Sunday 4 December 2016

Dystopian domestic drama - and the revival of JFK

Fiction: Nothing on Earth, Conor O'Callaghan, Transworld, €16.99

Published 08/08/2016 | 02:30

Former US President John F Kennedy with his wife Jacqueline on their wedding day. In Hystopia, JFK survives the assassination attempt in Dallas and goes on to win a third term
Former US President John F Kennedy with his wife Jacqueline on their wedding day. In Hystopia, JFK survives the assassination attempt in Dallas and goes on to win a third term
Nothing on Earth deals with life in post boom Ireland

A ghost estate in the middle of nowhere and an unreliable narrator in the shape of a priest under suspicion: these are the standard themes of post-boom, post-clerical child abuse Ireland, out of which poet Conor O'Callaghan, whose debut novel this is, has woven something quite extraordinary, writes Desmond Traynor

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During a sweltering summer, a makeshift family moves into the show house on a far-from-finished estate on a rent-to-buy basis they agree with dodgy builder Flood. There's Paul, who cycles everyday to his nearby computer software factory job; his partner (are they married?) Helen; her sister Martina (it transpires that they are twins), who goes everywhere they go; and Paul and Helen's 12-year-old daughter, also named Helen (or is she?), otherwise referred to as 'The Girl'. They are recently returned emigrants from Germany. The Girl calls Helen Mutti, her English is stilted, with "a sort of freeze-dried quality… as if her every phrase had only just been taken out of the vacuum packing it had lain in for years, and was found to be almost too well preserved." Their only neighbours are the elderly Harry and Sheila. Marcus, Flood's nephew, turns up of an evening as night watchman. Martina takes to slipping out, keeping him company in his portacabin until he knocks off at 6am. Then, one by one, over the course of that long, hot summer, each of the adults goes missing.

This hardly counts as a spoiler given the noncommittal way information is slowly and insubstantially revealed in this radically enigmatic text. In the opening pages The Girl turns up distraught at the door of the priest, both terrified and terrifying, telling him: 'My papa is gone too', so we are already prepared for the worst. Yet there is worse to come. Everything is suffused with an air of dread and impending doom. The glancing early reference to Kubrick's The Shining is an apt signpost.

Most of the narrative concerning the domestic relations of the family is based on what The Girl tells the priest that evening, but is he to be trusted? He doesn't even seem to trust himself and already feels guilty as soon as The Girl enters his orbit. He has previously made an effort to call on the house after the mother's disappearance, but is conscious only of his own marginality and superfluousness. "They were tomorrow's young, with their worldwide webs and their several languages. The last thing they wanted was yesterday's man on their doorstep, preaching ancient, hollow words. They weren't part of the congregation." Yet he seems to be a decent man, even if the police are sceptical.

After Helen vanishes, Martina leaves the factory to look after The Girl. They sunbathe topless everyday, as if on a mission, in the backgarden. When Martina too is not to be found, Paul neglects to report it, not wanting to bring any more attention on himself and his daughter. Then Paul is made redundant and bills go unpaid. Water and electricity are cut off. Then he dematerialises too.

It is hard to convey adequately the unsettling atmosphere the novel creates. The nearest correlatives would be early Ian McEwan, particularly The Cement Garden; Neil Jordan's The Dream of a Beast, John Banville's The Newton Letter; or some of the late JG Ballard's suburban dystopias. While it certainly has antecedents in Gothic literature, its contemporaneity makes it feel almost sui generis. Like many great works, it could so easily have all gone wrong if it hadn't been done exactly right. All that can be done is to give it the highest recommendation: read it, and find out for yourself.

Fiction: Hystopia, David Means

Faber & Faber, €14.99

With all speculative fiction comes a fine balancing act between the story-telling side of the ledger and the expository writes Hilary A White. There's not much point if the writer doesn't get across the colourful mutations of their particular "elseworld" in a manner that provides a sound superstructure to the tale. We've seen it done with unhurried grace by Kevin Barry and John Kelly of late, each slipping in descriptive notes on their dystopias without it clogging up the yarn. The same is not strictly true of this Booker contender.

David Means - a renowned short-story scribe and poet - makes his long-form debut in noteworthy style with a metafictional prance through the novel-within-a-novel subgenre. The bookended, slightly exhaustive notes from 'author' Eugene Allen and his editor are there to set the stage but are a chore to be asked to get through en route to the real starting line. Besides, there is plenty of talkie exposition to perform that task everywhere else.

Means's backdrop is an entertaining one and a breeding ground for many discussions on war, violence, psychology and PTSD. The 1960s have closed and Vietnam is continuing on in a sorry and rudderless manner. JFK survived that day in Dallas and has won a third term in office - a political Frankenstein now used to attempts on his life and living with a "damaged shoulder" and "repaired" jaw and larynx.

Repairs are also being made to veterans on their return home via a process called "enfolding" whereby the traumas they've suffered are wiped from memory. In one of many displays of Means's bold humour, we're told the effects can be undone, or "unfolded" only through immersion in ice water or particularly orgasmic sexual intercourse. And in one of many displays of his bloodier tones, we learn that this "unfolding" brings about ultraviolent behaviour.

All the while, the tale is swapping back and forth between two viewpoints; two romantically linked members of the Psych Corps, a federal agency established by Kennedy to manage America's mental health, and the "unfolded" fugitive serial killer they are tracking. The latter thread is very much where the action is, while the former exudes too much of a cold, cerebral impenetrability. While Means does essay the human by-product of invasive US foreign policy with alacrity, the tempo and grip suffer regularly, suggesting that his best novelistic excursion is yet to come.

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