I set out/I’m setting out to review each story in the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year 2020 Shortlist. It was a task I began with whole-hearted gusto, waiting to be surprised (or deflated), and then I met Dermot Bolger’s Supermarket Flowers; a short story that begins with the lamentation of writing.
I was expecting stories caught up in the rigours of ‘The Now;’ political; with identity; telling; maybe even caught entirely in a wave of looking to please those who decide on shortlists. Bolger’s story, placed first on the website (although I haven’t looked to see if this is alphabetical, yet) challenges (and doesn’t challenge) all my ideas of what a short story(-competition) is and isn’t, and seemingly takes on the very nature of what a writer is, (it also doesn’t.)
Supermarket Flowers – Dermot Bolger
In Dermot Bolger’s Supermarket Flowers a child has been killed by an errant driver, and the protagonist’s relationship, as a neighbour to the accident outside their home—not directly involved—is given to us immediately. After triaging the aftermath, the woman is left dwell on her position within this nearby chaotic event, “it reflected how I felt a certain sense of custodianship — not towards the house which, when money allowed, we slowly gutted and modernised…” and I can’t help but think—story placed alphabetically on the site or not—we’re contending with the telling of the short story as it is now; as it comes to books; to awards; but almost certainly not as it matters to readers.
Dues have been paid by this character, “This was not to diminish the anguish the mother was experiencing. I knew the anatomy of grief. I nursed my husband through cancer until I could do no more for John at home.” They have seen the short story, they have risen through it, they have even written it. But surely some are doing it wrong? As the story deals with. (In my own solipsistic view.)
So soon anger turns; not towards the feeling of death, but towards everyone beyond, “It’s not your fault that you happened to be standing here and you shouldn’t blame yourself. But it has nothing to do with me…”
If this were a story about writing, as the written form, as a story told, what it was before, what it could or should be, then form would dictate it adopts a looser adherence to plot. And it’s something I’m left to wonder on. Bolger has outlined the premise of the story from the very beginning; a child has died outside the protagonist’s home, and she must deal with the other’s grief. We then read through a very cautiously observed tale where such griefs are reckoned with.
However, so personal should it be, while reserved and distant as it actually is—always aware, and always assured—it captures nothing of my grief. It is the old man, or woman, confidently telling the world their place. There is no modern, youthful or not, reckoning with the immediacy and chaos that is to truly feel, that is to truly tell a story in the moment.
Bolger is atrociously aware in this story, or the character is. It may be a settling experience, if dealing with grief, for the reader. But so insightful only to itself, for me, not giving me opportunity to (the hateful word) identify or (less hateful) experience anything of this situation, that while I admire the confidence to speak this story, think this story, and for me to hold a narrative, I wonder who it is for. Maybe not me, a 35 year old, maybe a reader, 72, and passed over grief many times, maybe the 22 year old assured and seeking another’s insight. Is that reflective of who “we” (the voters on the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year award) are? Or is it reflective of who we should be?
Margaret McNaughton – Kit de Waal
If Dermot Bolger’s piece is one story told, then Kit De Waal’s Margaret McNaughton recognises that before a story begins there are still other stories waiting to be finished, but, if we’re to begin and end just one, this one, then you have to be brought up to speed.
Lazily flowing around the same old story, a family cursed by drink, it upsets the “tale” by telling us, “For generations the family had shunned spirits, wine and beer…” a newcomer, and insightful understanding that tales of drink are often begun halfway through, with a family that forswore their curse. Families that set up rules—like I’ve heard—“I don’t drink this early,” or, “I don’t touch that whiskey. Beer only, for me,” a statement which only finds true meaning in being told to a son (or hopefully now a daughter)—more a warning, “Beer only, for you!”
Most of all this lazy swimming, soon shortened by focusing on to one particular fellow (and not the last particular person in a storm of every-wo-mans), speaks of the beauty lost by the demon, “And Quilty was beautiful. He had thick hair the colour of new milk and eyes of the brightest blue, like someone held a lantern behind each one. Lying on his back on a bale of hay, as lean and strong as good timber, with his farm-boy tan, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was an angel resting on his wings…” I can see myself in that, or what I was—skin like those ancient Greeks—the beautiful golden tan of all the legends; my eyes that see all, and sees better with a few drinks. And, of course, Quilty McNaughton becomes upset by just one taste of booze, establishing the meaning of the story (the story, but not the writing, because there’s a difference between a story and words—or prose), one, like that Grecian McNaughton, less about reality and more about the pattern.
Eventually, once he’s aten-his-dinner, “As soon as he’d finished, as there was never a drink in the house, he would set off, hands in pockets, kicking an unfortunate stone…” he departs. And whose unfortunate stone is this? Or do we ever wonder how the stone felt in being kicked?
But de Waal makes us wonder about the stone. Instead of centring Quilty, or his son—borne maybe to doom—we’re centred on Margaret. But this is not one person’s story, something Margaret admirably recognises: it’s a story of patterns and flows, changing perspectives, languished words and drinks, all fallen asleep over.
We even begin to think Margaret will find peace. This peace is temporary, like sobriety, like curses, there are ends and beginnings, beginnings to ends that find a new beginning—this is the truth of stories. “‘I could get used to this,’ said the carpenter, and when he put his hand over hers, Margaret knew she felt the same. She began to rethink her future.”
If writing is to be the focus of my review—something I don’t hold out hope for—then de Waal writes, firstly, for those who never featured at the centre of the story, one being retold agus retold. But, masterfully, for those who don’t feature.
Except, this time, not only recognising there are others whose stories aren’t centred, and those who do not feature, she hints at an understanding that we haven’t truly addressed the nature of the narrative—a grander narrative—those deftly told in simple stories. The ones fallen asleep over.
I Ate It All And I Really Thought I Wouldn’t – Caolinn Hughes
If there’s something that offers relief in the long scream that is I Ate It All And I Really Thought I Wouldn’t, by Caolinn Hughes, it’s the “Gulls [who] trapeze through the air, screaming. They, too, can be grotesque, but they do not repulse their feathered husbands.”
So am I the husband? (Gay, formerly married to the protagonist, just left her every possession I could. She’s now screaming.) Am I the reader who really ate it all?
The story has an interesting beginning; an awful woman, in dire circumstances—formerly married to a gay husband—is feeling awful, even if she doesn’t recognise it to deal with it, and is acting awfully. Immediately it asks questions of the author’s validity.
Is this screaming that of an author, one shortlisted in the line for awards, and who has given voice to a cry? The story doesn’t show the impact of her— her protagonist’s—scream, rather the ululations of it. Throughout I’m asking if this is justified? Is this normal behaviour? I hesitate, due to the framing of characters—with Marjorie (the protagonist) at the forefront—to judge my “hero.”
There is some to like about her; the unabashed feeling; the directness; the strong female character. Except, as the story tells us through its black-spot bend, others are angered, even abashed by her. Others feel put upon, until they can’t feel put upon no more, and others confront her (directly or not.)
The twist of the story is from the very beginning, and it’s why I focus on the author’s perspective, “It’s the soggy kind of wind that undoes all the hair-dos on the west coast of Ireland; that makes broken tents of nice new outfits, and shouting matches of good wishes:” Supposedly this all is just the world causing the scream: the narration often switching between naming the environment, to distance from, or with, the characters.
At first I felt Marjorie was speaking in the first person. Then I realised it was all told through third person, then I wondered about the others featured. Finally it focuses fully, and solely, again, through the eyes of Marjorie (in close third person.) There are so many judgments to make, so many people to be, so many answers to question.
I would question, “Who this is for?”
Garth Greenwell recently published a loquacious essay in Harper’s about “relevance” in art. About the demand to be relevant. In my opinion—calling his opinion loquacious—“Relevance,” or “Relevant,” when used in book reviews, or on the little not-at-all anonymous quotes on a cover, tells me, “I delighted in this book, but you—or some—might be the better for reading it.” There are judgments wrapped up in such a claim. Hughes—in a relevance I read—is asking us to judge here. Maybe not directly, but via her own judgment, rife through Marjorie’s perspective, and rife in offering us a character to judge, then asking, “Why do you judge?” What ultimate complexity can be overcome with a judgment?
The problem for me is that it’s not a story about asking, it is a story of judging, and so demonstrable in its effect. It’s showing us the wrong, and daring us. And, yet, I must dare.
If you scream at me, “Judge me!” then I just might.
You and Him – Louise Kennedy
I previously said in a tweet that Louise Kennedy’s prose in You and Him is devoid of flourish, admirably so in finding a point, and by giving such purpose by the end. That is to admit I read it a second time to write this review.
The core of the story is the, “You…” An endless interrogation of who, “You” actually is, and why all this is directed at, “me.”
The lack of flourish I so fully found in my first reading is abated in my second. At first I felt so much was hidden from me, “Why, exactly, am I doing this?” (The actions, or thoughts of the story.) Or why is the author doing this—holding so much back—with the writing? The coup de grace coming at the end (as we hope it does) is when I find out why. The reality is that this is a story of unknowns; not knowing a woman at your brother-in-law’s funeral; not knowing an ex; not knowing how this all connects. There comes at the end—the naming reveal—an understanding that casts everything in a different light. Just one direct light; although a few others are hinted at. Secondary to that twist, or its purpose or role, is that the story is told in direct thought. It’s a stream of consciousness directed towards me, the reader, or you, the protagonist.
Why this is a stream of consciousness is belied by the lack of consciousness; the protagonist’s (or to be harsher the author’s) lack of choice and awareness, throughout. The issues at hand, your brother-in-law’s death, are never really considered. Certainly not fully considered. And absolutely not given more meaning to “You” the protagonist, separate to “You” the reader piecing input of consciousness together.
I did piece together that I loved Jill. She seemed fun, but maybe asking why fun isn’t all-the-time-deserved is the deeper point of the story? Yet it undercuts it with simple admiration for itself by the finish. Why hasn’t the protagonist asked these questions? Why hasn’t she interrogated what is happening, in a death, to her? Never considered is the meaning of a death, either that of family, or your own. It’s hinted at, in resolution, never as a matter to be resolved.
I don’t know if it took a second read to formulate this perspective I have. I do know that the lack of meaning given to me obscured the meaning of other potential stories—the ways this story could be possibly be told—through an act of authorial fiat. Yet that is all thoughts are, some part of “You” speaking to “you.” Should I really doubt them?
The Emperor of Russia – Jaki McCarrick
If you want a tale distilled from all of Ireland, where everyone is dead, then you’d be hard pressed to look farther than Jaki McCarrick’s The Emperor of Russia.
That crows feature, in death, is reminiscent of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. Where Banks attributed all manner of horrors towards his disturbed character, McCarrick looks at the Louth land, where, “There are wells and souterrains all over, too, old traps and holes like the ones that’d be in Alice in Wonderland. Only they’re not Wonderland. They’re dark and cold inside, sometimes lined with stone but more often than not it’s just the bog down there, which is much worse, as it’s darker and weirder than stone when all around you.”
McCarrick’s story is one where everything is explained, and all is atoned for. Murder begets murder, loss begets suicide (in result if not desire,) and sorrow is perceived as anger. That the anger of the story is buried in a shallow grave is no surprise. The story indicates from the beginning that all is not well. ‘You kill a crow, it keeps the rest of them off your field…” and murder is on the cards from the beginning.
Expecting it go anywhere else is a fool’s errand, you want it to happen. You want someone to die and for their’s to be a recompense, but there’s no satisfaction in death, something the story holds true throughout.
That Rose—the protagonist—only discovers what death is through death, is, perhaps, an understanding too far; even if it’s the realisation she needs, and the twist the story needs. The characters are too blinded to give the reader any hint at what death may mean, how death may come, for a reader to do more than wish for it for some of those here.
By the end we’re left living on, and to re-contextualise the events that happened outside the story—having seen to its end—is to say they have purpose within the story. Lacking the absurd or existential, it merely throws death’s familiar cloak over those already passed on.
Wildflowers – Billy O’Callaghan
I began all these reviews positing on how a story about something else could be about me, or about my writing. I end these reviews with Billy O’Callaghan’s Wildflowers, a story that doesn’t begin centred in the personal, but among the world, among nature and noticing, as a man walks while, “warm-smelling with the mineral tang of sweat. But because the sun had come out, hot enough for a while to scald, and settled the whole island with the burnished glow of a perfect August evening…”
If some stories centre the reader, or ask the reader to wonder on their place within meaning, then O’Callaghan’s story gives all meaning through perception-felt, and an acceptance that the world exists beyond us. Riddled with warm, loving description, “he followed the road up between the head-high briar ditches bright on both sides with blooming fuchsia and honeysuckle and alive to the bother of wasps, bees and the occasional flitting greenfinch or babbler.” O’Callaghan’s story is always such, but often another. The world reflects our mood—and every experience we undergo—and in his writing this is partied to another. “He leaned on the gate’s top rung, stopping not because he was out of breath, though he was, but so that he could savour the spill of the land, the misshapen fields empty except for patches of the same measly yellow grass that grew everywhere on the island at this time of year, and the dappled blue-glass stretch of the ocean.”—beauty and meaning in one.
I’m lulled into feeling for this man, even feeling as this man, yet still always knowing of the story’s effect. And soon I recognise that his place in the world is also his place with the world, as is my place with the story.
If there is a world of such beauty, that we fail to recognise when we are elsewhere, can we turn to it to find beauty? This is merely a question O’Callaghan asks. Or allows you to ask through sheer experience, never actually experienced by the characters in the story, but by your experience in reading. And you are centred in this.
Like I said, I began all these reviews asking how a story could be about me. O’Callaghan forced the story—or maybe just his world—to include me, and be for me. That this is the intellectual thought of the story could be my mind’s misshapen understanding—as with any moment, even in writing—but if it is, it’s because all the pieces were put into effect by O’Callaghan: he simplifies everything, as can only happen in a story where every note is pitch perfect. I am fully taken. The question is if I am taken to a fantasy—which is a perfectly valid place to go—and if I am taken to a fantasy is it one I want, or can have, for myself. For three thousand or so words I did have it.
You can read all these short stories, and find links to vote for your choice (I haven’t decided on my own choice yet,) at writing.ie, which has the full text of every piece.