Realism is the order of the day in Ethel Rohan’s charming collection of short stories In the Event of Contact. We’re in “a fine home in a prime San Francisco neighbourhood minutes from the ocean”. We’re on the dual carriageway, selling Wexford strawberries. We’re in a London pub, amid “the press of people and too-loud music” (try not to feel too jealous of those characters). These stories land solidly in time and space, and never dance a trapeze act to get our attention. Reality is not something that needs to be impressed upon us, so it’s not. The opening paragraphs do their hard work and get out of the way. Seemingly inconspicuous descriptions, like “rain rattled the windows, as if trying to get in” deliver, with laid-back ease. Close points of view, “my tongue works a raspberry seed from my top molar and I ready the words to finish with him”, bring us into the head — the mouth — of our narrators.
But hovering over this realism is also a surrealism of sorts. These characters seem poised to escape their real worlds. They are neither here nor there — stuck in the hurry between life and death, desire and attainment, home and elsewhere.
Rohan, a Dublin-born San Francisco resident, writes astutely about emigrants, and their divided selves. Two of the collection’s strongest stories, Into the West and Rare, But Not Impossible, seem to mirror each other.
In Into the West, an emigrant who has made a fine life in San Francisco hosts his Irish mother for two weeks. This emigrant has a beautiful wife, good job, impressive new house, yet he spends the whole story pining for his mistress, if only to distract from “the panic that came all the time now — ever since he’d gotten everything he’d thought he wanted in life, and it still wasn’t enough”.
In Rare, But Not Impossible, a woman returns to Ireland from New York for a friend’s wedding. People keep suggesting children should be on the horizon for this thirtysomething. “You and Kevin need to hurry up and get in the family way,” says her mother in a gratingly jovial tone. But our protagonist refuses to achieve everything the world thinks she wants.
Though their approaches to life are different — one grabs at everything life has to offer, the other restrains herself — these protagonists find themselves in a similar bind. The scope of their lives, and the abundance of choice and paths laid out for them, is endless. How awful. How amazing.
This collection won the Dzanc Short Story Collection prize in 2019, and it’s easy to see why. Each story has a unique personality, and an original, playful premise. Trauma is a central theme, and it’s delivered deadpan. The young woman in Blue Hot describes her escapades with a young man as “the farthest I’d ever gone,” and then adds: “That’s all I’d ever volunteered, anyways. That other stuff was forced on me years back by a bloated, middle-aged neighbour.” There is a sort of nihilism in this, and a sort of faith. Darkness is accepted and swallowed. On these characters go.
The book wobbles slightly in its depictions of working-class people, which feel less authentic than those of the middle class, and in its over-reliance on certain structures and motifs. The “stranger comes to town” structure is used liberally. In Before Storms Had Names, a worldly woman arrives in a rural guesthouse, prompting our young protagonist to dream of adventure, though his life is tied to the family farm. In Collisions, an American arrives in a Dublin pub and trades stories with two eccentric women.
This story, like many others in the book, is underpinned by a metaphor. The pub TV shows a segment in which the presenter claims two moons once orbited the Earth, but both collided and merged into one. “Amazing that they didn’t destroy each other when they collided,” says the American, voicing what appears to be the story’s central theme: two opposing ideas merging. Likewise, in Rare, But Not Impossible, an unplayed piano is used as a symbol of the woman’s body, not being used “to its supposedly highest purpose” of childbearing.
But despite these transparent habits, this collection is thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable. The title story is one of the more mysterious in the book. It centres upon triplets, one of whom can’t bear to be touched since a five-year-old classmate “dipped his fingers into the hollow of [her] throat [and] she suffered a seizure”. A man called Mr Doherty reflects upon this: “To be beyond touch. It’s almost impossible to imagine. She’s like the sun.” There’s something hopeful in this reflection. It is as if she has emerged from trauma with some godly power. This seems central to what the collection is trying to tell us: that every broken life might contain something holy.
Short stories: In the Event of Contact by Ethel Rohan
Dzanc Books, 180 pages, hardcover €15; e-book £5.19