Tuesday 12 December 2017

Challenging tales from the banks of absolution

Short ­stories: Levitation, Sean O'Reilly, The Stinging Fly Press, hardback/trade paperback, 228 pages, €17.95/€12.95

In focus: Sean O'Reilly's new book is now one that can be read passivly
In focus: Sean O'Reilly's new book is now one that can be read passivly

Hilary A White

Just imagine expending yourself on trying to write a "big mother" of a novel over four years. Something big and ambitious that would cap off a run of well-received works that had announced you as a dazzling new kid on the literary block. And then imagine gathering up everything you'd done on this project - laptop, discs, notes and all - and lobbing the lot into the Liffey and walking away.

By his own admission, Sean O'Reilly, the Derry-born writer who landed in 2000 with his short-story collection Curfew and Other Stories before following it with novels Love & Sleep, The Swing of Things and Watermark in a nippy four years, appreciates the cleansing nature of destruction. A migrant by nature, but now calling Dublin home, the 47-year-old's creative career has been one of continuous deconstruction and rebuilding, always scouring for a way to break down that "border" between the corporeal and the universe's more elusive energies.

For these reasons, it comes as no surprise to find his long-awaited return to print has a strikingly frayed quality that is most refreshing at a time when literary fiction can sometimes seem too obsessed with pretty brushstrokes.

The stories assembled here snatch glimpses of conversations, memories and feelings, and scatter them in linear patterns among urban settings - city centre pubs, London squats, the recurring revolving-door crossroads provided by a simple barber shop on Dublin's Capel Street. The effect can sometimes be akin to watching grainy old super-8 footage from times gone by when key life decisions were made.

This though is to paint too rosy a picture of what is a gritty, shaded and dirty-fingered collection of writing. In 'The Cavalcade', young lovers are expending themselves in an erotic arena that is dangerous, consumptive and almost grotesque. 'Downstream' is similarly explicit, muddling passion with a cold, hard edge of violence. Our narrator is raking over the coals of a risky and elusive lover happened upon in Thatcherite London, that one formative relationship that teaches you the hard lessons. These aren't tales to gently thumb of an afternoon - they're trials that suck you into their challenge.

Even the main characters of the title story (a novella that forms the final chunk of the book), tethered as they are to that omnipresent male-grooming abode on Capel St and its salt-of-the-earth clientèle, have demons, drink, magic and the dead rapping at the window. Dublin is a neighbourly city but it is also so dangerously small that you can happen upon the wrong people here and "be forced to abandon your destination altogether".

The opening 'hallion #1', with its unorthodox punctuation, is a sectarian diorama witnessed in flashes, as if from the window of a passing high-speed train. O'Reilly draws on the street-level tensions he witnessed growing up in Derry during the Troubles, when talking to the wrong people or merely mentioning their names carried risks.

In 'Critical Mass II (Abandoned Work)', the woozy effect peaks. Memories and dreams loop from different angles, with the author's own time spent in Norway seeping into the foreground. Its incomplete shape proves involving because it forces you to fill in inviting gaps in the narrative. It shouldn't work but it does, and if the parenthetical subtitle hints at a last-minute dusting off, then it will have been a good idea.

Even in those cases where the story structure does appear more linear, there is a peculiar frequency that must be bought into. 'Ceremony' continues Levitation's themes of puss-filled emotional sores being burst as our narrator must bring himself to attend the naming ceremony of an ex-lover's child with his new partner in tow. As with 'Downstream', it is a vaguely cleansing confessional.

The slippery coating to everything in Levitation makes for an uncommon reading experience but one that you must buy into wholesale. It cannot be read passively, and asks that you suspend certain thought patterns. O'Reilly has spoken of his desire for a story to open dialogue with the reader. This will only happen if the reader is prepared to adjust their aperture and depth of field, which some may find too exerting. Those who do, however, will not quickly forget the experience.

Either way, we should be thankful that this unique and uncompromising voice has returned from the brink of Liffey absolution.

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