[This month’s Litpop Blog was written by Louise Powell, an English Studies student at Teesside University and our Litpop Student Researcher]
There was the sense, among this month’s Litpoppers, that Oh, Play That Thing was Roddy Doyle’s attempt to write an epic American novel. Although broad in scale, spanning twenty-two years and dealing with such themes as Irish migration to America, the Jazz Age, and the Great Depression, most readers felt that it fell short of the mark. As they were diving straight in to the second part of a trilogy, some suggested that an acquaintance with the first part would have helped, but it was the implausibility of aspects of the plot that drew the most criticism from readers. How likely was it, for instance, that the main character Henry Smart would break into the very house in which his wife was working? Why was it that he failed to find that wife when he became separated from her for a second time, yet managed to bump into someone who wished to do him harm in practically every part of America that he ventured to?
Yet there was also plenty to praise. The way in which the Great Depression infiltrated gradually into the final part of the novel was widely admired, as was how effectively the fragmentary nature of that section suggested the speed with which those years passed. More than once, this was described as ‘cinematic’ – an apt term, since most readers remarked that different elements of Oh, Play That Thing brought certain films to mind. The opening section of the novel, with its powerful, vengeful New York gangsters, drew comparisons to The Godfather trilogy, whilst the focus on the 1920s reminded some readers of Baz Luhrmann’s recent filmic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Why, it was asked in turn, should that era be in vogue once more?
After the initial responses, Doyle’s use of a real, historical figure in Louis Armstrong prompted a lot of discussion surrounding the blurred line between fact and fiction. Some felt that Doyle’s decision to make the Louis of the novel join Henry in burgling houses crossed that line, and were uncomfortable with it. Others considered it in creative terms, and argued that an implied Louis Armstrong, or a differently named jazz musician who followed the same path as him, would have produced a more plausible, engaging read. Others still expressed the wish to know exactly what was fact, and what fiction.
Although this latter sentiment could never, of course, be fully realised, the closing comments surrounding the novel suggested that it tapped into a fascination with early twentieth-century America. Many Litpoppers expressed a keenness to read – or revisit – novels which were concerned with the New York of that era, like John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. It seemed that Doyle did not only encourage readers to make associations between Oh, Play That Thing and films or books that they were already aware of, but inspired them to discover new ones.