Rebels with new causes.
The Young Irelander’s Rebellion in 1840’s Ireland may have been a failure, but like every other rebellion in Ireland, it rekindled the dying embers just enough to spark off the next uprising. Coinciding, as it did, with the Great Famine, did not help matters, but it made the very idea of an uprising all the more poignant. Interestingly, this collection of short stories, entitled Young Irelanders, edited by Dave Lordan and published by New Island, coincides with another downswing in Ireland’s fortunes, but it keeps a fine tradition alive by wrestling with new concerns and refusing to churn out the issues that have been done to death by the last two generations of writers.
So, what is Young Irelanders tackling in its first four stories? Acceptance of non-nationals in local communities, bullying on social media, teenage suicide, sexuality – nothing that would have registered on the list of concerns, say, fifty years ago. In 1965 the predecessors of these young Irelanders might have been brave enough to deal with unwanted pregnancies, emigration, the trauma of leaving religious life, or extra marital affairs. But in Ireland of all countries, the past really is a foreign country and where better to demonstrate this than in the first story in Young Irelanders, Kevin Curran’s Saving Tanya and seeing the world through the eyes of its narrator, Sam.
Sam’s observations and running commentary on the role of ‘social’ (oxymoron surely?) media in a marginalised and low functioning urban community exposes the unloveliness of being alive in so many pockets of contemporary Ireland. These pockets are becoming deeper and are riddled with holes from the weight of settling for the lowest common denominator and the burden this places on the Sam’s of this world just as it does on Benjy in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or even Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. That mixture of innocence tempered with surprising insights, a sense of justice tempered by nagging guilt and most of all a strange resilience against the hogwash that life throws at you – a loveable sponge, as it were.
Everything about ‘Saving Tanya’ scared the bejaysus out of this fifty something reviewer, and that’s a good thing. We need to understand that thousands of teenagers are living a feral existence where adults are an inconvenient nuisance. Their cuddly toys are Likes and Friend requests on Facebook. Kevin Curran has nailed it, right down to the manky toes and fingers – residue of overuse of fake tan, or the casual pastime of humiliating anyone who diverts from the banal mundanity that passes for a code of behaviour. Rabelaisian it is not; more like post-apocalyptic satellite ‘any town’ camouflaged with a thin veneer of poorly applied bravado. People over a certain age that think they ‘understand’ need to understand that this work of fiction is being acted out in a housing estate near you every day. Kevin Curran has successfully crash landed us into a dystopia that passes for normal because nobody shouts ‘stop’.
Too many Irish people, I think, regard Ireland as being the centre of the universe, a misguided national notion that Roisín O’Donnell cannot be accused of. Her Brazilian protagonist makes her own wry observations on our ‘ways’ while struggling to do the equivalent of cutting down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring – learn Irish in nine months.
‘How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps’ juxtaposes dealing with the disappointment of a love match decreasing in intensity from boiling to barely simmering while coping with the ridiculous De Valera legacy of having to learn a dead language to get a teaching job. This impeccably written story is magnificently structured; the language is witty and intelligent and every so often you find yourself shaking your head in amazement at how O’Donnell captures a fleeting feeling. In the early nineteen eighties I was obliged to pass an Irish interview to be registered as a teacher of English and history and I remember the grief of having to take part in this senseless charade, and being jealous of the ‘country girls’ who seemed to think in Irish. I may as well have arrived fresh from Brazil myself for all the Irish I knew. I got one of these country girls to translate a few sentences for me. They went something like this: “I am very bad at Irish. I only got a D at ordinary level and I am very nervous.” Luckily I got the nice guy. He was rotund with ruddy cheeks and in his sixties. I think if he could have sat me on his lap, he would have. He ticked a few boxes and told me I had passed! O’Donnell’s protagonist has to work a little harder than I did.
Rob Doyle’s ‘Summer’ tackles relationships in a more earthy, even visceral yet strangely cosmopolitan way. To me, it reads like a hedonistic inter-rail romp around Europe, and that is by no means a criticism. If ‘Summer’ was a wine I might be saying things like “I detect notes of Beckett and Joyce with an aftertaste of Bellow and just a hint of Fielding – more raunchy than picaresque.” Moreover, this could be Krapp’s Last Tape after a shot of adrenalin. With no mention of social media and a reference to a New Order CD I am wondering if we are in the nineteen eighties; no harm either.
Mia Gallagher’s ’17:57:39–20:59:03′ is a fast and furious read shaking through a big colander the detritus left in the wake of the Celtic Tiger – a before and after scenario – cleverly picking over the leavings driven by the random swinging of the pendulum of some erratic clock and a spivvy taxi driver – a literary vulture as it were. Gallagher’s writing is quick and it’s clever and it captures the seamier flavours of the boom and bust. But still, we are reminded that it’s not yet safe to be different, especially if you are alone on a dark night left to the mercy or otherwise of a band of marginalised youth.
In the next four stories we visit a cameo of urban dullness in rural Ireland, strip poker with a clerical twist and streams of consciousness and absurdity that would gladden the heart of Flann O’Brien.
Think of your average Irish town as a pie filling – all too often the filling is sub-standard for its younger residents, say, those between twelve and early twenties. Now take the crust that encases so many of these towns, the crust of grey dust, sparse greenery edging (as sparse as the life depicted on the wrong side of a provincial town) new motorways, but most of all, the dullness that is the industrial estate, spilling like random rubble into the surrounding countryside – a milieu that Colin Barrett has captured magnificently in ‘Doon] – the awfulness that is the crust within which so many rural Irish towns exist.
Barrett paints the inevitability of the mundanity that passes for youthful survival in your average provincial Irish town cloaked in an arcane code of behaviour – a fixed menu of verbal and physical responses to the minutiae of a leaden existence, and yet, the old heads on young shoulders assimilating life’s vicissitudes in a jaded adult way. This extraordinary balancing act is cleverly and accurately captured by his truthful dialogue. Not even a febrile undertone can be detected among the players in ”Doon; it’s like the essential essence of ‘jaded’ has been bottled and sprayed over a time and place – and urban ‘sprawlville’ somewhere in rural Ireland.
‘Doon’ is to provincial Ireland what trailer park is to a southern US state. ‘Doon’ brings to mind Billy Casper in A Kestrel for a Knave; nascent maturity with no exemplary adult role models. Indeed the ineffectiveness and sadness of adulthood borders on the depressing; Mr O’Domhnaill, the geography teacher, and Uncle Roddy, being two miserably wretched examples. Like Kes, Doon sees beyond the pointlessness of adult whys and wherefores, rules and conformities.
I read Cathy Sweeney’s ‘Three Stories on a Theme’ very quickly; quickly because for me the experience was as delectable as eating a gourmet meal. The ‘clevericity’ of Sweeny’s writing leaves me awe-struck and amused. So many male authors have taken women’s’ voices but not enough female authors have taken male voices. Sweeny does so admirably in ‘The Web’. Making the incongruous seem normal is a subtle skill which Sweeney displays wonderfully in all three pieces. I wonder if she read Kipling’s Plain Tales as a child; as I think she opens her stories in a similar fashion – a fashion which I very much like. As the husband in’ The Web’ walks the street considering the import of his actions I am reminded of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment wandering the streets of St. Petersburg grappling with similar dilemmas. The humidity in ‘The Web’ rivals only the humidity in Garcia’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Cathy Sweeny is a brave and adventurous writer. If you like ‘messing around’ with words and suspending belief, read ‘Three Stories on a Theme’; I think it would be a spoiler to elaborate on the theme. ‘Mad Love’ and ‘The Girl Made of Paper’ will wake you out of a stupor and remind you that inside your own head is one of the best places to live.
Having absolutely no interest in, or understanding of, the social life of men of the cloth, ‘Retreat’ nonetheless holds on to me because of its uncommon setting. The writing in Eimear Ryan’s ‘Retreat’ is urbane and sophisticated despite being about a surprisingly traditional topic; but yet it is compelling reading. The finer points of a priest’s sensibilities when faced with the rough and tumble of ‘unordained’ life is worth a literary probe in light of the shocking crimes committed by so many ‘ordained’ persons. Once your peers discover your ‘ordained’ status how do they interact with you? Do they see you on an equal footing? Do they treat you differently? Do they carry on the fine tradition of showering you with respect before you have earned it, or, do they hit out? Ryan creates a scenario that facilitates the answering of these questions, and more. She does it with form, precision, a motely band of side-show characters and a kind of New England sharpness – a kind of ‘Park Your Car in Harvard Yard’ sharpness – a style I have a weakness for.
Isn’t it funny the things that make fleeting appearances in your imaginative recollections as you read a new piece of work? They parade silently across your concentration – insolent, unannounced – but, oddly enough, not like unwelcome visitors – more like eccentric revelations – novel condiments that serve to heighten the flavour of the main dish. The surprise guests that punctuated my reading of Oyster were the unlikely duo of Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka – could it be the sea molluscs and arachnids I wondered. Oyster is the kind of story that you read slowly, and might I suggest, to a shamanic rhythm. That’s because it is a feast of words and thoughts that must be imbibed slowly and carefully – you don’t want to spill any – that would be a terrible waste. To say that I felt replete after consuming Claire-Louise Bennet’s Oyster is not a culinary flight of fancy – it is a compliment to the chef.
I am thinking that these last four stories prove the point that reading good fiction is one of the best ways to understand the human condition. These are the kind of stories that articulate what many people feel but cannot put into words themselves. They also show how mundanity, like a stickleback, can travel with you, making it immaterial whether you are in New York or Granard, London or Amsterdam. Hence, these are the kind of stories that not only add to the literary store but will make many readers feel that they are not alone. You could call it public service publishing! See what you think yourself.
Take the odd trio – three dysfunctional lads sharing a flat who become ‘friends by mistake’ in Alan McMonagle’s ‘Remark’ – brilliant. The effect of bread dipped in poteen brings us into the realm of the absurd – and a very welcome realm this is for me. On consuming the strange culinary bedfellows (bread and poteen, that is), the lads weep instantaneously for no apparent reason; its effects as dramatic and as random as the bottle helpfully labelled ‘DRINK ME’ in chapter one of Alice in Wonderland. As you read this story you will ask yourself these few questions – what is real? What is imaginary? What dreams are attainable and what dreams are fantastical? To be young is to dare to dream, to exaggerate, to ‘blow your trumpet’ very loudly, and the odd trio do this magnificently. As is frequently the case; one lad is more insane, irrational, and unpredictable than his flatmates. It was always thus; isn’t that why they always put three men on an offshore lighthouse? Furthermore this trio exude a faint whiff of Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan and Haines sharing that Martello tower in Ulysses; there is even mention of a daily milk delivery in both – although the old milkmaid in Sandycove is no competition for the lovely Mary P in ‘Remark’. Like Dedalus, Eric is the one with the money. There’s also that religion thing playing out in the background with Dedalus and Madigan. Of course, the most hilarious and cleverest aspect of Remark is that in parallel the real goings on is the meteoric rise to fame of an iconic, alter ego rock band.
If Sydney Weinberg were a tailor she would be plying her trade on Savile Row where the final article has to be impeccably crafted. ‘Omen in the Bone’ upholds the traditions of fine storytelling but does so in a contemporary setting; it sometimes drew my mind back to Auster’s New York Trilogy or even E.L. Doctorow. On many occasions, a sentence resembles a clever execution of stitching to make something awkward look polished – “Her words were precise and brilliant, he felt, but he was too stoned to retain them; he was left only with the impression of her masterful voice juxtaposed against his wavering one, like a music teacher demonstrating scales.” This is a long story that comes full circle in a most unexpected way. At one level you could say that ‘Omen in the Bone’ is a psychological study of a young man, but to a large extent, it is what hangs off of this study that makes for a marvellous commentary on some aspects of being young in modern Europe – what ties us; what we want to shed. When it comes to the adventures of young men I always have a weakness for the rollicking escapades of Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, but Weinberg has pulled me firmly into the concerns of 2015.
If Sydney Weinberg is an adroit tailor then Sheila Armstrong is a dexterous bricklayer. Maybe this allusion springs to mind because I recently finished Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ – a short book incidentally that took me far too long to read! Perhaps the grimness of a well-used toilet on an intercity train or the burgeoning seediness of a Dublin alleyway beside the Coronor’s Court equals the Siberian labour camp in actualité. But no; it’s the aftertaste of the precision and perfection of Denisovich’s bricklaying that lingers in my subconscious as I admire the craft that is the writing in Armstrong’s ‘The Tender Mercies of its Peoples’. Anyone who has held their breath to run through that alleyway between South Frederick Street and Dawson Street or has succumbed to the disquiet of a full bladder on an intercity train will appreciate that Armstrong has captured the physical essence of both train and alleyway. Moreover, her portrait of a random female jogger is uncharitably perfect. But most profound of all is her treatment of a protagonist coping with the aftermath of a tragedy; it’s sobering and real against the aforementioned dingy backdrop.
Finalmente, can I humbly suggest that when you read Oisin Fagan’s ‘Subject’, please do so when you are ebullient. Subject dragged me down into a very dark place with what I think is graveyard humour. The realism of Subject hurts the reader; spits in your eye as it ‘fesses’ up to how shitty life can be for an ordinary bloke. Fagan masterfully paints the ordinariness, mundaneness and mediocrity for average said bloke with a savageness that is simultaneously macabre yet commonplace – if that makes sense. It’s like you become acclimatised to something so you no longer find it appalling but always slightly unsettling. Accepting your lot, sinking, bouncing back, sinking again before finding an even keel of humdrum is a big ask for any poor guy; weaving the turgid journey into words and sentences that make the reader feel that the protagonist is in the psychiatrist’s chair and that the reader is the psychiatrist is a marvellous feat.
These stories demonstrate the kind of powerful and experimental writing that this fifty-something reviewer would imagine reflective young readers are crying out for.