digging up the cultural artefacts of the period, of which none, perhaps, is as emblematic as Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto.
It’s right there in the preface:
BELFAST GOOD FRIDAY 1998
The war over, now perhaps we too can take – however tentatively – those first few steps which may end unease and see us there; home, belonging and at peace.
The “unease” which afflicts our protagonist, Patrick Braden, was born of the small border town of Tyreelin. Subject to long periods of inertia punctuated occasionally by sectarian violence, it is here he is conceived — in an act of rape perpetrated on his teenage mother by the parish priest. Abandoned to the uncaring, alcoholic whims of his foster mother, Patrick eventually tramps the streets of London in the seventies, where he is reinvented as Paddy Pussy, ‘drifting transvestite prostitute’. But old identities die hard, and before long Pussy, like Patrick, is mixed up in the maelstrom of the Troubles (just now making their effects felt the far side of the Irish Sea as a result of the IRA’s “mainland campaign”).
To read Breakfast now, after twenty-five years, is to view it through a double refractive lens. Set another quarter-century’s remove from the time of writing, it seeks to examine the destructiveness of the rigid identity politics of that time, in light of an emerging, more fluid self-conception of which Pussy is an early embodiment. So it feels fitting to reread it now that it is possible to assess not only its initial impact but also the meaning it has accumulated in the interim.
At the time of publication, McCabe’s star was at its zenith, and the novel was internationally acclaimed. Michiko Kakutani, the formidable critic of the New York Times, called it ‘the most successful book yet to be born out of the violence’ of the Troubles, and it earned McCabe his second Booker nomination of the decade (following The Butcher Boy in 1992). Its success no doubt eased its adaptation, in 2005, for film (a much tamer affair, about which the best that can be said is that it helped launch the careers of Ruth Negga and Cillian Murphy).
But it is difficult to imagine so warm a reception for the book if published today. In a moral atmosphere intolerant of “inauthentic” portrayals of the marginalised, it is likely that some would question McCabe’s ability – as a straight, cisgendered male – to write with any insight of Pussy’s predicament, and indeed her portrayal is in contravention of some of our most cherished therapeutic assumptions. There is no sense that her transition reflects an “affirmation” of an underlying, “authentic” self, but is consistent with her predilection for fantasy and delusion (she is, in many ways, the archetypal unreliable narrator). It is far from obvious that, for her, the personal is the political: ‘You see what I am is an ordinary transvestite prostitute, not the slightest bit of interest in politics at all!’
Neither is she always empowered in her new life. The ability to ply her trade in the heart of transgressive London is liberating in certain respects, but it also leaves her vulnerable to violent attacks, and it seems at times that she has scarcely escaped the closed society of her youth, as we see it reproduced in the Irish enclaves of Cricklewood and Kilburn. A telling motif of the book is the perfume that Pussy uses to mask the sense of her own “stench”, which has clung to her since youth as a constant psychic accompaniment.
In pathologising Pussy’s choices this way, McCabe invites the charge of a “problematic” portrayal. It is true that Pussy writes her story at the encouragement of her psychiatrist, Dr. Terence, but her circumlocutory style deliberately defies and frustrates any reading from his reductively rationalistic perspective. When asked by him ‘so to all intents and purposes you were living as a woman now?’ her response is characteristically evasive: ‘Well, I didn’t have any yucky briefs if that’s what you mean, my sweet!’ She is elsewhere confoundingly defensive of her abusers: ‘Just because you get a kick out of strangling people doesn’t mean that another side of you can’t be humane and kind and sensitive – perhaps even more so indeed.’
To understand Pussy as a persona is hardly to diminish her personhood; it sheds light on how others too, live out personae – albeit less conscious and more conventional. The commitments of both her childhood friends – Charlie’s to art and Irwin’s to republican politics – in the end leave them no less exposed and isolated than she. When she is arrested in connection with the IRA bombing of a pub, it is the intensity of Pussy’s confession to the police, in its absurd monomaniacal fervour, which ultimately exposes her innocence.
Her persona is inextricable from the transitional years of the late sixties and early seventies, the brief passing burlesque during which she – and McCabe – came of age (before the explosion of punk repoliticised pop culture). This period is brought to life through a cacophony of references —from glam rock to The Mersey Sound to the hit Don Partridge record which gives the book its name – and it pullulates through these pages in all its messy, boozy, bawdy, teeming life.
Whatever its broader legacy, there is still great affection for Breakfast among its fans. In 2020, a planned musical adaptation was thwarted by covid, but it seems likely that Pussy will again take centre stage. As for McCabe, his place in the culture is secured. Following the success of his novels he was able to organise the Flat Lake Festival, an annual event in his native Clones that ran for a few years after 2007. But he seems an uneasy fit as an institution of Irish letters. In 2016, on the eve of the abortion referendum, he warned of growing divisions between of rural Ireland and metropolitan media elites in Dublin.
It was such division that set Pussy on her path, but hers was a path worth following. If we see our own reflection in her portrayal, it is for bad reasons as well as good (consider her narcissism: ’I was completely – I don’t deny it – obsessed with myself’). But she still leads us away from the dead end of an “authenticity” imposed from without, and closer to our desired end: home, belonging and peace.
Breakfast on Pluto was first published on May 25 in 1998 by Picador.
Words: Diarmuid McGreal