The other big decision is stylistic. There are sections and chapters in the novel but no paragraphs. Dialogue is not punctuated with quotation marks, and is often interrupted by descriptions and sudden dives into interiority. All of which means that following a conversation takes some detective work. But it also suggests that there’s no real difference on the page between a thing said and a thing thought — you can feel the paranoia creeping in. Thinking is as bad as saying; saying is as futile as thinking.
As Eilish moves further from her ordinary middle-class life, Lynch has to build the story out of some other kind of material. The lyric momentum of the prose has to do much of that work. There are many, many lines and passages of great beauty and power: “The weight of her body has come to rest in her skull so that she dizzies against the wall.” Lynch is very good, too, at low-key but vivid and instantaneous scene-setting: “a low and cold grayness and the fire in ashes, litter strewn about the fallow field.” But there are also times when Lynch doesn’t quite trust the situation he has put his characters in to carry the emotional weight, and the metaphors start to get in the way: “How an instant can slow and open upon some field of other time, she is wading without light through a compounding darkness fearing the surroundment of wolves.”
This is not a funny book; it’s fairly relentless, even before things go haywire. I wouldn’t have minded a little more acceptable, less intense life. As Eilish herself reflects, “Happiness hides in the humdrum.” It’s successfully hidden here. And without humor, as Martin Amis once wrote, a person must “rig up his probity ex nihilo”: There’s nothing to show that a writer is trustworthy.
And yet as the novel goes on, as catastrophe deepens, relentlessness itself proves persuasive. Lynch is extraordinarily good at the bureaucratic intricacies of the descent into chaos. We follow Eilish from hospital to hospital as she tries to track down her wounded son, make contact with her declining father, find a way out. There are no paragraphs because there is no relief from anxiety, only an unending sentence that refuses to reach a full stop.
After a while, questions of complicity, of seeing both sides, become irrelevant. “Prophet Song” is less interested in “Could it happen here?” than in the follow-up “Would you know when to leave?” Public collapses expose private fault lines, too: weaknesses in marriages, bad parenting, personal failures of courage. As we approach the endgame, Lynch’s decision to leave the political context blank starts to pay off. What’s happening to Eilish opens out into a much larger and older story of displacement, as she struggles to find a passage with whatever family she has left into something like civilization.
PROPHET SONG | By Paul Lynch | Atlantic Monthly Press | 309 pp. | $27