Tuesday 23 May 2017

Anarchy, isolation and a need to belong

Fiction
Hostages, By Oisín Fagan
New Island, pbk, 240 pages, €12.95

Oisin Fagan
Oisin Fagan

Sophie Gorman

Literary magazine The Stinging Fly has certainly become the greenhouse for nurturing original Irish writing talent - and Oisín Fagan is another golden alumni. Fagan plays with the shape of the story in his new collection Hostages.

And we are all hostages in these narratives set in a world where the apocalypse is on the not so distant horizon, a world that is also Co Meath, where Fagan spent his childhood.

The author was born in America to a Mayo father and Meath mother and it seems latter won in the family moving battle, as they relocated when Fagan was seven to Moynalvey, a parish that seems to have stimulated their son's literary imagination.

'Being Born', the opening story, is set in a mixed secondary school in 2006 in Kilcock on the Meath border. But the children are so far from parochial and have that international urbane confidence that means the story could be set anywhere in the western world. Social order has entirely disintegrated, the transition years are rampaging. There is a sense of tribal warfare, the anarchy of Armageddon.

The central character here is Fergus Nolan, he is not so much a narrator as a thread to follow and he is no impartial bystander, he happily defecates in someone's schoolbag before leaving it in their locker to find. This is barely the beginning of the putrefaction. The teachers have abdicated control and now one of the lower pupils has told one of the governing pupils that our Fergus has a bomb. It's all set to explode.

This is about identity, about deciding the course of your own life, and about autonomy. Can there only be destruction or redemption? Does anyone know? But there is a uniformity of moral ugliness to all of these characters, and this makes it harder to connect with the story when we cannot connect with any of them.

There is certainly originality here and also shades of Paul Murray's Skippy Dies and even, faintly, Lord of the Flies. And unexpectedly gentle lines, delicate enough in emotion to surprise you and confirm that Fagan has range and capability, punctuate his story of teenage mutiny. A stand-alone chapter called 'Gestation' is a case in point. But there is not enough to carry you.

In 'The Sky over Our Houses', one of the strongest stories, ex-sergeant Declan Burke seems nonplussed to find another body outside his house, such things are to be expected it seems. He has more important things to worry about - his Argentinian wife Marienala has stomach cancer and he has two daughters and the old family farm to run. Well, these were his main concerns until all these dead bodies started appearing in what seems to be a macabre bout of illegal dumping.

The good news is that Declan's isn't the only farm coming down with corpses, all his neighbours are stumbling over them, too. It's as if they are dropping out of the sky, maybe they are. Here, Fagan creates a strange dystopian world that is worryingly almost identical to our own and yet holocausts rampage unchecked.

'Costellos' is initially a 16th-century love story between Alphonse Costello and his epileptic milkmaid wife Mary, their union to produce a long line of ill-fated Costellos. This is a family portrait from 1574 to 2144, all delivered in one uninterrupted paragraph. It suffers somewhat from the same weakness as the first story in not having any solid characters to connect with, to drive you on, becoming more of a genealogical list.

Fagan's stories are visceral in both description and in act. The common thread is social anarchy and disintegration. Death is everywhere, people are mutilated or murdered, life is cheap.

The final story, 'The Price of Flowers', opens with the line: "Fifteen bloated bodies floated by, bobbing like corks, although one floated by like a corkscrew."

There is a shared sense of belonging, of needing to belong, of isolation and loneliness. And Fagan does create wonderfully inventive scenarios. But he has not managed yet to fully reconcile this with real character depth. And there is often an inconsistency to how the pace is weighted. For all that happens, and there is a lot, there is still somehow a sense of waiting for the real story to begin.

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