Friday 23 February 2018

Books: Arrested development in a Welsh town

We don't know what we're doing, Thomas Morris, Faber, €17.99

We Don't Know What We're Doing
We Don't Know What We're Doing

Christopher Jackson

'We Don't Know What We're Doing' is the debut short story collection from Thomas Morris, the Welsh-born Trinity-educated editor of Stinging Fly, the popular Irish literary magazine.

All but one of the ten stories takes place in Morris's home town of Caerphilly in south Wales. The main theme of the book is loss and the anxiety that comes with it. Morris explores how we cope with it, how some of us can't or won't and become stuck, wallowing in pity and apportioning blame on others, and how some of us do cope and attempt to move on from it.

In Bolt, the book's opening story, a young graduate, estranged from his father, dumped by his girlfriend, and still living with her mother, works his last shift in a video shop. Like the video shop he seems to have no future. He pines for the past, for his ex-girlfriend and his dead mother. He finds comfort in the town's psychiatrist, a middle-aged divorcee who, like him, is dealing with loss and who also happens to think she's a horse.

As the book's title suggests, the characters don't know how to deal with their anxiety. Most of them are in their 20s, suffering from arrested development. They struggle to reconcile their idealised vision of life with the reality of it. In Castle View, a young teacher's inability to reconcile it results in bulimia and paranoia, while in How Sad, How Lovely, it leads an already worm-ridden unemployed graduate to even greater decay. Nostalgia accompanies anxiety, and throughout a grey-coloured present paints a rose-coloured past.

An exception is Strange Traffic, a story told from the perspective of a twice-widowed pensioner. Unlike the younger characters, he does know what he's doing. He doesn't wallow in the past and tries to find love and happiness in the time that he has left. The book's final story Nos Da is its most in-depth exploration of loss, and how grief, with its stultifying effects, can keep us in a state of purgatory, unable to move on from our old lives.

Morris writes with Hemingway-like economy and has that great skill, more particular to Irish than British writers, of being able to capture a great amount of detail in a short amount of words, like describing how autumn 'lurks like a mugger'. He has an ear for dialogue and there's great nuance and depth to his characters. They're both sympathetic and pathetic. There are moments when you want to give them both the crook of your arm and the back of your hand. He must also be commended for his ability to write from a female perspective. In Fugue and Clap Hands, like the pensioner in Strange Traffic, the female characters are eminently believable, which speaks not only of Morris's deft skill as a writer but his bravery too, considering it's his first book.

There are also many moments of humour throughout the book. 17 and All the boys, while tender and poignant, are very funny, and reminiscent of Roddy Doyle's stories of male friendships, and how they're often underpinned by the constant search for 'craic', even if it is at the expense of mates or, as in 17, at that of the ugly girls in the local rugby club.

But though it may have humorous moments and runs along at a fast and fluid pace, it's not a light book. It's deep and heartfelt. It reminds us that it's when we're in the deepest pits of despair, alone and alienated, that we're at our most human, that it's when we're at our most forlorn that the great torrents of human emotion inside of us stir the most.

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