Sheepshagger ~ Niall Griffiths

This is such a brutal, profane and violent novel that it’s almost unbearable at times. Yet there are passages that soar out of the muck and transcend the portraits of good and evil. Ianto is a damaged youth, not at ease in the world, especially around people. The curious part is why even his friends hang around with him.

The novel tells its story on several levels. It opens with a discussion between Ianto’s friends. They are in ‘trying to understand’ mode, sorting it out, why did he do what he did? There is no narrator here, just a dissection of motive and guilt by Ianto’s friends: Marc, Griff, Danny. We know at the outset that Ianto is gone. We don’t know how. We know he did a terrible thing or things, but there are no specifics. All will be revealed. And the climax is quite stunniong.

The second level of the story delves into Ianto’s psyche by brief looks at moments from his formative years: Ianto is Five, Ianto is Seven….These are passages that are of a mystical nature, poetic even. The narrator knows the end of Ianto, and so selects these glimpses to add context to what becomes of him.

Finally, there are the sections that move the narrative along. The teller here serves the standard purpose of the third person narrator: the story is revealed in a linear fashion, adding confirmation to the discussion, post-mortem pieces and validating the Ianto that we glimpse in mystical flashbacks. It’s an elegantly structured novel, if elegant can be used in such an earthy context.

The discussions between Ianto’s mates are hilarious and at times surprisingly thoughtful. Danny seems to be the deep thinker of the bunch – a fact which causes scorn and ridicule to be tossed his way. Danny noodles on the ambiguity of punishment and reward in the context of good and evil. If God made good and evil both, then where is the fairness of that? Even though it’s clear that one cannot exist without the other. Each must exist to shine a light of clarity on its opposite.

But why then, I mean where’s a fuckin reasoning in like holding yewerself up as a paragon of one if yewer also responsible for making the other? And I mean really fucking making, like in-a sense that it wasn’t even there before you came along. Yew fucking built it like, yew  put it in-a world. It would never have even fuckin existed without yew…God int this force for good, pure good or love or peace or anythin like that. Fuck no. Bollax. What He is is the fuckin world, mun, this vast fuckin, this randomness…

He draws deeply on the spliff…

Did I mention that these discussions usually take place completely stoned or drunk? Probably should have.

And the afterlife?

…we’re all on our fucking own. We’re just fucking here, that’s all. An someday we fuckin won’t be, an what happens then? Eh? What the fuck happens then?

Griff just shrugs. – Wormshit, mun. That’s all.

Besides the stoner debates on good, evil and the afterlife, there’s the matter of how do we get to be who we are? What makes us become? Danny tackles this question in trying to, if not exactly defend Ianto, at least attempt to come to an understanding. Are there natural born killers? Or does experience makes them that way? Are we, as Danny suggests, “blank canvases”, or is there a bad seed inside evil people? Are some people tossed about by fortune, until one thing sends them over the edge?

Griffiths writes this wonderful passage about Ianto, about his way of dealing with the world around him. High on mushrooms though he is, we can still see into his mind. A frightening place.

He is not really hearing this conversation, distracted as he is with the high humming in his head and the bright patterning on Malcolm’s jumper. Led by Roger as he has been led by the movements and imperatives of others seen or unseen touched or untouchable since he was born he will move when Roger moves and stop when Roger stops and make some noise in his throat when addressed. In street and within buildings he can only do this: it is when he is apart from the noisy human traffic that he can feel other whisperings in and from his heart, hear other murmurings from souls both carbonaceous and siliceous and at those times when he feels he’ll die if he doesn’t do their hidden biddings.

Ianto has a wholly unformed personality, a sense of self that is non-existant

Danny touches on a facet of serial killers or mass murderers that has a ring of truth to it. While most people will live their lives in anonymity and will pass into “wormshit or dust in-a wind”, these all too common random acts of violence are a cry for recognition: I was here.

…people’ll still be talkin about Ianto, he’ll still be kind of here an remembered when the only fuckin proof that we ever bleedin existed will be ar names engraved on ar bastard tombstones . …hasn’t Ianto fuckin succeeded in some ways? I mean, he’s gonner be remembered…Int that what we all fuckin live for? What we all try to achieve? I mean, fuck, how can we ever stand it, to be ordinary. How can we ever fuckin bear it, not to be remarkable, likes, not to be fuckin…marvelous. It’s all fucking shite mun. The whole bleedin world is.

The view from the disaffected, from the lower rungs. In the middle somewhere, we’re mostly content to live quiet lives. But at the bottom, the rage can be palpable. When you can’t even have an expectation to reach the middle, the enticement is to drag down others to you. And then show them what it’s like down there. In the hole that you’re in.

In the sections where the gang is drinking, smoking weed, eating mushrooms, popping e, and talking about all these philosophical questions, there is only dialogue. Conversation. I read these mostly out loud, and it was a kick. I’d suggest anyone reading this do the same. But not in fuckin public, like.




Filed under Books

2 responses to “Sheepshagger ~ Niall Griffiths

  1. PatD

    Another fine review, Charlie.

    One of the many things that wow’d me about this book was the vivid portrayal of a rave. Stunning stuff.

    Also, there’s an insinuated hypocrisy in the friends’ judgement of Ianto that brings Griffiths’ writing to a remarkable level, considering he was so young when he wrote this.

    The naturalist scenes (for wont of a better word) are very old soul Blakean.

  2. Pingback: The Infinities ~ John Banville « Chazz W

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