Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In this, his fourth novel, John McGahern significantly extends his artistic and intellectual range. An overture to this development may be discerned in his collection of short stories, Getting Through (1978), particularly in the area of sexual bleakness and the alienation which this author seems to believe is endemic to urban life. The sophistication of The Pornographer, and its successful—if, on occasion, somewhat tentative—combination of the humanly individual and the conceptually abstract mark a decisive step forward in his development. It is particularly agreeable to find some venomously satiric sociological observations here, McGahern’s work having hitherto been marked to an undue degree by passivity and stoicism.

These observations are also significant in the context of this novel’s place in contemporary Irish fiction. It is difficult to think of another novel besides The Pornographer which addresses so directly some of the recent changes in Irish society. Conflict between metropolitan isolation and rural gregariousness, between the license of individual self-satisfaction and the obligations of family solidarity, between the responsibilities implicit in sexual ethics and personal freedom—all these issues have been very much in the foreground of public debate in contemporary Ireland. It is not the least important aspect of The Pornographer that it has successfully struck such a resonant sociological chord, though it should not be heard above this novel’s subtle orchestration of less timebound themes.