Nuala O’Faolain, The Story of Chicago May (2005)

This book should be a disappointment for whoever picked up the book with images of cowboys, bank-robbers and glamorous female criminals wearing long skirts. This book should also prove a disappointment for those interested in biographies packed with cross-checked facts and information. One hint is to be found in the subtitle: A Novel. Is it a novel, or a biography? Indeed it should be an hybrid. Chicago May was a famous Irish-born criminal in the United States from the Golden years, at the turn of the 20C. This book is the attempt, by an Irish female writer at the turn of the 21C, to understand what her life had been like. It is more about the link between the past and the present, the quest of a contemporary woman in several countries, Ireland, United States, France, Great Britain, to follow the steps of another woman. Of course, she’s left to guess a great deal, as very little information is available, and so much has been fabricated to look more glamorous or to arouse reprobation against her. We also get to see May and the places she lived in through the author’s eyes, to see how places changed or not over the century, how both women’s fate intermingle somehow. When she set about this writing adventure, O’Faolain writes: 

There’d be more of that if I went ahead with her, I realized – of interpreting her without ever being sure I was right. I’d be trying to make her express herself as she had not done – I’d be like the talkative one of a pair of twins, who answers for both. […] But would my readers be able to trust a biography that proceeded this way? […] I’d accept the terms that had presented themselves. Of course I would. […] To keep myself straight I’d observe my own rules. I’d pick bits and pieces out –I’d have to—but I wouldn’t edit within each bit. I’d make things up—her words already prompted all kinds of scenes in my head — but when I did, I’d signal it. I wouldn’t use her story as the basis for some kind of semi fiction of my own — […] Maybe a biography worthy of the name couldn’t be constructed across the many voids between us; I had nothing to go on, after all, but her book. But wouldn’t it be worth trying to find out how much you have to know about and feel for another person to move forward that person? There was an emotional challenge here that began to seem almost indistinguishable from a moral one. 

While doing so, there are many pieces of information O’Faolain picks up along the road: the Irish society, closeted, oppressive and oppressed, miserable, with America as the only escape route. The United States at the turn of the century, a country plagued by alcohol, drug abuse et prostitution, where nothing is very much organized (included the very corrupted police), so that criminals can start over in another city without being discovered. Life in such conditions appear both very harsh, yet Chicago May never seems despaired, even as a mere prostitute in the red light district: 

She embraced the random, the contingent, the chaotic. She carried economic survival with her in the form of her body – a snail complete in its shell – and that brought her into degraded and violent milieus, but she never stood in judgment on where she happened to find herself. Where and how she finds herself is where all of her is. Maybe as truly as any Buddhist, she was wholly unattached. 

O’Faolain is never judgmental, and she tries as much as possible to understand her motivations and feelings to make her alive, and as complex as a real person is. In doing so, she reflects on her own experience as an Irish woman, on her family ties. She also interrogates what is a biography when the subject is not a famous persona and when no lesson of life can be drawn. She’s walking the fine line between a biography and a novel. She claims that she wanted to avoid manipulating May’s character by inventing moving or enchanting scenes, but “[she] did imagine small scenes in May’s life but only within the framework of available facts.”: 

I believe that it was more respectful to bow before the facts of her life than to use them as a point of departure. And it is respect that matters. How much warmth I feel toward her doesn’t matter to anyone but me […]. She was thrown out of memory. Well, I want her back in, and I want her such as she was.”

The link created between the biographer and her subject is very compelling. Eventually, you won’t find any clichés in this book, but a truly moral, personal and philosophical approach to a woman in particular.


6 thoughts on “Nuala O’Faolain, The Story of Chicago May (2005)

  1. You deserve your “Thinking Blogger” designation. This is a smart and literate approach to literature and books. I’ve been searching for folks who take a highbrow approach to these matters (without being stuffy)–I’m not a big fan of pop novels and pop sensibilities and you certainly have raised the bar for those of us who want to approach writing about writing with a clear eye and sharpened intellect.


  2. Elizabeth, Cliff, your compliments are going to make me blush, but how could a blog blush?
    Highbrow or lowbrow is not really a category I’m comfortable with.
    I read books with passion, and care, and a lot of respect for the person who wrote it and managed to bring it to the world…

  3. When I say “highbrow”, I hope that doesn’t translate as “high-falutin'” or “pretentious”. That wasn’t my intention. I appreciate the intelligence of the commentary as opposed to the, often, pitiful state of criticism (“Two Thumbs Up!” “****!!!” or “I hated it, it sucked!”). I was referring to the overall level of writing, the selection of material and general tone. But I shall avoid such designations in the future. Keep up the good work.

  4. Pingback: Nuala O’Faolain Dies at 68 « Smithereens

  5. Pingback: Project O’Faolain « Smithereens

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