In the spring of 2002, as a second-year undergraduate at University College Dublin, I took a course called “Contemporary Irish Literature: Excavating the Present.” I still remember vividly its opening lecture, delivered by the eminent professor Declan Kiberd. As he did across a series of landmark books, most notably Inventing Ireland, Kiberd weaved a captivating story of how Irish history had inspired Irish writing, and vice versa, creating a rich literary inheritance for the writers of the present day. I recall the excitement the lecture produced in me. It felt like my generation and I—the young Irish readers of the nascent twenty-first century—were being directly addressed. At the end of that hour I took away four pages of handwritten notes and a keen sense of anticipation for the weeks to come.

It would be wrong to say the rest of the course disappointed me—I discovered some great writers and compelling books—but the promise of that opening lecture did not quite carry through. The reason, I can see now, was that the readings didn’t feel contemporary enough. The two novels we studied—Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy and John McGahern’s Amongst Women—had been published in the early 1990s. Both historical novels of a kind, they were set in small-town and rural Ireland and described the warping legacies of post-Independence nationhood for Irish family life. Two further texts addressed the Troubles: Anne Devlin’s play After Easter and Seamus Heaney’s poetry collection North. Published in 1975, North could be made to fit into the category of “contemporary” only at a stretch. With its references to a recognizably present-day Dublin, the poetry of Eavan Boland, who passed away this week, made a difference, but overall the subtitle of the course felt misleading; much of the time, the texts we were reading seemed to be excavating not the present but the recent (and sometimes not so recent) past.

That same spring I found myself reading, for a different course, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Set in 1960s California, this short postmodern fable is filled with local allusions and hidden codes that on first reading I found mostly bemusing. Nevertheless, something in the tone of Pynchon’s peculiar prose spoke to me. A couple of years later, reading the author’s epic follow-up Gravity’s Rainbow as a postgraduate at the University of York, I began to make sense of the appeal: Pynchon’s simultaneously cartoonish and esoteric sentences chimed, surprisingly but palpably, with my upbringing in Ireland. Later in the same course I discovered David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and the shock of recognition was more profound still. [1] Better than anything I had read, this book conveyed the surreal and subversive effects of contemporary capitalism (or what I was by then learning to call “late capitalism”) on everyday life. And this was something I could relate to. Coming of age in the Dublin of the 1990s and 2000s, during the period referred to, then and still, as The Celtic Tiger, I had witnessed and begun to participate in a society embracing the “free” market at breakneck pace. No Irish writer I had come across articulated the structure of feeling of those years in the way Wallace—for all his geographical and thematic distance from Irish concerns—managed to do.

Part of this structure of feeling stemmed from the rapid disruption of traditional social and moral values that hyped-up capitalism inevitably brings in its wake. This is not, let me emphasise, a wholly bad thing; many traditional social and moral values—particularly in a country carrying a heavy burden of institutional religion like Ireland—are badly in need of disrupting. Much of the infectious exuberance that accompanied the “opening up” of Ireland to the world economy in the 1990s was understandable and even justifiable; few people would be eager to return to the dark days of postwar protectionism and Catholic hegemony. But what Brief Interviews did for me was to alight on capitalism’s own modes of darkness: the way utilitarian calculations creep steadily into social relations; how the abstract linguistic register of the market comes to dominate the public sphere, justifying consumer display and obscuring inequality; how the ritual giving of meaningful gifts becomes (as Zadie Smith noted of the collection) newly “difficult.” Along with Smith’s essay, Jeffrey Severs has brilliantly explored these themes in David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books; to what these and other critics have said about Brief Interviews I would simply add the underappreciated fact that Wallace’s collection is keenly sensitive to issues of class. Take, for instance, “Octet,” a paradigmatic Wallace story that Severs joins the scholarly consensus in calling “a potent summary of sincerity as call to arms” (150). The story’s “pop quiz” vignettes that lead up to the culminating and much-discussed Pop Quiz 9 all deal with class relations: two homeless drug addicts sharing a coat to stay alive; a divorcing wife and husband from economically unequal backgrounds fighting for custody of their child; a man whose envy of his father-in-law’s “opulent neoromanesque home across town (and in what feels like a whole different economic galaxy)” (137) feeds into his spiralling resentment of the old man as the latter battles brain cancer. This last quiz holds particular resonance in an age of heightened status anxiety regarding property ownership. As three social scientists at the University of Sydney have recently shown, such anxiety is well founded, given the material shift in class relations brought about over decades by a combination of steep inflation in asset values and widespread wage disinflation (Adkins et al). An era marked by copious “property porn,” the Irish Celtic Tiger fits neatly with these findings about changing patterns of class and inequality. In Brief Interviews, Wallace does much to shed light on these and other material developments at the psychological and linguistic level, and the book still feels acute in its portrayal of the cultural effects of neoliberal capitalism, whether in his native US or in my native Ireland.

With these affinities in mind, it should come as no surprise that such a notable proportion of significant scholarship on Wallace has emerged from Ireland. Clare Hayes-Brady and Tim Groenland have published two of the (still relatively few) monographs on Wallace, while Philip Coleman has edited a collection of essays on Wallace that features a raft of Irish contributors. Meanwhile, the exciting cluster of young Irish novelists that emerged to prominence towards the end of the Celtic Tiger period—figures including Paul Murray, Kevin Barry, Claire Kilroy, and Kevin Power (another contributor to this series)—have often cited American writers as among their primary influences. Murray has spoken about the importance to his work of Pynchon and Wallace (Popkey, “Paul”); Barry has repeatedly paid tribute to the example of Wallace’s close contemporary George Saunders; while Kilroy has discussed the impact on her fiction of Vladimir Nabokov (Lozano García 160). When, in a talk given in March 2009, Power claimed that he had grown up wanting to write the Great American Novel, his tongue-in-cheek suggestion no doubt spoke for more than a few of his peers. [2]

There is nothing very new, of course, about Irish writers taking inspiration from their American counterparts. Fintan O’Toole has spent much of his celebrated career as a journalist tracing these connections and affinities, while the inaugural Laureate of Irish Fiction, Anne Enright, has spoken of returning to postwar American realist fiction for inspiration in addressing the effects of a sudden influx of wealth on an unsuspecting society (Popkey, “Anne”). But for me, and evidently for many other readers and budding writers growing up in an Ireland that had arrived in postmodernity seemingly overnight, it was late-twentieth-century American fiction that spoke most directly to our historical experience at a formative moment in our lives. Today, as we struggle to excavate our own bewildering present, this earlier moment—full of capitalist schizophrenia and excess—has come to seem like a relatively sedate and innocent time. Pynchon and Wallace would surely appreciate the irony.



[1] This was not, I hasten to add, because I identified as a hideous man, although there is no denying that Brief Interviews cuts close to the bone in that regard. I have since gone on to explore the provocative gender politics of the book in my contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Wallace.

[2] As I’ve discussed elsewhere, even that archetypal son of the Celtic Tiger, Paul Howard’s Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, was originally modelled on an American prototype, the figure of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (“Re-education”).


Works Cited

Adkins, Leanne, et al. “Class in the 21st Century: Asset Inflation and the New Logic of Inequality.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 9 Sept. 2019, pp. 1-25.

Barry, Kevin. “Something for the Weekend: Kevin Barry’s Cultural Picks.”, 1 Nov. 2016,

Boland, Eavan. Collected Poems. Carcanet P, 1995.

Coleman, Philip, ed. Critical Insights: David Foster Wallace. Salem P, 2015.

Devlin, Anne. After Easter. Faber, 1994.

Lozano García, Alberto. “‘There has been a Celtic Tiger of fiction’: An Interview with Claire Kilroy.” Estudios Irlandeses, vol. 13, 2018-19, pp. 158-64.

Groenland, Tim. The Art of Editing: Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace. Bloomsbury, 2019.

Hayes-Brady, Clare. The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Heaney, Seamus. North. 1975. Faber, 2001.

Kelly, Adam. “Brief Interview with Hideous Men.” The Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace, edited by Ralph Clare, Cambridge UP, 2018, pp. 82-96.

—. “The Re-education of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly.” Ireland and the Contemporary, special issue of Eire/Ireland, edited by Margaret Kelleher and Nicholas Wolf, vol. 52, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 49-77.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. Jonathan Cape, 1995.

McCabe, Patrick. The Butcher Boy. Picador, 1992.

McGahern, John. Amongst Women. Faber, 1990.

Popkey, Miranda. “Anne Enright on The Forgotten Waltz.” Paris Review, 25 Oct. 2011,

—. “Paul Murray and Skippy Dies.” Paris Review, 21 Oct. 2010,‘skippy-dies’/

Power, Kevin. “Impolite Fictions: Writing About Contemporary Ireland.” Lecture at University College Dublin, 24 Mar. 2009.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. J.B. Lipincott & Co., 1965.

—. Gravity’s Rainbow. Viking P, 1973.

Severs, Jeffrey. David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books: Fictions of Value. Columbia UP, 2017.

Smith, Zadie. “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace.” Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Hamish Hamilton, 2009, pp. 257-300.

Wallace, David Foster. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. 1999. Little, Brown & Co., 2007.