Reading a short story collection often means considering it as more of the sum of its parts. Writers from Louise Kennedy to Daisy Johnson to Mary South have used their collection to showcase more than merely their capacity for alluring voices, but also to display a set of finely-honed skills: from balance of narrative voices (first-, second-, and third-person); past and present tenses; a balance of genders, ages and backgrounds.
In many ways, the competition where short stories are concerned has never been higher. But in this ultra-skilled environment, it can also be refreshing to read a collection where the aim is simply joyous and playful. For all the serious craft a short story can entail, it can also be a revelling form, providing copious room for creative licence; and it’s this sense that comes across most strongly in Robert Sheehan’s debut collection, Disappearing Act.
Sheehan, it should be said, has already found considerable success as an actor. I must be the only person left who has yet to watch something he’s in, but he has won cult and popular fame through his roles on Misfits, Love/Hate, City of Bones, and most recently, Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy.
And it’s perhaps the fact that he doesn’t need to rely on a literary career that allows his collection to feel free, blindly disobeying many of the silent rules I’ve come to expect from short story collections. For example, each story is introduced by a subtitle explaining where the story was written. These can be as mundane as “Written in the changing rooms of the gym off Brick Lane”, or as idyllic as “on a boat to Nusa Penida, Indonesia”; all prompting the reader to question where the ideas originated.
The opening story tells of a funeral, a quintessential Irish (and Irish short story) setting if there ever was one: was it homesickness that prompted Sheehan to write this “in Barnes, London”? ‘Skin’ was written “in an Uber in London” — does Sheehan believe that ‘written’ means a first draft, or does he subscribe to the Carver-esque notion that a short story is really made in the editing?
Sheehan favours first-person narrators, no doubt a reflection of his background as an actor. This monologue quality is enhanced by the act of reading aloud, which often makes the stories flow easier.
Perhaps the most accomplished story, ‘House in the Country’, is also the longest.
The pre-teen narrator, Dylan, lives in a house that is filthy, rural, ramshackle, looked after by his (currently missing) mother’s boyfriend, obsessively watching reruns of House in the Country. When his fan mail to presenter Jules Dixon is finally answered, he goes on a doomed mission of readying the house for a TV appearance. Sheehan is in complete, quiet command of this, especially in the more sedate sections of the story, and the slow, steady drip-feed of revelations has a satisfying pay-off.
‘Snakes’ also uses an Irish teenager’s point of view, with a real delicacy. Perhaps Sheehan is able to write about these characters with conviction now is at a greater distance from that point in his own life.
For me, it was the quieter settings (including ‘Alleyway’, which used an adult but still incredibly vulnerable male narrator) that felt more successful, rather than some of the louder, more sensational ones. ‘English Def’, for example, is narrated by a drunk on the street, slowly becoming more derailed. ‘Medusa’, meanwhile, tells of two halves of a hook-up: the Gorgon Medusa whose face will turn anyone who looks at it to stone, and her partner, a young man who chooses to remove his blindfold at a very inopportune moment.
‘Treasure’ is narrated by a child rapist/ murderer scouting a neighbourhood for new victims.
Buying a copy of the book, or reading about it online, you will be hit over the head with warnings of its ‘adult content’. No doubt this is a reflection of the fact that Sheehan has many younger fans. But it also conveys a sense that his most valuable quality is his ability to shock and to stun, with outrageous antics and exotic locations, rather than trusting his characters, and his strong sense of voice, to speak for themselves.
These stories aren’t always pitch-perfect. There are some awkward lines, ideas that could be more fleshed out, a slight over-reliance on shocking moments and shouty block capitals. He’s deft at relating subtler moments, and I found myself wishing that some of the stories had given greater prominence to those, and allowed them to breathe.
But for all those niggles — and crucially, they are niggles, as opposed to critical problems — this collection has a real sense of fun. You can feel Sheehan flexing his muscles as he writes, experimenting with new concepts and ideas, exploring possibilities. Disappearing Act feels much closer to play than work. And I’d be very surprised if this was the last time we hear Sheehan’s arresting literary voice.
Short stories: Disappearing Act by Robert Sheehan
Gill Books, 272 pages, hardcover €19.99; e-book £8.54