Fiction: Modern Times
The Stinging Fly, €15.00
The most pertinent story in Modern Times, Cathy Sweeney's allegorical short story collection, is The Palace. In it, the infrastructure of an unnamed palace becomes sick in spring. There are symptoms and an outbreak, the application of a white chemical substance to counteract, experts giving greasy reassurances, and people waving flags in delight. But no matter the efforts, it spreads further, and relationships rot.
"Video screens were set up all over the the palace so that everyone could watch the battle being waged on the sickness." The creepiness of this story - written before coronavirus - is archetypal fairy tale, with long-ago tropes fitting neatly into current sickly settings. In fact, Sweeney's tales are chock-full of strange wisdoms and chronic complexities, in a world forever unfurling and refolding.
Female characters are purposefully strange, and profoundly willing, play-acting with gender roles in the way Angela Carter did in The Bloody Chamber, and to equal effect. Women who are mentally brave, gutsy and even violent also happen to be plain, with "gulag eyes" or warped in any number of conventional ways, "face knotted like the branch of a tree". Desire is sought at a high price - in The Love Child a woman inherits a stranger's child following an accident - in place of slotting in, or receding into banality.
However, no transgression goes unpunished and violence is often meted out as a response to bad behaviour. The Celebration lies somewhere between Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and the 1972 satirical flick, Stepford Wives. A wife is temporarily disposed of, and a better-behaved, sleeker offering turns up in her place, in time for a celebration that's not exactly clear.
In The Woman With Too Many Mouths, a male narrator is confused by his attraction to a woman who's "almost ugly" and wants to be slapped. Yet he pursues her relentlessly, if only to learn about himself.
The male gaze is malfunctioning as a theme, replaced instead by "a reverie of fat and thin emotions". Women make tricky decisions and rebuke the idea of being judged. Yet being in control does not always prevent an onslaught of loneliness. And for all the freedoms contained in Modern Times, there is a lot of desperation. In another story, a cheerleader is so good at her job no-one notices her body eventually falling apart, a stump for a leg and a wire hanger where an arm should be.
Sweeney is constantly trying to grope truths that only hang in half balance. It is a deeply subconscious work; familiar, disturbing, funny, awkward, revealing, sexual.
A New Story Told Out of An Old Story could be an allegory for the infectious sway of social media. By the time facts are on the move, they lose hope of their own certainty.
Cyril Connolly's famed line 'There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall" is dealt a swift hand in The Woman Whose Child Was A Very Old Man in which the writer circumvents and inverts the domestic situation by literally freezing her baby.
These stories are best read with a break in between. But even when consistently gloomy, there is huge playfulness in the murk that Sweeney creates. She experiments brilliantly with time, constantly showing us that people are reliably unreliable, that they lie, lose the grip of themselves, fumble through life not knowing much at all. And by the time they attain some wisdom, it may be too late into the night to do anything with it.
Sunday Indo Living