Eimear McBride’s “Gob”

By Oliver Browne

Content Warning: this article includes descriptions of graphic violence and sexual abuse.

Early in her novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2013), Eimear McBride’s unnamed narrator Girl describes her first pint, “a Guinness for want of not knowing what else,” after moving to Dublin for college (83). She is egged on by a new friend, a chatty type with “big red gums” who is fond of talking about her famous father’s globetrotting. As in the rest of the work, the scene moves back and forth in Girl’s consciousness between thought and speech, the words of one and the words of another. Girl, a little wet behind the ears, listens to her friend’s tall tales, having little exciting of her own to offer up in return. She is “gob impressed. And me? Nothing really. No my family’s just the. You know. Like everyone else apart from you. And we’ll drink another and brain go down tilseeya tomorrow. Alright then. I will” (83). Girl is not a consumable form of “brain go down tilseeya tomorrow” Irish fiction to be enjoyed like a pint. It works instead by a perpetual effort to expose its reader to damage, forcing Girl’s history of damage to “take place within the reader” as McBride has stated, to leave its impression in their gob. 

A form of violence lingers here in this otherwise faintly comic scene. Here a reader should, by rights, encounter a Girl who is “gobsmacked.” But instead we read the awkwardly decorous “gob impressed.” By dint of familiarity, a reader would naturally gloss over gobsmacked;  “gob impressed” rendering the verb that Girl conceals more rather than less obvious. Girl’s act of concealment has an unconscious logic, coherent with her history. Abandoned by her father, abused by her mother, and raped by her uncle in the course of the novel hereto, Girl goes on to throw herself into a series of violently masochistic sexual encounters before, in the end, taking her own life. It makes sense that a word like “gobsmacked” might retain its normally unencountered literal aspect in Girl’s psyche. “Gobsmacked” cannot be accepted as mere language in Girl’s mind, deprived of its campy triviality. It exercises a strong force of repulsion and attraction, and the reader finds themselves compelled to participate in the experience of these forces by means of this jarring act of substitution. A word jars, and then, as it were, it hits you.    

Here, I consider Girl’s efforts to work on the reader’s nerves rather than their intellect: the means by which the novel seeks to preserve the inchoate experience of Girl’s damage. Following out the logic of McBride’s claims on behalf of her novel, I suggest that Girl is an effort to make the reader the instrument of its expression: Girl’s mouthpiece. I conclude by turning to McBride’s new work, Mouthpieces (2021), a set of radio-plays composed during her residency as the Creative Fellow for the Samuel Beckett Centre at the University of Reading, to be published in October. Mouthpieces makes a dutiful bow to Beckett’s Not I (1971), the work that he wished, as Deidre Bair’s biography remembers, to “work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect” (625). In Beckett’s play, a “Mouth” suspended in a pitch-black theatre recites at breakneck speed the story of a life she refuses to admit belongs to her (366). McBride’s new work seems to question the means by which Girl sought to transform its readers, reflecting on this effort to find a way in through the nerves. Rather than seeking to transform the audience, Mouthpieces asks a more searching question: what purpose does an audience serve?


Girl is a strange novel that seems to live in the mouth: “there I. In my gob,” says Girl after a devastating moment towards the novel’s end (218). It seems to cheat the reader out of the experience of hearing it read aloud. Being a novel, it cannot fulfil this function. However, shortly after its publication, Girl was also staged; perhaps a logical remediation of a voice that the novel form condemns to silence. But the decision to adapt Girl for the stage also risks losing what is at stake in the novel, the novel’s  desire to speak, and the reader’s desire to hear it. As a novel, Girl provokes our desire to hear it. This announces itself in a specific tension that the reader experiences throughout the novel, between what they see and hear while reading. We first experience this tension in Girl’s opening lines:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed. I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. Wait and hour and day (8).

At the level of the eye, the form of each sentence – two or three words, seven or eight at a stretch, locked up between full stops – has the effect of interrupting the movement of scanning. The eyes must move across each unit of sense, stopping and starting again for the novel’s 238 pages. This tiny frustration is raised to a higher power by the dimly experienced sounds heard through subvocalization: what we read and hear in our inner voice is tantalisingly close to a sustained lyricism. At one point rolling into nursery rhyme, Girl’s music is stripped of innocence by both violent full stops and the violence between them: “I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me around the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead” (108). This thwarted desire for fluency, shared by both novel and reader, is fundamental to the experience that the book attempts to give voice.

By now, it is a commonplace of McBride criticism to observe that syntactical and grammatical errancies, simplified neologisms, word-substitutions, and word-vandalisms are the means by which Girl “registers” sexual violence. But McBride’s conception takes this further: 

I wanted mine to go in as close as the reader would reasonably permit. I wanted the simplicity of the vocabulary to allow the more complex construction to slip in under the radar so that the decoding would take place within the readers themselves, almost as though they were experiencing the story from the inside out rather than the outside in.  

In McBride’s conception, the reader is the instrument of the novel’s expression. This is a strange conception of the relationship between the novel and the reader. In her own terms, McBride attempts to find a way ‘under the radar’ so that Girl’s experience can find expression “within” the reader. Before exploring this complicated notion of the reader-novel relationship, we must consider the ethical problems this notion presents, and why McBride takes the risk she does. Given the nature of this material, what distinguishes this form of immediacy from the pre-cognitive thrill of something like pornography? Who today needs a graphic reminder of these histories of abuse? 

At the time of writing, the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has been made public. The Tuam Survivors Network, The Irish First Mothers Group, and the Coalition of Mother and Baby Homes survivors have all condemned the Report’s diffusion of responsibility across Irish society as a whole. As Clair Wills has argued in a recent consideration of McBride, the Irish novel and, more belatedly, Irish society have found themselves in continuous engagement over the past decades with the histories of systemic abuse. McBride, Wills contends, enters into a cultural moment that has for some time “begun to expose the full extent of Ireland’s complex network of carceral institutions” (301). At the level of political redress, justice has hardly been served, but at the level of political consciousness, surely recognition has. “What then,” asks Wills, “does it mean to expose abuses that are already known?” (302)

Contemporary Irish history evinces that there is no straightforward relationship between exposure and knowledge, nor knowledge and redress. Girl suggests that this knowledge may not yet be known. In Girl’s model, what can be thought and spoken must first be felt and heard, and the novel tries to develop a form of exposure that might create the conditions in which to recognise this history of suffering “in” the reader. Girl seems to recognise history to be “what hurts,” and works to summon the desires that “history refuses” and “limits” (Jameson 88). Girl takes this form of exposure to its utmost limit in the moment immediately prior to Girl’s suicide. In a hideous, page-long spasm of violence the work exposes us to what we might, by this stage in the novel, take ourselves to already know: 

Pull my mth he pull m mouth with him fingers pull the side of my mouth til I no. Stop that fuck and rip. Scin. Stop heel. Tear my mouth. Garble lotof. Don’t I come all mouth of blood of chocking […]. Soon I”n dead I”m sre. Loose. Ver the aIrWays. Here. mY nose my mOuth. I VOMit. Clear. CleaR. He stopS up gETs. Stands uP. Look. And I breath. And I breath my. I make. You like those feelings do you now. Thanks to your uncle for that like the best fuck I ever had. HoCk SPIT me. Kicks. uPshes me over (218).

The passage forces the audience into a different relationship with Girl’s already precarious language. Music is gone; broken into blotches of phonemes and particles, words splatter the page, only as intelligible as the experience to which they bear witness. Language ceases to mean and starts to utter the kinds of sounds that might emerge from a mouth torn open and pulled apart: ‘stranlge,” “garble lotof,” “grouged,” “puk,” and “HoCk.” Even in its visual character, these disorganised fragments of language seem to peel themselves off the page. The passage comes as formally close as a book can to getting under the skin, that the reader might “wear” Girl’s “say” “in the stitches” of their skin (8). 

One need only glance at the page to “know” what is happening here. So, is this not gratuitous? The real twist of the knife here is the most prosaically intact sentence, one which returns the reader to what was presumed to be already known. After this smack in the gob, the reader is met with the most chilling sentence in the novel. It is also one of its most straightforward and true: ‘thanks to your uncle for that like the best fuck I ever had” (218). This return to a standard semantics also returns us to the brutal fact at the core of the novel. The entire novel hinges on this brutal fact, and in Girl’s logic, the condition of recognition is experiencing a form of brutality. Girl forces its reader to re-encounter their presumed knowledge, and the logical, readerly understandings of Girl’s many linguistic tics (“gob impressed”) from the perspective of the brutality that initiates them. The reader is left to feel words: “lick tank taste water taste brack there I. In my gob” (218). 

To make language cope with the truth of a history which is not yet intelligible, McBride requires a form of exposure that can preserve the integrity of what is unintelligible. Exploiting the capacity of language to represent both pre-cognitive and recognitive processes, McBride’s novel forms a space in which a transformation of consciousness can take place. What we desire and anticipate in the encounter with Girl’s damaged music, and what is constantly refused by her history, is the sound of a redeemed history. In order to imagine this future, which might not reproduce the horrors of the past, McBride suggests that the artist has to find a way to make history hurt the reader.  


“I’m not unduly concerned by intelligibility,” said Samuel Beckett of his play Not I, “I want the piece to work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect” (625). For fifteen minutes, at an unintelligible pace, this play’s Mouth speaks of premature birth “before its time,” abandonment by parents “unheard of,” unspecified trauma and survival across seventy years with “love of no kind,” clinging to the third-person (366). Beckett described himself to know “that woman in Ireland, not ‘she” specifically […] “I heard “her” saying what I wrote” (622). Taking McBride’s assault on the reader a step further, Beckett made his actress Billie Whitelaw wear a blindfold and a hood in order to induce sensory deprivation while she was strapped by the head to a plywood board. Beckett demanded his play be read faster than the speed of comprehension, with Whitelaw at one point collapsing during rehearsals. Beckett felt this the only way to get at this “she” – this Mouth as “an organ of emission without intellect” (625). Not I poses a straightforward question to an audience that Mouthpieces also poses: what are “you” to make of this experience?

Lisa Dwan in “Not I” by Samuel Beckett. (Photo by Sky Arts Justin Downing)

McBride’s three short radio-plays mark a significant departure, which at some level must reflect the fact she now has both an established audience and the professional obligations of such residencies as this, which handcuff her to certain tasks: McBride is now Beckett’s mouthpiece. Rather than seeking to get under the skin and find a way for voice to live “in” an audience, these works reflect on this predicament, and reflect on the limitations of that ambition. The audience is not to form a mouthpiece – rather its role is the very object of inquiry. Like Not I, the first of these radio pieces, “The Adminicle Exists,” features only a woman’s voice. Voice is also accompanied by an unspeaking, distressed and distressing man who has made an unspecified transgression. Through its scattering of concrete details (“Greyish High Road. WAR MEMORIAL. TFC,” “TESCO TESCO TESCO”), it is possible to locate Voice’s consciousness making a bus journey southbound through Tottenham.[1] By means of these particulars, an audience can just about keep up with Voice’s narration of an underground journey into central London, taking this man to a care facility in which are housed:

The angry. The incapacitated. The full of shit. The too many drugs. The too much drink. The fatally confused. The terminally entitled. The poor. The lonely. The hungry. The sad. The fucked up on the street. The fucked up in the head. The hopeless. The helpless. The feckless. Myself. I am here as well.

Once returned to her in a calmer state, Voice tells the man, “I am very glad to see you calm but [small voice, like inner thought] I wonder if you’ll kill me tonight.” 

This work is followed by “An Act of Violence” in which an officious voice, A, questions a female voice, E. A interrogates E over “an act of violence” that defies logic:

A: It was an act of violence.

E: It was not.

A: A wound was inflicted?

E: More than one.

A: Scratches?

E: Several.

A: Slices.

E: The same.

A: The knife penetrated

E: It went all the way in.

A goes on to question the responses of witnesses to this suspected act (only “an atmosphere accrued.”) The interrogator then reveals themselves to represent the “ear” of a “collective body” and the mouth “when required.” When asked whether she ought to have interceded, E responds that “the difficulty was no longer mine to resolve.” A states that all bodies are the same, that this has “proved the case,” and E responds “if it is as you say:” 

A: I do. 

E: The mouth says. 

A: And nothing dissents. 

E: The ears? 

A: They cannot speak for themselves. 

E: Eyes neither 

A: Just as you say. 

E: We have reached an impasse.

“Some horror was expressed,” A, the witness, offers up, “but a deaf ear was the favoured consensus.”

The final play, “The Eye Machine,” is said to take place on a raised platform, with a woman strapped to a board delivering a rapid but comprehensible and uninterrupted speech. This last piece continues to question the notion of witnessing: “if an eye cannot look at itself. If the eye cannot look at anything else. If the eye cannot look. If it just belongs to a system of seeing which it cannot impact.” This trio works together to ask a specific question both of McBride’s previous work and her audience.

Although stripping away the luxuries of language and style in Beckett’s formal mode, “The Adminicle Exists” comes about as close to social realism as anything in McBride’s oeuvre to date. Although the preoccupation with violence remains, the piece resists exploiting the high-modernist strategies in which Girl sought to attack its reader, and divests itself of its former commitments to the unintelligible. Instead of subjecting the reader to pain, the plays question the value of exposing an audience to suffering and the audience’s response to that exposure. Delivered in the form of a Girl-like internal monologue, the first piece presents a narrative of contemporary misery, violence against women, poverty, and insanity, reduced to its bare bones. Taken in this trio, the first play functions rather as an example of the exposure of suffering, one which the following plays question.

These works begin in the place that McBride felt her life, then working as a temp, to have been transformed: on the Overground from Tottenham to Liverpool Street, while reading Ulysses. But the trio questions whether such experiences are possible and where the audience stand in this transformation. The conviction that exposure can transform the reader is gone. What if these forms of exposure produce only a literary stir, “an atmosphere accrued;” “some horror was expressed but a deaf ear was the consensus?” The audience’s “mouth” may in fact “say” this story after all and “nothing dissents,” may listen to experiences like Girl’s that need to find a voice (“E: The ears? A: They cannot speak for themselves”); we may all agree this is horrifying and yet “we have reached an impasse.” What if the work’s audience “just belongs to a system of seeing which it cannot impact?” Instead of seeking to transform an audience, McBride’s new work asks the audience what their purpose in fact is. This is a far more painful experience than reading a work that seeks to hurt us.

[1] All citations come from the unpaginated kindle edition released in February. Eimear McBride, Mouthpieces (London: Faber, 2021).


Oliver Browne, “Eimear McBride’s ‘Gob’,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2021): n.pag. Web 8 March 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.1.08

About the Author

Oliver Browne is a graduate student in the Princeton English department, working on his thesis “Groups Without Members: The Question of Collective Poetry—English, Irish and Caribbean.” The thesis explores the structures of collective identity that poetry makes thinkable, focusing on three groups of experimental poets working in the UK and Ireland during the crises of the sixties and the rise of the New Right. His research interests lie largely in the fields of Modernist studies, Marxism, Postcolonialism, and Cultural studies. He’s from Birmingham in the UK.

Works Cited

Bair, Deidre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Dramatic Works. London: Faber, 2006.

Colliard, David, and Eimear McBride. “An Interview with Eimear McBride.” The White Review, May 2014 (accessed 2 March 2021): https://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/interview-with-eimear-mcbride/

Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious. London: Routledge, 1981.

McBride, Eimear. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. London: Hogarth, 2013. 

–. “My hero: Eimear McBride on James Joyce.” The Guardian, 6 June 2014 (accessed 2 March 2021): https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/06/my-hero-eimear-mcbride-james-joyce

–. Mouthpieces. London: Faber, 2021.

Rose, Jacqueline. “From the Inside Out.” London Review of Books 38:18 (2016) (accessed 2 March 2021): https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v38/n18/jacqueline-rose/from-the-inside-out

Wills, Clair. “Coda: Edna O’Brien and Eimear McBride.” Eds. Eric Falci and Paige Reynolds. Irish Literature in Transition, 1980-2020. Volume 6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020, 295–304.

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