Thursday 24 October 2019

Comeback kid of literature enjoys a sixth celebration

Anthology: Being Various, New Irish Short Stories

Edited by Lucy Caldwell

Faber & Faber €12.99

Lucy Caldwell is on guest-editing duties for this current collection of wonderful short stories
Lucy Caldwell is on guest-editing duties for this current collection of wonderful short stories

JP O' Malley

Kevin Barry aptly summarised the remarkable comeback of the Irish short story six years ago when guest-editing book four of this ongoing Faber Irish short prose series.

The Limerick writer wrote that "there was a time when the short story looked as if it might turn to face the wall and the expectation was of a low-key funeral with a smallish turnout".

But 2013 proved the short story was becoming cool again: it saw the publication of Colin Barrett's Young Skins, a collection that went on to win a number of international literary prizes.

A multitude of theories exist why Irish writers have consistently gravitated to this hybrid literary form, which sits like a halfway house between the novel and a melancholy lyrical ode. Much of this critical analysis gleans inspiration from Frank O'Connor's 1963 book The Lonely Voice.

It claimed the short story is well suited to the fragmented nature of the Irish psyche, because Irish society found bridging the gap between tradition and modernity a more complex task than most other European nations.

If the novel typically looks for drama amid that interconnected layered beast we call society, the short story, conversely, finds artistic expression by turning inwards; evoking a consistent if somewhat bleak core message: the business of living is a solitary experience where loneliness is almost impossible to avoid if any degree of self-analysis is forthcoming.

O'Connor's thoughts relating to the technical mechanics of the form still feel particularly relevant.

But his ideas concerning the short story and Irish society more broadly, feel alien, outdated, and archaic when applied to our own age.

If the short story has felt particularly relevant in Irish culture over the last decade or so, it may well be because authors penning those tales have - perhaps unconsciously - made an effort in their work to depict a nation that has experienced rapid social change over a very short time span; especially in its attitudes to religion, the family, reproductive rights, sexual identity and sexual freedom. Some authors have even begun tearing apart what was once seen as an almost reverent respect for the form itself; which traditionally has tended to work within the tight parameters of a formula that placed restrictions on experimental expression.

Two writers worth mentioning in this avant-garde camp are Eimear McBride and Nicole Flattery.

In The Adminicle Exists we meet a nameless individual who gets locked up in what appears to be a London police cell for the night.

The language is chaotic, confusing, violent and distressing.

If the story feels fragmented and scattered, McBride's writing suggests that so too is modern urban life: where anxiety, psychological turmoil and alienation are the dominant themes.

In Feather, Nicole Flattery describes a woman's return journey to her family home after being confined for some time in a nameless institution. Flattery takes the reader into a chaotic existential psychological vortex - where disquietude, mental illness, and the absurdity of modernity are subtly explored in a writing style that always chooses uncertainty over reason, but where little pockets of black humour pop up to lighten the mood on occasion.

Dark humour similarly swaps places with the banal and the sublime in Kevin Barry's story, Who's - Dead McCarthy, where we encounter the daily urban wanderings of an eccentric Limerick oddball who harps on to any passer-by who will listen about his favourite subject: death.

Lucy Caldwell is on guest-editing duties for this current collection: book six in the ongoing Faber cultural project that's been championing short Irish fiction for quite some time.

In her introductory note, the Belfast author writes about diversity and plurality being of central importance to the book's tone and ethos. This is very much reflected in her editorial choices: there are a number of immigrant writers and many of the stories happen outside of Ireland itself.

Caldwell also stresses that it's almost impossible to speak of the post-millennial resurgence of the Irish short story without mentioning Kevin Barry's name in the same sentence; which, of course, means discussing that great scouting talent for new literary blood that is The Stinging Fly: the Dublin-based literary journal where several authors who appear in this book first cut their teeth in the publishing world.

This includes global publishing phenomenon and bestselling author Sally Rooney, who was first featured in the literary journal as a poet in 2010, subsequently taking on an editorial role there in spring 2018.

In Rooney's story, Colour and Light, we meet a shy young hotel worker who encounters an older woman who wishes to seduce him. The sexual tension that Rooney builds up never materialises into anything beyond casual flirtation. But the story is intent on exploring something beyond a physical connection between the two protagonists, who confide in each other about their own respective life frustrations.

Sexual anxiety, the complexity of family loyalties, and the inevitable restraints that social mores inflict on individual freedom are similarly explored in Danielle McLaughlin's A Partial List of the Saved: a story which describes a rather awkward sojourn back from San Francisco to Ireland in which a divorced couple are playing happy families in an effort to try to please the ex couple's father who doesn't know their marriage has ended.

Not so long ago it seemed as if the short story might become a footnote of Irish literary history.

But we can safely say that its future is highly secured; certainly if the wealth of talent writing in this impressive collection is anything to go by.

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