Robert McLiam Wilson was born in Belfast on 24 February 1966 and studied English at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. He is the author of the novels Ripley Bogle (1989), winner of the Hughes Prize, a Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Irish Book Award and the Betty Trask Prize; Manfred's Pain (1992); and Eureka Street (1996), winner of the Belfast Arts Award for Literature. He is also the author, with Donovan Wylie, of The Dispossessed (1992), a non-fiction book about poverty. In 2003, Robert McLiam Wilson was named by Granta magazine as one of 20 'Best of Young British Novelists', despite the fact that he has not published new work in English since 1996. His next novel, Extremists, will be published shortly.
One of the generation of writers who grew up during the Northern Irish Troubles, Robert McLiam Wilson's novels combine a youthful and irreverent iconoclasm with a commitment to registering the suffering of his native Belfast.
Like his contemporary, Glenn Patterson, he turned to fiction to explore the ambiguities of a Northern Irish identity and the unravelling of its nationalist and unionist ideologies. In Wilson's case, however, the resort to prose was also a stated rejection of an Ulster poetic tradition which he regarded as having indulged in nationalist piety and political evasion, and which he would condemn through the vicious caricature of a Seamus Heaney-like poet in Eureka Street (1996). Fiction, by contrast, provides Wilson with a post-modern space where competing narratives and unreliable narrators serve to rupture historical and political complacencies. Simultaneously, his books employ traditional frameworks within which, under the acknowledged influence of Dickens or 'the punitive moral guidance of the Victorian novels', he ultimately retrieves individual values and humanist resolutions from the tension of Northern Irish life. Wilson's debut novel, Ripley Bogle, (1989), is an ironic bildungsroman of sorts, in which the eponymous protagonist, a tramp in London, describes over a period of four days the events of his childhood and adolescence in a Catholic working-class district of Belfast. These memories, many of which derive from Wilson's own experience, form a disturbing and violent history of the Troubles presented from the perspective of a jaundiced naivety, a boyhood innocence prematurely destroyed: 'I spent a great deal of my childhood seeing things that I shouldn't have seen and making the acquaintance of uncomfortable notions that certainly could have waited a decade or so for their entrance. Murder, violence, blood, guts and sundry other features of Irish political life tend to telescope one's development a little as you can imagine.' From a traumatic account of a young woman brutally punished for her liaison with a British soldier to the excitement of a paratrooper raid on his home in the middle of the night, Bogle's stories are presented with a fake insouciance, and accompanied by an embittered commentary on the pressures and contradictions of the identity politics endemic to this unorthodox upbringing. Increasingly alienated from all the trappings of his home, he abandons Belfast, 'a shitty city, leprous and not too pretty', only to find that England and the English are equally problematic and his peers at Cambridge University, which he briefly attends, contemptible in their vacuous superiority. 'Touched with no other love, they were the rules of their own aridities...There was little personality and no soul.' Dropping out of society altogether becomes the only possible means of sustaining some integral and authentic version of the self. Ripley Bogle relies heavily on a self-conscious fictionality, combining traditional narrative with dramatised scenes and songs, and cynically juxtaposing a romantic sensitivity with departures into vaudeville, slapstick and scatological humour. Its lengthy descriptions of the cold and hungry existence of a London tramp throw into sharp relief both the gruesome, vivid fascination of the Troubles material and the acerbic comedy of the scenes set in Cambridge. The novel frequently over-reaches itself, but perhaps its tendencies to logorrhoea and formal incontinence can be read as symptomatic of an identity out of control, released from political and ethnic containments but lacking, as a result, any secure parameters. Through such devices, Wilson began his assault on the urbanity and comparative restraint of Ulster literary tradition. His aggression in fiction was paralleled, meanwhile, by journalistic attacks on what he identified as the fossilised macho culture of his home. Condemning the paramilitaristic fantasies and pervasive gun-culture of Northern Ireland's 'unvelvet manhood', he also gave an insight into his understanding of the novelist's rationale, specifically his capacity to empathise with both the perpetrators and the victims of violence. 'In order to understand, to estimate the suffering of others, we basically pretend that we are them', he wrote. 'We put ourselves in their place. We swap shoes. (Perhaps fiction, that organised shoe swapper, has some point after all).' (Irish Review, spring 1991). At once self-deprecatory and egotistical, the statement conveys the fundamental impulse towards responsibility underlying Wilson's characteristic abrasiveness and scepticism. And indeed, it is romanticism as much as scepticism, which determines the outline of his most recent novel. Following the less successful Manfred's Pain (1992), which deals with an embittered and lonely Jewish man in London, Eureka Street returns to Belfast, but in a celebration of the city as a modern, pluralist metropolis. Set around the time of the IRA's first ceasefire, it twins Jake Jackson, a Catholic repossession merchant, and Chuckie Lurgan, his freeloading Protestant counterpart, in a picaresque study of Northern Irish relationships and transactions. The dark shadows of terrorism persist, (and the novel features a graphic account of a bomb exploding), but the emphasis shifts to fresh incentives in a society growing tired of the ethnic and religious distinctions of the past. The pessimism of Ripley Bogle is replaced by a new-found faith in Belfast itself, expressed in several set-piece paeans to the city which celebrate its evocative topography and urban multiplicity, and which ironically relocate a poetic discourse within the boundaries of prose: 'The city rises and falls like music, like breathing. The sleeping streets feel free. The southside shopfronts and the streetlit sidewalks echo empty. Near Hope Street, a stray drinker walks late and wavy. In a small house in Moyard, a thin man lies sleepless and old. On Carmel Street, a dark young woman stalks fearfully in slippers, looking for her cat. There are small events everywhere. On Cedar Avenue, on Arizona Street, Sixth Street and Electric Street, the Royal Ulster Constabulary stand around in damp little groups, keeping an eye on nothing, stopping infrequent cars, checking licences, radioing control. Hello, Control?'It is fitting that Dickens appears briefly as a character in Eureka Street, for this book again exhibits Wilson's neo-Dickensianism; the use of caricatures and grotesques, of metonymic and symbolic devices, of a broad and colourful canvas, of humour compounded with pathos. And what the novel attempts, in fact, is the confident resolution of classic realism - the working out of various plot-strands towards appropriately moral conclusions, and the humanist redemption which the opening line of the book - 'All stories are love stories' - anticipates from the outset. For all his intended iconoclasm and irreverence therefore, and despite the inevitable bleakness of his raw material, Wilson's agenda as a novelist of contemporary Northern Ireland would seem to be both life-affirming and restorative.