Books: Uneven but worthwhile volume that makes language work too hard
Short story: Charlie Chaplin's Wishbone and Other Stories, Aidan Mathews, Lilliput Press, hdbk, €25
Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30
The ascent of the short story format is as attributable to faster lives and a market for bite-size fiction as it is to the proficiency of its master exponents. Time is of the essence, so a short tale by Christine Dwyer Hickey or Kevin Barry offers a more intravenous narrative hit than a Franzen doorstop.
Aidan Mathews - the poet, playwright, novelist and RTÉ drama producer - does not fit this bill with Charlie Chaplin's Wishbone and Other Stories. Look elsewhere if you are seeking for a yarn to pass the commute with. For these pieces, which are mostly set in the Dublin of the rare ould times (1960s), language is made to sweat in a gymnasium to perform acrobatics and muscular workouts. That is not to say that his first prose publication since the early nineties ('In the Form of Fiction' appeared in The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories 2006-2007) is not worthwhile, because when Mathews does decide that the story is king, he is electrifyingly good.
'Barber-Surgeons' observes two seemingly different men bond over Bond and a shared professional heritage as Dr No hits the big screen. A cinematic sheen also burnishes 'Northern Lights', a deliciously slippery cut from the streets of Troubles-era Belfast. There is an almost unnerving undertow to 'Access' and its look at a father processing his daughter's first steps into womanhood. Cuba's youthful apocalyptic dread is wonderful.
Dermot Bolger recently dubbed Mathews "the Christiano Ronaldo of linguistic stepovers" but there are times when you'd proffer that Vinny Jones might be a more suitable comparison.
By the age of 20, Mathews was already garnering awards for his poetry so it is perhaps no surprise to find the 59-year-old going off-piste as he sees fit and expecting the reader to dutifully tag along.
'Information for the User', a radio drama transcript built upon exhaustingly pompous and esoteric dialogue sprawled about between wilfully obscure micro-essays, is unwisely included here. Mathews' need for self-indulgence also nearly ruins 'Waking a Jew', an otherwise worthwhile portrait of an Ashkenazi in the winter of his years.
We get dexterous, inversive rifforama: "He could hear the trucks clearing their throats, gunning the motors to blot out boots and shouting, the garbage chucked like children into the stainless steel of the pig's snout".
Never far away, however, are potholes of smart-Alec ego appearing like whack-a-moles: "Survival is not strength. Survival is length. Length is no yardstick."
"His accent mentored and tormented them," the author quips to himself elsewhere in 'Barber-Surgeons'.
Synecdoche, alliteration and nearly-anagrams elbow narrative flow into the ditch as Mathews insists on his word-games taking centre stage. Yes, yes, very clever. Now please get back to the story.
There is nothing wrong about literature that requires a firm grip by the reader and a recess or two to deconstruct its layers. Mathews has said he is more in thrall to images and metaphors than character and narrative, and many of these chronicles just about balance the two realms.
If only a little consistency and restraint had been applied to this uneven volume.