Sunday 22 September 2019

Paris Syndrome: Brilliant collection explores distant mystery of the self

Short Stories: Paris Syndrome

Lucy Sweeney

Byrne Banshee Press, paperback, 256 pages, €20

Consistently invigorating: Lucy Sweeney Byrne
Consistently invigorating: Lucy Sweeney Byrne
Paris Syndrome by Lucy Sweeney Byrne
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Paris Syndrome, a collection of short stories by Wicklow writer Lucy Sweeney Byrne, is the début book from Banshee Press, offshoot of the well-regarded literary journal printing twice yearly since 2015. It's a really fine piece of work, not perfect but excellent throughout, and often touching real greatness.

The 11 stories are similar in theme and tone. Essentially, all concern an Irish woman in her late 20s, a writer or at least a wannabe, who simultaneously likes and dislikes travel, sex and drinking, who yearns for romantic love but also scorns the concept, who's either called Lucy or not given a name.

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I'm guessing they're not autobiographical, as such - the details of different narratives cancel each other out to some extent. Rather these multiple Lucys (and not-Lucys) seem different facets of one fictional, possibly semi-fictional, character: a symbolic, sometimes dreamlike portrayal of the conflicting aspects of any one personality, and the lost potentialities of lives lived and choices made. These are the Lucys who might have been, should have been, if life hadn't got in the way; Lucys who may exist in some alternate universe, right now, having travelled a different branch off some incomprehensible quantum path.

Sweeney Byrne brings her alter-egos around the world: That Sinking Feeling sees a young woman working on a surreal beached ferry in Brooklyn; And We Continue to Live finds her travelling to Chernobyl as a disaster-tourist; Montparnasse, naturally, is set in Paris; All My Exes Live in Texas journeys to a hellishly sun-broiled Houston; Don't Pretend You Don't Know takes place in the Mexican city of Oaxaca; Havana's title is self-explanatory.

And she really puts them (herself?) through the wringer, emotionally and mentally. Lucy/not-Lucy is, across various stories, harassed, insulted, threatened, patronised, even assaulted; she has her heart broken more than once and breaks a similar number of hearts; she soars to chemical highs and crashes to nauseous lows. She sees the bewildering magic of this world, but is too self-aware, and self-hating to a degree, to truly enjoy it.

There are moments of beauty and wonder also - thankfully, Sweeney Byrne is more interested in capturing the full complexity of life than wallowing in some pat, ideological litany of modern-day horrors. But the resonating mood is very downbeat: a point somewhere past melancholy, tending towards absolute despair but (usually) not quite there.

The fact we're encountering more-or-less the same character robs Paris Syndrome of a little of its power near the end. Maybe it's the futility of seeing the same unhappiness, repeated: on some empathetic level, you want to yell at Lucy/not-Lucy to get some perspective, to take a break from that gruelling self-criticism and go easier on herself.

But there's a tremendous amount to admire and - sadly, not as common in literary fiction - enjoy here. The book is consistently exciting, invigorating, challenging, surprising. It's also very funny, Sweeney Byrne mining bright diamonds of humour from the black mud of her anxiety, suffering and morbid boredom.

And she writes brilliantly: every few pages you'll come across a turn of phrase or moment of insight so inventive, fresh and true, you'll wonder (enviously, I admit it) how someone so young can produce something this good.

In the end, for all the globetrotting, Paris Syndrome left me with this impression: it's not so much about a girl striding out into the world, as venturing inwards - to what JG Ballard called the "inner space" of the mind and the self. That's as courageous, daunting and difficult, in its own way, as foreign travel: to confront, head-on, your demons, desires and dark sides; to explore, with little expectation of finding answers, the distant mystery of yourself.

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