When reading The Bee Sting, I laughed, I cried, and I even winced recalling memories from my first semester of college. Once, like the clueless fresher that I was, I asked a question in a lecture and the professor laughed at me. Another time, my friend tripped walking into the tutorial room and the same professor quipped, “This makes sense because we’re covering comedy this week” which I doubt made her feel any less mortified. We both laughed, her to mitigate embarrassment and me because it was hilarious.
Much like The Bee Sting, college is a tragicomedy – supposed to be the best of times but frequently also the worst. Although we may wish otherwise, the lamentable truth is that we cannot leave our former selves behind when we enter College’s illustrious halls. In our haste to fit in with what we perceive as normalcy, we may slam the coffin lid on our inner identities and bury those suckers six feet underground, only to realise with a sinking feeling that the demented clown of the past is waving to us from beneath the Campanile’s arch.
“In our haste to fit in with what we perceive as normalcy, we may slam the coffin lid on our inner identities and bury those suckers six feet underground.”
We cannot escape who we really are. The Bee Sting, currently longlisted for the Booker prize, covers topics from the 2008 recession to family secrets and Irish generational trauma. Moreover, author and Trinity English alum, Paul Murray sets many of the most important episodes on Trinity grounds. I would argue that this is a relevant choice. From my perspective, among the novel’s most salient points is a critique of performativity at the expense of one’s true feelings. While the antiquated opinions of George Salmon and George Berkeley may blessedly be vanquished to the grave, these vanity fairgrounds – concealing insecurities around sexuality, mental health, class and climate change under a complacent mask – are still alive and coursing through the lifeblood of today’s student body.
She’s a poet and she doesn’t even know it. The first character we are introduced to is Cass. Cass is in love with her best friend Elaine, which is not a spoiler because it is glaringly obvious to everyone but her. Even when they both make out with boys, Cass describes her experience in terms of factual disgust while she scrutinises what Elaine is doing besides her. Despite this, she does not admit her love even after she realises her affections. Instead, Cass opts for the age-old excuse: “I’ll tell her later.” For a class assignment, Cass writes a lovely poem that to the reader is clearly about Elaine. “Hand in hand, night by night, we are flying out of sight / No one can touch us when we fly /Our words, our dreams become the sky.” Despite her inspiration, when her teacher asks, Cass insists that her poem is about one of the most heterosexual of romances, Twilight.
Shockingly, leaving the truth unsaid does not bode well for Cass. At Trinity College, Dublin where she also studies English, she implicitly realises the nature of her affections but keeps silent even when Elaine announces she is bi. Her social status also precludes her from pursuing love interests unapologetically due to their unconventional interests, even as it becomes clear that her and Elaine are very different people when it comes to their personalities. This suppression leads her to fall into a depressive state. The ironic thing is that in suppressing her true feelings, because she is afraid how it would impact her relationship to Elaine, she drives the object of her affections away. Murray illustrates how finding one’s true self in college can be an alienating process when it confounds your expectations of normalcy.
“Finding your true self in college is alienating when it confounds your expectations of normalcy.”
Her father, Dickie, also denies his true self. When he was in College, he also explored his sexuality and fell in love with a charismatic student from The Hist, described amusingly as “the stomping ground of a certain Trinity ‘type’.” He found solace at college in more ways than one, as Dickie is much too thoughtful and scholarly than his home town permits, which validates only sportsmanship and extroversion. Yet after going home after a death in the family, he feels compelled to take over the family car dealership and marry his eventual wife and the mother of Cass, Imelda. His lover pleads with him to no avail.
Murray reveals not only that appearances lie to us, but they do so to our active detriment. It turns out the family’s problem – the failure of the business – is not due to the recession, but result from Dickie’s denial of his true self. He becomes too intellectually concerned with conserving natural resources to be an effective salesman. As Cass notes: “more than once Cass had seen her father talk someone out of buying a car.” He also has no ruthless business instinct. His sexual repression means that his marriage is rooted in a fundamental incompatibility. Eventually, Dickie faces financial ruin because someone takes advantage of his stifled personal identity. Neighbours previously jealous of their wealth note: “A fall as dizzying as the Barnes’s couldn’t come from simple economics. There had to be a moral element.” They don’t know how right they are. Only it’s not pride goeth before the fall; it’s self-deception before the bee stings.
The culture of lies pervades the entire family dynamic. Dickie’s wife Imelda also denies her true self, lying rather than admitting to the reality of abuse. She marries Dickie rather than defining her identity away from Ireland and the toxic class dynamics. They never disclose the fraught reasoning behind their marriage to their children. In turn, their unhappy concealment anticipates their daughter’s situation. Cass feels “like she’d been buried under her parent’s lives, their failures, their unhappiness.” Even with changing social norms, Murray illustrates how past repression looms over an Irish family.
Early on, a student asks the teacher who likes Cass’s poetry why she is teaching them about Sylvia Plath since she committed suicide. The teacher replies that the dichotomy between Plath’s surface as a beautiful girl and her inner emotions are what makes her interesting. More than that: “We’re all that kind of person, Miss Grehan said. We all have problems. But instead of accepting the truth about ourselves, we cover it up. We try to make ourselves the way we think we’re expected to be. So many of the bad things that happen in the world come from people pretending to be something they’re not.”
Even in the darkness, the novel’s hilarity – the humour in pretending to be something you’re not, renders it a tragicomedy. Like clowns with painted faces, revealing the truth is grotesquely comic and Cass is horrified when she reads the poems of the teacher, who presents as a suave world traveller and writes in a raw, ugly voice. The truth may be difficult to talk about, but silence is never the answer. Rotating between heteroglossic voices, the novel’s final moments are written like a script. Following the script only leads the family down the dramatic path of tragedy. Ironically, Cass and her father catch a glimpse of their missed potential to be happy through alternative love interests unafraid to embrace their true selves. What they perceive as faults – a willingness to be different – leads to the success of characters they found unworthy to be loved.
“The truth may be difficult to talk about, but silence is never the answer.”
As we enter Michaelmas term, we should take the lessons of the novel to heart. College is indisputably a time when we are learning to define our personalities. Often we may present as more outgoing, neurotypical or passionate about a given topic to fit in with our peers. To some extent, this is natural in a high-pressure environment where perfectionistic, competitive individuals seem to flourish. Still, there are bound to be cracks in our masks, whether it is a different sexual preference or personality quirk. Rather than pretending the cracks aren’t there, we should be able to acknowledge them, finding the humour inherent to the pain; going off-script, drifting from friends, growing up. If not, we are really no better than clowns.