Cathy Sweeney's short stories have been stealing the show for some years in various literary journals, coming at you with a crispness and clarity and weirdness unlike any other fiction being published now. The news there would be a whole book published by The Stinging Fly Press has been greeted with excitement. (Modern Times also comes right after a smashing debut collection from Cathy Sweeney's daughter, Lucy Sweeney Byrne).
They may be very enjoyable but Sweeney's stories, always ultra-short and told with a punch, can read like omens or portents from a world we'll never understand - and they tend to haunt you afterwards. From the wife who takes her husband's penis to work in her lunchbox to the husband who falls in love with a sex robot, the 21 sometimes chilling tales of violence and spurning, desire and perversion in Modern Times are eerily accessible - and as wickedly droll as they are horrifying.
Take the man at the opening of 'The Show Trial', who reasons: "I went to see the show trial because someone said it would be fun… It was against my sense of identity to attend such an entertainment but I went anyway… and I was glad I had come."
Many of the stories in this collection are presented as fairy tales or moral tales but they are set vaguely in contemporary life and feel pressingly modern. If there are themes to catch hold of, certainly marital collapse and spousal loathing run through the whole book, indicating a deeper malaise in all of society. In 'The Chair', a scarily short science fictional tale, a woman describes her routine for getting along in a marriage: "First, I sit in the chair and my husband administers the shocks, and then, a week or so later, I administer the shocks and my husband sits in the chair."
Not all relationships are wholly dysfunctional, and sometimes what is funny is simply found in the rat race and the isolation of modern family life. "I thought of leaving Peter, but by the time I got to unbundling health insurance and who got the cat, I was bored." The comedy lies in the placement of mundane details within very troubling accounts. "The amount of packaging was criminal. I filled two bags for recycling," says the busy wife in 'The Birthday Present' as she takes in the delivery of Tina, the sex robot.
Many of the stories are narrated by men, and many centre on women, particularly women who are barbarically treated, oppressed or just ignored and left to fend for themselves with small children. But sympathy is never elicited, it's more that the facts are laid out - sometimes several versions of the facts, as in the chopped-up folk tale 'A New Story Told Out of an Old Story', concerning an outcast mother who has had sex with a wolf. Or take the devastating conclusion for the extremely fat woman put on trial in the above mentioned show trial "found guilty on two counts of poverty real and imagined".
A kind of outrage seems to spark and then cool before these stories. Modern life may be ridiculous and boring but there is no way to ignore the monumental human struggle that lurks behind the simplest looking realities. Trauma follows people and re-emerges through encounters with myth, as in 'The Death of Actaeon' when a woman who sleeps with her landlord to cover the rent is forced to flee her home with her young child. Told in chapters like a novel, years pass before the woman can confront what's happened to her, standing in front of a painting of the hunted Actaeon.
Sweeney is also masterly at describing many situations at once in a short space. One of the most conventionally shaped stories, 'Blue', tells of a woman who wakes up to find her ankle is blue. Her whole society becomes infected with this physical blueness which we sense is a deep psychic modern ailment, a kind of general numbness, as the woman finds refuge in a toxic extra-marital affair. "You notice that people who turn blue take up exercise - running or kettlebells or cycling or kickboxing or yoga - and talk about mindfulness."
The voice running through is lucid and bright and highly readable, each sentence stripped clean and polished. This strange company may seem detached but the stories themselves, long-sweeping, succinctly told anatomies of spectral lives lived in sad rented places or loveless middle-class homes, are absolutely for this moment.
"How do you overlay words on experience and get anywhere near the feel of the thing?" asks one of Sweeney's screwball narrators. The line stands apart from the book, because it's so sincere. Sometimes there is no way of representing the absurdity of real experience. No way, at least, of making it fun and interesting for people - unless you mess with it.
The only concern as I ate up the tales in Modern Times was whether the voice or its flavour was all too intense bound up into one volume, like too many sour snakes in the candy bag. The stories are not crowd-pleasers, and I'm not sure when you'd curl up to read one. So pacing yourself with Modern Times might be the best advice. One at a time.