Getting off to a Flying start
The verdict on the exciting new offering from an Irish publisher giving a voice to emerging talent
The body of water which lends its name to Claire-Louise Bennett's debut short-story collection, Pond, is not very deep. Instead, "lots of very small things, some of them creatures" poke up through the surface. This array of unusual detritus could serve as an analogy for Bennett's 20 stories more generally. For rather than anything major taking place, lots of very small things jag and jut side by side; from household chores to quirky observations to musings on breakfast choices - "sometimes a banana with a coffee is nice".
Now, if all of this sounds a little unconventional, it is. However, what is less surprising is that this bold new collection comes to us from Irish publisher The Stinging Fly.
Founded in 1997 by Aoife Kavanagh and Declan Meade, The Stinging Fly magazine was a response to emerging writers' complaints about the dearth of publishing outlets. Since then, The Fly has grown into a beautiful, 128-page journal that comes out three times a year and is committed to promoting "the very best new Irish and international writing".
As well as the journal, after identifying certain blind-spots in the publishing industry, Meade founded The Stinging Fly Press in 2005. Predominantly devoted to short-story collections, The Fly first brought the uniquely-brilliant Kevin Barry to our bookshelves, as well as the more recent sensation Colin Barrett, with his multi-award-winning volume Young Skins.
Bennett is no stranger to awards herself. In 2013 she won the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize for 'Lady of the House', the second-to-last entry in Pond. Centred around a couple's awkward morning-after interactions (yes, more breakfast), here the female narrator looks out the window to the lake, wondering if she should mention the "creature beneath the water". Given her slightly neurotic persona, we suspect this creature may in fact symbolise the narrator's paranoia, or even her hysteria. But she is quick to warn us: "Not a metaphor, nothing like that - I'd never want the monster to stand for something, that's for sure", thus leaving us more baffled - and more intrigued - than ever.
Interestingly, the founders of London-based The White Review first met in Ireland. And indeed, since the launch of The Fly, a number of other independent journals and presses have emerged across the Emerald Isle; from gorse and Tramp Press in Dublin, to Doire Press in Galway and The Penny Dreadful in Cork.
However, rather than feeling in competition with one another, these publications have joined forces to create an exciting literary community. Thomas Morris, for example, The Stinging Fly's editor since 2013, recently edited (and wrote the eloquent foreword) Tramp Press's Joyce-inspired collection Dubliners 100; while, in the Christmas run-up, a number of independent Dublin presses banded together to run a four-week pop-up bookstore.
Despite this literary energy though, Meade remains candid about the struggle of sustaining The Fly. With a print run of 1,000 copies per issue, the journal is distributed via subscription, and largely relies on Arts Council funding for support. That said, The Fly does continue to evolve, now running courses and events (interestingly, Meade already teaches on the Creative Writing MFA at the American College), while the journal now also includes literature in translation, as well as Irish-language writers.
Returning to Bennett's use of language, in her story 'The Big Day' the narrator remarks, "regrettably I don't think my first language can be written down at all. I'm not sure it can be made external you see". So we get her internal ramblings instead; her eclectic trains of thought.
For example, amidst the day's preparations, she spots a box of straws, which remind her of flumes in a water park, which reminds her of a lido in Bavaria, which in turn reminds her of the profound loneliness she felt there. Such chains of ideas populate much of the collection. And while they may not lead anywhere in particular, their progression does serve as a kind of substitute for any traditional narrative or plot. Furthermore, over the course of the 20 vignettes (some of which are no more than a paragraph long) we grow familiar with this frenzied voice, constantly reminded that the human mind does not in fact work in any logical, linear way.
Of course, this attempt to represent the quirks of consciousness recalls Eimear McBride's breathtaking A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, as well as the more recent mind-spool of Sarah Baume's Spill Simmer Falter Wither (interestingly, The Stinging Fly's current issue features an essay by Baume).
But there are other echoes in Pond too - older echoes - like Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, wandering her environs and letting her impressions unfurl; or Katherine Mansfield's 'The Garden Party', where the party preparations dominate the story, while the event itself slips away with barely a mention - just like in Bennett's 'The Big Day' or 'Finishing Touch'. Such links have also been identified by Anne Enright, who notes how Ireland's economic crash led to "resurgent modernisms", citing Bennett as one such example.
Crucially though, even despite the crash, The Stinging Fly surges onwards. Meade admits he considered giving it all up a few years ago, particularly in the face of his 40th birthday. But the man with the Midas touch continues to lead the charge on Ireland's literary scene, setting the stage for new and exciting voices, and ensuring the buzz only grows louder and louder.
Fly Press, pbk, 148pp, 12.99
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350