By Chuck Richardson
Elisabeth Sheffield’s Ire Land (A Faery Tale)’s energy and strangeness, which grow with every page, begins immediately with an odd letter to protagonist Sandra Dorn’s daughter, Kew, from the Director of Queer Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, where Sandra had miraculously landed a temporary lecturing gig after some unspecified meltdown at her previous job.
Her boss, Malachi McLaughlin, for some reason writes the letter from Dorn’s room, which he’s apparently occupying at that moment and hoping to rent if a deal can be struck with the landlord. Along with the letter is a packet containing Sandra’s email correspondence with someone in Belfast, which mark the supposed “last nine months” of her life. Of course, this is according to Malachi, who writes how he “recovered [them] from her laptop, which I cut, pasted and reorganized—tidied up, so to speak—to provide you with an account…” So, right away, the paranoid reader suspects some kind of trick.
Who’s really writing this letter and why?
It’s Dorn’s supposed missives to the mysterious Madmaeve that grease one’s suspension of disbelief while tweaking one’s paranoia, which drive the narrative of Ire Land forward from there. Dorn’s tone is combative, its erudite content punctuated by McLaughlin’s marginal comments, which grow increasingly peculiar as the pages turn. Everything grows weirder, and the apparent motivation of this growing strangeness is the desire to erase boundaries between time and space, death and sensuality, male and female and, perhaps most importantly, enchantment and disenchantment. Dorn wants to escape the insufferable, humiliating descent of her bloated, “manky” body, revivifying her youthful joie de vivre in the process.
Sheffield, by placing Dorn’s narrative in the liminal space seaming binaries of mind-body, human-nature, young-old, male-female and quick-dead together, sends the reader off on a slipstream of animal-“fucki,” Earth spirit-projecting a phase space trajectory of whitewater faery rage. Dorn allegedly writes the action, or cognition, of exploding dualities, conveying how such explosions feel from the inside-out while breaking cultural norms, upending habits, failing to function in functioning society…something “the troubles” of men never stop trying to fix, placing their efforts on the habit side of patriarchal colonialism and oppression, which, of course requires novelty, among many other things, to combat and otherwise contend with.
As the uncanny reaction to such authority, the trickster subverts social norms by mucking up what separates human from beast, and, by their antics, become a catalyst disrupting routine to re-fashion it in the new way the tricked are perceiving things; this while remaining unaffected their self. That’s the essence of the trickster. The tricked, by experiencing their implosion of self as the trick’s effect, which also in turn explodes the traditional male/female binaries and mind/body dualities, etc., which would otherwise calm them back into their habits, are made irrelevant to their newfound situation. There’s no going back, unless you’re somehow tricked into believing Santa Claus is real. And that’s quite a trick. Requiring something of a literary shaman to re-enchant the jaded, aging reader back to a childlike openness, thus increasing one’s possibilities.
Sheffield works Dorn’s magical/alchemical transformation via the protagonist’s obsessive mixing of biology and ego, with body and identity decaying unto disappearance without any diminishment in Sandra’s lucidity. Here we feel the trickster [is it Dorn or Malachi?] struggling to re-enchant a disenchanted body, to metamorphose via animal-fungal magic into a new embodied action or new reality.
First, let’s consider how disenchantment begins, how Dorn [or Malachi] attacks that which she perceives oppressing her. Sandra writes of another woman, same generation as she with whom she has history, who has replaced her in her regular circle of friends following Dorn’s mysterious fall from academic grace:
[She was a] an English performance artist whose act
in those days involved the vaginal incubation of blood sausages, which were then externally minced, inserted with toothpicks and served to audience members from a white plastic tray. Marian was against meat, which she described as part of the global phallocarnacy…
Later, when describing the smell of a young lover’s socks:
Andy mumbled an apology for the manky odor. That was one of Kevin’s words, the one he used to describe me when I was menstruating, though that was an inside thing, seeping out. My manky smell had once turned Kevin on, by the way, which was one of the things I liked about him, back in New York. His enthusiasm for crossing erotic borders and boundaries. That was all gone in Belfast…I had assumed the personal was a reflection of the political.
And finally, after waking from the experience of possibly growing fur:
I thought about my hallucinatory dream [getting fur] the night before, as well as the body I was standing in right then and for a moment felt the accumulated caprice of the latter—that it was finally, a series of biological gaffes and material incompetencies hardened into a joke that was no longer funny.
Now striving after re-enchantment, Dorn writes of the “association of mushrooms…with faery rings…changeling illegitimacies and other elfin excesses…mushrooms… are all…penises…are mushrooms plants or animals?…They are neither, even though they share characteristics of both. The fucki are a kingdom unto themselves…held together by some subterranean mycelium.”
Next, Sandra, feeling like she’s starting to grow hidden fur, stars in a film, orally milking a cow, which accelerates her transformation as the heifer drowns her gut pouch. Her slow transition from aging woman to young rabbit accelerates until she’s accidentally shot in the thigh by her brother. The humans, as is their wont, don’t seem to recognize her transformation, or choose not to speak of it to her face.
Sandra’s performance, witnessed by multiple people and caught on film, borders on bestiality: “I sucked as hard as I could, but still nothing came.”
This taboo-breaking border transgression is, seemingly, the transformational mechanism triggering the woman-to-rabbit metamorphosis, at least in Sandra’s mind:
[F]inally I tore my lips away, wiping my mouth with my paw….piss gushed down between my legs. And then I bolted…the wind rippling my pelt…exulting in the power of my long strong legs flipping them all off with my white flap of a tail even as my newly sharp ears and nose told me I hadn’t lost them yet…
Ire Land tricks by functioning as a “pattern-making kit,” which is how Sheffield describes Hellen Keller Really Lived, her third novel, in an interview with Bookslut. Consider the arrangement of scales forming the text’s reality. The largest scale is the external, namely Sheffield and us, the readers. The reader takes Kew’s place, receiving the text. Sheffield’s spot is assumed by Malachi. The next scale in is that of Sandra and Madmaeve, where Madmaeve functions as reader and Sandra, writer. If, at any time, Madmaeve the reader becomes Malachi the editor and possible writer, the whole fractal pattern inverts, and the scales try turning inside-out, putting the reader in Sandra’s position as the object the subject’s ultimately working on…and a transformation, even metamorphosis, occurs in which the disenchanted writer-reader becomes the enchanted reader-writer. It’s as if faery and ire lands are entangled, whatever happens one place happens in an inverted, or mirror, form simultaneously in the other.
Being the text’s object, and thus reading it as Kew, one might wonder who Malachi is, how they function, and what they’re doing in your missing mother’s room. One margin note indicates that McLaughlin’s quite familiar with Dorn and Kew, giving her [us] historical family background with intimate detail: “By the time you were born, your mother…had become a pain in the neck,” and so you can’t help but question the veracity of the text as presented by this mysterious character. Just how much “editing” did Malachi do? What’s their stake in this communication? You might also speculate about Madmaeve’s identity, as no details are ever given beyond their being a radical feminist blogger.
So, early on, you can’t help but feel a trick is brewing. Outlining the nature of that trick is what’s so much fun about Sheffield’s amazing navigation of liminal space, that seam weaving human into inhuman and vice versa, so each coalesces with the other to the point of indistinguishability, so the capacity to identify differences between faery land and ire land, man and woman, human and inhuman is extinguished.
The sense of being conned or tricked by what you’re reading only grows as you learn Sandra was apparently invited to guest lecture at Queen’s University Belfast by Jeanine Malarkey, professor of sociology and Director of the Queer Studies Program. You begin suspecting how Malachi, Madmaeve and Malarkey might all be the same shapeshifting trickster, functioning from the same space. Toward the end, an old woman Dorn dreams of in her dream class—is she Madmaeve? Malachi? Malarkey?—comments on her lecture, addressing the students:
The point is that you have no real self of yer own, boyo. And we Irish have always known this, have we not? For t’is in practically all the old tales, in the warp-spasm and in the Celtic phenomenon of shape-shifting, taken for granted by our ancestors the same way we now take for granted electricity or the internet. A hawk to-day, a boar yesterday, wonderful instability. But t’is a world view that does yer head in and that is why we’ve always fought
each other so. If I can kill you, and live, then surely I’m me self and not you.
Elisabeth Sheffield’s Ire Land (A Faery Tale) is as complicated in the end as it feels in the beginning. You might as well put up your dukes and fight when angry, fuck when charmed…never remembering a face to credit or blame…as consciousness “drains away in the end, whether we slit our wrists or not.”