Negative capability, a term first used by the English poet John Keats, is a writer’s ability to accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” without explaining them away using fact and reason. Keats first showcased the term in a letter dated 1817, suggesting those with the creative impulse needed to experience the world as an uncertain place.
Booker Prize-winner Roddy Doyle, a writer about whose creativity there can be no doubt, embraces his negative capability in Life Without Children, his latest short story collection. In these 10 stories from the world of lockdown, he assembles a group of characters ridden with insecurity and hesitation.
The stories are set during the pandemic and the action mostly centres on Dublin, as might be expected from Doyle’s work. That sense of threat many people became familiar with during 2020 is expressed here: a character who has to take a taxi to hospital uses Dettol wipes on the seat before climbing in, while another frets about his wife being out there, at risk, in the virus.
We hear Doyle’s characters meditating on how the pre-Covid life will be impossible to regain. “He can’t see himself walking into a full room again. The heat, the sweat in the air, the steam, manoeuvring himself through bodies to get close enough to shout for a pint. Putting his hands on the counter. Picking up a wet glass. Pulling open a packet of crisps. Licking the salt off his fingers. It’s not going to happen. He’ll never stand in a pub again.” So says Mick in The Charger, and it should strike a chord with readers.
Most of the characters are men in late middle age who feel fearful about the future, and have capable, pragmatic wives who are coping better than their husbands. Doyle’s men look at their legs in the mirror and see their fathers’ pale, veined shins. They are men, perhaps, who would be apprehensive about the future anyway, with their youth and fitness fading fast, yet the pandemic provides a focus on which to pin their anxieties.
In the title story Life Without Children, Alan deliberately misses his flight home to Ireland, where the pubs, cinemas and theatres have been shut by government decree. Instead, he stays for an extra, stolen night in England, where the pubs are roaring and the streets jammed. He is tempted to abandon his locked-down family at home, and relocate to this place where Covid-19 is dismissed as a scare story. Outside his Newcastle hotel, he meets a hen party wearing pink bunny ears, but can’t enter their party spirit — he has become a fretful man. “The droplets they’ll inhale tonight, they’ll be dead in days,” he worries.
Mobile phones are a common denominator in the stories. In The Funeral, a middle-aged son unable to attend his mother’s funeral because of the restriction on numbers, puts his vexatious phone in the fridge. In Life Without Children, a sense of freedom is felt by Alan who throws his phone away, although he knows he’ll lie to his wife and claim he lost it. “It seems enough — the act, the protest.” Their mobile phones connect these men to bad news and lives which have veered out of their control.
Box Sets thrums with social observation. Sam and his wife are regulars at middle-class dinner parties where guests must hear “the tale of the hunt for the ingredients” before being allowed to eat their Mumbai or Beirut street food dishes. At these gatherings, the merits of box sets (a lifesaver for many during lockdown) are debated passionately — Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, The Killing, Love/Hate — with strong views aired even by people who haven’t watched the shows. But Sam has lost his job and “something had snapped, or sagged, a few weeks after he was let go”. His wife suggests he do voluntary work and, full of inarticulate anger and dread about the future, he throws his mug of coffee at the wall.
In The Five Lamps — where a father combs the streets in search of his son — Doyle’s affection for his native city is apparent, even as glimpses of its underbelly are presented. In a couple of memorable vignettes involving a group queuing for a methadone clinic, Doyle suggests readers should be slow to rush to judgment.
Prospect of lockdown
Gone is told from a his and hers perspective about a mismatched couple called Jim and Laura. He’s a man programmed to expect the worst because of a tragedy in his life before he met her. They rub along, despite differences, until the prospect of lockdown the following day sends Laura fleeing “out of that life” — leaving her phone behind in the cutlery drawer as a covert message.
The longest story is about Mick, who “wants nothing to do with Mick” and cries during the pandemic, lying under his bed. The last time he wept was after his father died, as a small boy. He grew up to turn everything into a joke, hiding the pain of rejection by his mother — that’s “his shame. The truth inside the funny stories”. But the turmoil of the pandemic unpeels his defences.
Doyle’s trademark wit flashes through occasionally, and his dialogue always crackles, but these tales are sombre ones dealing with death, fear, loss and grief.
Whether drunk or sober, sobbing or searching, his characters are convincing — and Doyle understands the value of writing that first and foremost serves the story.
Martina Devlin hosts a regular books podcast, City of Books, supported by the Arts Council, Dublin Unesco City of Literature and the Museum of Literature Ireland
Short stories: Life Without Children by Roddy Doyle
Jonathan Cape, 192 pages, hardcover €21; e-book £9.99