Entertainment Books

Thursday 25 April 2019

Review: Postmodern wit smashes age-old tradition in Nicole Flattery's Show Them A Good Time

Fiction: Show Them A Good Time

Nicole Flattery

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

Author Nicole Flattery. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Author Nicole Flattery. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Show Them A Good Time by Nicole Flattery
Show Them A Good Time

JP O'Malley

The familiar tropes and tricks of the Irish short story form can often feel tiresomely predictable. Typically, they depict an ambitious - but equally frustrated and anxious - lonely individual mired in a parochial and provincial community; who eventually finds a philosophical revelation in the Joycean epiphany that concludes the story. Usually this comes in tandem with a poetic description of nature or weather.

Mullingar writer, Nicole Flattery, begins this debut collection by luring the reader into a belief that, yet again, another Irish wordsmith is tipping their hat to a literary form with one foot in the last century. In the book's opening, eponymous tale, 'Show Them a Good Time', a young woman working in a small-town garage feels utter contempt for her colleagues, who willingly gravitate towards bureaucratic conformity with an enthusiasm that borders on the sadomasochistic. "History was not happening in my town, not to me," the narrator explains in a feisty, rebellious, and cynical tone.

So far, so traditional.

But just as we expect another stereotypical homage to age-old literary ritual, Flattery's narrator veers left-field into a confusing memory about starring in a lo-fi film with her abusive ex-boyfriend. The small interlude purposely eschews clarity. In fact, the reader is left more confused at the end of this humorous tale than they were at the beginning.

This alluring collection continues in this uncompromising and fragmented manner. If tradition is the kitchen sink, Flattery removes it from the wall, smashes it to pieces, and dances all over it with delight: as existential darkness and infinite uncertainty constantly trade places with a cutting, dead-pan, laugh-out-loud black humour.

Place and identity, meanwhile, is seen as a movable feast, as characters - usually young females - constantly alter between faceless urban spaces; the narratives of old TV shows; spontaneous one-off experiences; confusing email messages; private psychological fantasies, and the empty promise of buying consumer goods or embarking on long-distance travel.

"Would you say that you're a typical Irish girl?" one protagonist asks another in 'Abortion a Love Story'.

"I would say I'm not typically anything," comes the amorphous response. Ostensibly, this is a story about two women putting on an amateur theatre production. But pretty soon the reliability of omniscient narration is put into question. "The play itself was a chore - no spirit, no excitement, no life. The exact opposite of Lucy," the narrator explains with postmodern irony.

In 'Sweet Talk', a 14-year-old girl, who develops a crush on an older man living near her parents' home, describes how "we had no language for weather"; in 'Hump', a woman lamenting the recent death of her father recalls how an endless search on the internet to figure out where an identity crisis might be stemming from, merely pointed her in a direction that led to more anxiety; and in 'Not the end yet', a woman who begins a string of Tinder dates confesses how the prospect of sexual intimacy can make her almost physically sick on certain occasions.

With her multi-layered approach to telling numerous stories at once, Flattery's work seems closer to avant-garde filmmakers, like David Lynch, Charlie Kaufman and Chantal Akerman than it does to run-of-the-mill literary realism. The language is self reflective and ironic, without coming off as snooty, cerebral, or pretentious. And where there is even the slightest sniff of a potential cliche in sight, the author immediately tears it down with scrupulous psychological analysis.

With a literary voice that is as sophisticated and erudite as it is spiky and hilarious, Flattery has taken the short story format into an exciting, energetic, and multifaceted dimension: which seems to aptly reflect the narrative space we now call reality on a daily basis.

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