Sunday 21 April 2019

Show Them a Good Time: Celebrating the joy of humour in a hollow, imploding world

Short stories: Show Them a Good Time

Nicole Flattery

The Stinging Fly Press, paperback, 256 pages, €12.95

Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery
Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery

Joanne Hayden

At one point during Nicole Flattery's debut collection of short stories, two women who are devising a play discuss what they are fighting against: "earnestness of any kind, the dry, the humourless. Boredom... Logic. Moral dictation." It's a resonant moment because, on a certain level, they are also describing what Flattery's writing is fighting - or at least standing - against.

Though Show Them a Good Time is not short of serious themes - misogyny, abuse, mental illness, genetic inheritance, social exclusion, existential panic - Flattery tells the truth but tells it slant, so that from her sentences, to her symbolism, to her zany, often surrealist plots, her stories fizz with humour and surprise.

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The surface flightiness of the narrative voices is underpinned by a strong intellectual and political foundation.

The voices are similar, like different versions of themselves, which is fitting in a collection full of counterparts. In these eight stories, women resemble or assume the guises of each other, occasionally morphing together. They aspire to appear as though they are functioning, finding personhood elusive. "I felt like I had ordered myself from a store window," one character says.

In 'Abortion, A Love Story' - at 75 pages, the longest piece in the collection - the two main characters, disaffected students Natasha and Lucy, are so similar that their individuality matters less than the trajectory of their relationship and the outcome of their collaboration: a play called Abortion, A Love Story.

The play, like the story, is a boundary-pushing, screwball adventure that invents its own rules and neither evades nor dwells on the women's traumas. The depiction of abortion and the appropriation of abortion stories are as important here as the experience of abortion - though, sitting in an abortion clinic, Natasha feels "like part of a large pantomime dragon made up of other women". It's a brilliantly apt line, reminiscent of early Anne Enright, and like Enright's first collection, The Portable Virgin, Flattery's stories can be read through metaphor as well as through character and plot.

In 'Hump,' a grieving woman develops a hunchback; in 'Track,' a narcissistic American comedian fetishises a playback box that provides him with the sound of canned laughter on repeat. The narrator in the title story is engaged in a parody of community service - possibly as punishment for "Whoring Around". Scrutinised by "Management", she works in a mock-up of a petrol station and takes part in public confessions.

Like so much in Show Them a Good Time, this dystopia is not as ludicrous or as mild as it might first appear, but Flattery's social observations are refracted through the prism of her wit and the striking juxtapositions of her beautifully unpredictable prose.

Originally from Mullingar, she now lives in Galway, and while Ireland is the backdrop for many of her stories, Irishness in them is as nebulous as other identities.

Tropes of Irish fiction - such as place and memory - are shaken up. Certain characters can't or don't want to remember the past. The American comedian in 'Track' has "poverty-stricken" ideas about Ireland. "Did you have windows in that place?" he asks the narrator who has taken to staring out the window. "Not as clean," she replies. "Smaller." Flattery has a seemingly infinite supply of hilarious repartees like these.

Family also looms large, particularly relationships between sisters, and mothers and daughters, which tie into the theme of doubleness. The narrator in the title story compares herself and her mother: "Two flirts; two women who might find themselves in abusive relationships and not even notice."

In 'You're Going to Forget Me Before I Forget You,' one of the best and most painful pieces in the collection, a writer listens to the voice of her older sister - who possibly has a brain tumour - on the phone: "Her neurosis so familiar, the same shape and texture as my own."

While not all the stories have the same emotional impact, each of them strikes a fine balance between darkness and light. "Charm was thin compensation for a life of constant, lurking terror," Natasha reflects in 'Abortion, A Love Story.' But Flattery's writing - as subversive as it is original - has more than charm; acknowledging the terror, it celebrates the joy of humour in a hollow, imploding world.

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