A Review of the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year Award Short Stories

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.

The End

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.

Myself, Ourselves, No-one, Not Anyone

She signs her name on the dotted line to indicate it’s her who’s collecting the prescription. When I say, ‘She signs her name,’ it’s my name. Ruth Hendricks is my name but it’s not who I am. Who she is. There are levels of who you are and supposedly, for most people, they collapse together to form an individual. I’m not sure I buy that, and if I don’t buy it then all the mes all the way to Ruth Hendricks, signing her name, means she doesn’t buy it either.

She, me, I, is handed a taped-over paper bag. It’s small, secure, only my business. The girl in the chemists can’t know what the anti-depressants are for. Depression, of course, but the ways to be depressed are myriad; the thoughts that come; the feelings that stick. I tuck the little paper bag into my handbag and it’s very much me doing it. It’s a simple action, a basic physical action, it doesn’t need watching.

She, the me that is I, turn and walk towards the exit. There are strips of metal panelling running down each small section of shelving. There are bottles of shampoo and conditioner on the shelves. On another a display of condoms and lube, on the stand next to it containers of vitamins, and next to that hairbrushes, hair-ties. I see the woman I am blur past on the dividing metal panelling as I walk past, as that woman walks past, hand resting atop the small medication box sticking out of my purse.

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She doesn’t know when she’ll take the first pill, so in a way I don’t know when I’ll take it. Should she dedicate some ritual to it, looking into a mirror to watch whatever appears, changed or not, noticing difference or not? Should she take it before bed so any upset comes during sleep when it won’t be remembered? Should she dig out a tablet in that moment, right there in the shop, as though something urgent?

She walks through the beige tinged amniotic light of a half-deserted shopping centre, from the pharmacy, to a café that’s mostly empty. Most of her feels small, and so wins out at the counter, and orders a large Americano; partially in defiance; partially as wishing-charm. I have to find her way to a boxy brown leather chair at a precarious formica table away from here, away, together with my-selves. She has already decided in half of her being, the other half simply has to catch up. Stirring the coffee with the spoon she unfolds herself into herself watching herself. Constantly watching. You must make a decision. So she does and I do, and I push a pill through the blister. It’s a red and white gel cap. Can this unite me?

###

Her/my dose goes up. A new sheet of tablets, double the strength, to take every day. The doctor said it’ll take a few weeks to have an effect. I’ve noticed an effect already. Every thick swallow of a pill is fully and solely my own. It’s a one-me taking it. A me that’s not hesitating at the edge of another me. It makes me feel dizzy but the dizziness isn’t disturbing. When I first noticed it I leant into the feeling, embracing the free-form liquid-rolling of my thoughts my mind-feeling floated on, or maybe I floated in. I was surrounded. My face beyond itself like a cheap plastic clown. In that moment things seem to change for me, a momentary reassertion of the self all my friends tell me I’m so far from. It’s a me I’m not familiar with. I don’t think any part of me is familiar with it.

I look at my friends in the café. I wonder how can they be the same people when I’m not even one person. Evidence proves them wrong. I’m wrong.

She, her, I, me takes in the table filled with teapots and cafetières, cups and cake: the only truth because it can’t lie about who it is. She sees her friends all split and different sitting around solid and whole.

I, me, she, her wonders if the one person I should be could be a better friend to these women chatting about their holiday, with families, to seaside cottages. The holiday, three weeks ago, I skipped out on. I didn’t even pay the deposit.

“I went to the doctor,” one of me says. Part of the doctor’s questioning was about the watching of yourself, the one of me feeling disconnected. I knew his inquiry to be about dissociation. I told him I felt in control of the many mes partitioned as me. I’m not removed just various; a variety; varifaceted.

Jess hushes the rest. She places her hand on my arm. She gazes as though looking behind my eyes and I remember, more become aware, I just told them I went to the doctor. “Good,” she says. Her comment is too much but not enough.

“Finally,” Susan says, then she catches herself. I, the we that is only me, feels one shard of me laughing, not out loud but some form of smile reflecting the world beyond us. “I mean, it took courage to speak with him, about, well, it all, you know. You did well, I’m happy for you.”

“What did he say?” Stacy asks.

“I don’t really remember,” I say, not pushing myself to recall a conversation I know to be of little significance. They all nod.

“Did he have suggestions?” Stacy asks.

“A prescription,” I say, but the words are small on my tongue on my lips. I feel like I can see them stalled above the café table somehow still in my mouth. I didn’t know I felt shame. I tell myself it’s relief.

“Good,” Jess says again. “It helped me.”

“When?” Susan asks. “I don’t remember this.”

“In college,” she says.

I breathe deeply, withdrawing the words hanging in the room back into my soul. I own my mouth again. Susan and Jess are recounting their college years and I walk one of my selves outside the café entrance to dream of a smoke, while I stay at the table, forcing bright eyes at my friends’ tales of our college years, remembering when I really was depressed.

I’m not finished my smoke by the time Susan stands. “I’ll get the bill,” she says.

Stacy puts her money, already in her hand, in the middle of the table. My hand is holding nothing and so fully itself in all its wrongs. Just as much it’s bent backwards, knuckles reversed, stroking with gnarled fingers an opposite palm wanting to tighten its grasp.

“I’ve got you,” Jess says to me. She collects Stacy’s note from the table handing a twenty Euro note to Susan.

Unformed words whose effect I predict scrawl through my throat, gurgling, scraping.

“I’ve got it,” Jess says to me.

The smoking me returns from outside to the inside me with my six extra Euros I didn’t expect to have. What will the me that didn’t have such riches do differently to the me that’s spent them? A precocious me calculates the cost of a pack of menthols and what I could forego for the rest of the cost of a twenty box.

Everyone has already stood and is putting on coats at the café doorway. I want to smile at them but there’s no-one with me to smile to. No part within me that can force a smile. I try to recall the thickness of swallowing a pill that morning.

###

I spent three and a half hours wondering if the monitor screen could turn into a mirror. Would the webcam built into the casing be enough? To turn it on, a little window in the corner of the files, apps, and word document, and see me confirmed as being right here.

The second hand on the clock on the wall ticks backwards, then forwards, then keeps advancing. A thought occurs to me as being always present: it’s a trick of the mind I tell me. You expected the movement and so you’re already anticipating it, seeing it. Proof reality is a facade.

People need to find out about our introductory talk, ‘Blogging for a Local Community,’ and it’s fifteen minutes until my day is over. All it would take are fingers engaged with keys. The words would be plain, the sentiment basic, yet there’s no demand other than a punch-in/punch-out requirement I do it right now and send out the notice.

I look up at the clock again, knowing what I could expect and doubt filling that expectation. Its movement is slow, as though its mechanism has decided I’ve not given enough with my day. I stand.

“Finished that email?” Claire asks.

“Yes,” I lie, but I want to scream. “I’ll send it out tomorrow.” The voice is quiet among the many mes screaming. One scream is loudest.

“It’s a few minutes early to leave,” she says. “But it’s fine.” The room echoes away her protestation that meant nothing. I look at the clock again. It glares back at me and I smile despite myself. It’s a wide grin of a smile, teeth bared, a predator’s smile. I’m preying on myself. Tomorrow will be worse, but today is just fine, so I leave. The wind makes a sail of my coat as I step outside the front door. I’m blown, taken, forced.

The one of me walking walks to a gallery, serving food, at the heart of the city. It’s just about lunchtime and the restaurant is full but I have so much time its menu can wait. She and me step into the high-ceilinged, wide with wide windows, painted white room that hosts the current exhibition. All-we look at the photos, the collages, the paintings. All-we can’t imagine what the show could be. Standing before each framed piece I see my impossible shadow: an impossible shadow. Spots shine down from above, illuminating the work and I can’t figure out how I see my body-self blocking off the light that should cast clarity on each artwork.

I move closer. The shadow grows larger.

My stomach growls with hunger and I turn from my impossible impression. There are photographs on the other side of the room. They are distant. I can’t see them. I can’t see me. I feel the many-ones-of-us separated, separating fleeing this room, fleeing to the far side of the gallery, the street, the city, even navigating the oceans and continents across the world. I have become a small candle, now snuffed out, remembering when I shone. The light of mine so candescent now gone. I’m not disappeared but disparate. Did I forget my medication today? Did I forget it yesterday? The day before? It’s been a month and I’m not sure there’s a difference. I don’t remember waking but part of me did. I don’t remember work other than the clock ticking backwards, which was just a trick, but part of me must remember if I can envision it.

I see a woman, maybe a teen, sitting on a plain rectangular box-bench. She’s not looking at me but looking past me. She’s looking perpendicular to me, beyond me to something fixed and focused. An art pad is on her crossed legs and pencils are laid out at her side. She’s studying a grand painting; almost ten feet across, six feet high.

“Could you draw me?” I ask, voice piercing the steady static hum of the high hanging lights. She doesn’t notice my interruption. I dig into my bag. I have thirty Euros; my treat-to-myself money; all extra in determining the me that has worth.

I walk to her.

“Could you draw me?” I ask. I hold my money up. “I can pay.” I drop the twenty and clutch onto the ten. She bends from her seated position to take the note off the floor; body stretching and at ease with its movement.

“I could,” she says. “But it won’t be—“

“The best you can manage,” I say. “Please.” My pleading slides out of mouth. She turns over a new leaf of paper as I sit next to her, knowing, acknowledging. I turn to her, face her. I face what she might see.

“OK, let me, just…” she says. And I force a look from deep within that says it cares about itself.

Her hand sweeps one line of pencil across the page. I feel a part of myself being drawn away leaving a more real self in its place. Another line is swept onto the page, making a curved peak I imagine is the height of my pose. I feel myself breathe. I feel myself ease. I am realised.

###

Three frames and their intended portraits are laid out before the candles on the coffee table, between them a bottle of wine. There are candles on the mantelpiece, the window ledge, in the fireplace. I could watch each of them flickering its life into the air but instead I bathe in the massing night held back by their warm orange glow.

I try to hold myself still, knowing I’ll always be breathing, so no matter how still I am all the world dances around me; maybe in a small way because of me.

In a stack are the paintings and drawings I’ve had done of myself. Is this what your night out was cancelled for? I could ask myself, instead I know my night-in is far more important. I have no money for dinner, and drinks, but money isn’t everything: the realisations of myself are close to hand. I leaf through my portraits.

I stand and walk to the sloping bookshelf, too precarious to hold many books, and take down the little craft box filled with tacks, tape, pencils, craft knife and folded over paper bags with the sleeping-pill prescriptions I picked up and hoarded over the years: always planning, always predicting a time when enough would come to be enough.

Enough is enough now.

It was three months ago I bought acid-free tape to hang my first portrait on the wall. I decided against it. I couldn’t risk damaging it securing it to brittle paint. Part of me told me I couldn’t risk damaging the wall because of my deposit, not just aesthetics, then the whole of me laughed considering damp ceiling corners with plaster flakes hanging.

I take a sip of the glass of wine and consider a benzo. Childish foolishness but what else do I have? My drawings don’t seem to be all. I’ve been seen, and I know there’s no depth to them, just a refraction, a slice and a cut. It’s barely enough to hint at more than a surface. I quieten this benzo demanding husk of me.

I didn’t know how far it would go, not after that day in the gallery. Finding art students and hobbyists to throw a few quid just to know which of me they could possibly see. I was afraid of collecting the fragments of horror—my horror—that others potentially found. It’s a truth I’m no longer afraid of. The drugs on the table are part of me, never taken. My anti-depressants in the bathroom another me, stopped being taken. The wine a part of me, reinforcing me.

I take some of my pictures, and saying, “Fuck you wall!” while meaning, “Fuck you, me!” hang them in the patches of light where they can be seen. They are all around the room. They look down at me, these not mes. They are ideas of me.

I sit and pour another glass while part of me wishes all my-selves were really possible and one of mes could be out dancing, not-caring, at the party. The only mes there’s space for are all around this room, some dying, some thriving, and me in between but there’s no multiple mes only multiple intentions and feelings, laughter and tears, all balancing out to the one impression I have to make if I am ever to.

I take another sip of wine then pick up a frame, then pick up the portrait I want in it. I smooth it out on the plastic glass.

My phone beeps, it’s a picture of the girls on their night out. They look solid, true to life, while posing with ridiculous gin bowls. I doubt they could ever know how fractured it’s possible to be. I smile for them. I return to my task.

After three framed portraits, slowly, precisely set, I can feel the relaxation of the wine and I feel the drunk me fighting with the wary me. It’s fine. It’s what I want. If there’s only two of me that’s infinitely less than the potential mes there could be. Two of me might come to cohesion and find a finality in my decision, if fought over.

My phone beeps. I see the time. It’s getting late. —Do you want chips?

I can’t know. How can anything be known and I look at the benzos again and wonder what miasma I could fall under? What grander vision of life could come to me as a one-thing, draining faster, tumbling deeper, not answering the door.

It beeps again. —It doesn’t matter, we’re bringing chips.

Part of me knew this.

Eventually there’s a knock and when I open up in tumble all of my friends; Jess, Susan and Stacy.

They know their way to my living room and I follow them in.

“Very pretty,” Stacy says.

“Are all these you?” Jess asks.

“And these are you, or at least one of you,” I say, and I point to their portraits in the frames on the table.

Susan takes a hesitant step but Stacy and Jess have swarmed the table. Stacy shrieks, “These are us!” She picks up the portrait of her on the table. “And these are all of you!” she says as she waves at the portraits I’ve taped up around us.

“Some of me,” I say. “As seen by others,” but before I can explain I’m trapped in a hug and the drunk me loses, or possibly wins, and tells hesitant me to listen. So I do. And as I listen I hear them debate their likenesses and hear some of the truth I had found. “It’s good, but it misses your—” and I’m far away but present. And I’m watching myself watching my friends. But not all of me is listening. Part of me is wondering why the small ways of being found can’t be enough for every me. And I talk, and I wonder, and I watch, and I watch. And I’m among myself in a room full of mes with my friends who will never see what I see, never know what I know.

Review – Threshold by Rob Doyle

There’s a point in Rob Doyle’s Threshold (that I can’t find because I read the book “bareback” on my Kindle) where Rob (the protagonist of Threshold) questions the necessity of much of what is published today. Rob posits a need for vital urgency before publishing; that there’s too many books. Whether there’s a vital urgency for the reader beneath Rob Doyle’s writing is up in the air, but if the publishing industry were to ask for a baseline of quality then Threshold should be where it’s set.

Doyle’s prose is a serenade. Well practiced, note perfect, and tonally ringing it charts a peripatetic searcher as he spends time in a multitude of cities looking to surmount the heights—or more accurately travail the shadowy valleys—of the innate knowledge, the deep feeling that there is more to all this. Much like the cliche, the real treasure is the friends we make along the way; what we learn as we go; our experiences that build. This is especially the case as Rob’s searching is, serendipitously (to be charitable), finished by the end of the novel, with an inexplicable—and so unrevealed—meaning found through DMT; the spirit molecule. He’s asked himself, found himself, but Rob Doyle serves only Rob Doyle.

A book of questions then, with searching at the heart of it, but the main question surrounding the book is the package it comes in, “What is this?” Is it fiction, non-fiction, auto-fiction, confession, memoir? There’s an underlying assumption to this wondering that few of those asking ever reveal. One answer is shouldered by Doyle’s proposition that the book is, simply, a novel; enough words strung together. This belies the distinction a reader makes when approaching fiction, non-fiction, confession, or memoir. If something has been lived (and then written) its value is assumed at a different level to a fictional story. If something is fiction, then we want to know why an author has gone to the effort to imagine it into being. The difference between these two approaches is purpose; real life is mined for purpose whatever way it has spent itself; fiction is presumed to be brought about for purpose, to carry meaning in its bones.

Ultimately, Rob as written by Rob Doyle is the lad you meet in the pub, who, if so inclined, recounts his recent travels to you as you stare at your pint you’re certain someone else must be drinking, before you then buy him a round, and he returns the gesture, eventually coming to the point where you’re asking the barman for a cost-price bottle of whiskey to take home with you. Unlike this lad you meet in the pub, no intoxicants (or loneliness, or horniness) are necessary to appreciate the story. And much like this lad in the pub, who you probably won’t meet again, the veracity of the story isn’t the point. As your vision begins to tunnel and your laughs get louder, your purpose of the night in the pub has been met; you’re drunk, you’re entertained; you’ve not found purpose to your non-drinking days but for now they’re far away.

That Threshold’s ultimate reveal is kept from us is a reflection of Rob’s underlying truth. This is his journey, not yours or mine, and it is a—possibly the—truth of his journey as novel. True insight, true purpose is entirely one’s own. It is not in books, but neither is it in living. I have a feeling that true purpose for Rob (as is said in the book) is simply writing the book. In this way true insight was hidden from me: I did not write this book. Even reading Rob’s purpose—the book—it is not Rob or Rob Doyle’s to give. Instead he shows how it might be revealed to us, or, to be more accurate, how it can be bagged up into an experience, vicariously lived (reading to you and I) that brings us to a fractal developing more and more people asking that same heartfelt question. With this higher purpose in mind I do wonder if anyone not already asking this will begin to question, or if those on a similar path can do more than simply nod at a fellow traveller.

Threshold follows Rob’s continuing questioning as written by Rob Doyle. I can’t answer if this book will inspire you to ask yourself questions, directly or not. I asked some, but mostly I was assuaged by the smooth, sweet prose reassuring me there are others on the same trip.

Review – Sally Rooney’s Normal People

Read the critical reception for Sally Rooney’s Normal People and you’ll find talk of youth, class, power dynamics, alienation, and love as powerfully told as in the classic novels. All are present in her second novel, but it’s Anne Enright’s review in The Irish Times which speaks of craft, something that looms large over the entirety of Sally Rooney’s work.

Written in close third person perspective—key to Normal People—Rooney’s Connell and Marianne have found in each other a rare thing; understanding without awareness; love without artifice. And it’s the first half of Normal People that offers us this love, one without a clear-cut rationale; one with no scaffold for Marianne and Connell’s experience with each other. We see only glimpses of the wider life they live, leading to a search for context to their living with and apart from each other. I looked for these signs among their world, my world, a world I know, a world I look for reasons for in novels even if I have to close the gap the author leaves for me (which a good author will invariably leave.) The gap Rooney left was vast, one I felt I couldn’t cross. They didn’t exist in the world, as much as they didn’t exist within the novel’s world as ostensible couple. I couldn’t see their love as having any proof of existence outside of abstracts to a reader. It was all of everything to them, and so made of nothing when compared to the emptiness surrounding it.

Towards the end of the first half of the story Connell and Marianne are apart from each other (again) and we see more of their wider world sneak into the story—a world where each others love isn’t the ultimate prize to have and hold. This was the first time I truly felt their love existing. It became a love in relief, cast against and observed by something outside of both protagonists. Marianne is standing in a supermarket, avoiding the stares of her small Sligo town by inspecting yoghurt and hoping to remain anonymous among the groceries, while speaking to a friend on the phone. Marianne and Connell’s story of love (and absence) had gone from abstract to real.

Up until that point, although I could, if I directed myself to, imagine how Marianne and Connell’s lives existed without each other, Rooney’s novel gave me little reason to believe in it. This, perhaps, is Rooney’s greatest use of craft. With the second half of the book, and further examples of the wider world intruding on the beset couple, I was finally able to see their love as real and not so pure as to exist only as a promise from a story. Maybe this is my failing; that I can’t credit the meanings of emotions without a context, but as I accepted their love as more real than useful fiction, as fitting within an order of the world, so too the characters begin to realise it themselves. It’s by this point Connell and Marianne’s existence with each other is being seen by their friends and family. The novel’s world’s seeing them is Connell and Marianne’s accepting of it, is my seeing it. This is a fine cut from Rooney, and puts questions of craft to the fore.

The most important question for me is to what purpose this craft has been put? Maybe Rooney asks for an element of faith in how we address the world. Maybe she asks that we believe in two people’s love, people’s fear and hurt, everyone’s potential misunderstanding, a person’s sexual assault—and brava to Rooney for handling the sexual assault of a man with ferocity— someone’s physical and emotional abuse, possibly just that we believe in ourselves. Yet this is the greatest failing in Normal People. The emotions feeding the characters’ thoughts, the thoughts’ feeding their decisions are often wrong but are rarely in doubt. Everything is experienced, felt, sometimes mulled over, but never questioned or doubted.

This is why Rooney’s third person perspective is key to this story, and why her craft asks questions of the story itself. By cutting their nascent love off from the world, we’re allowed to see it form in purity. Introducing them as a couple to the world, we’re allowed to see it with contrast. Equally, what we’re allowed to see of their interiority is carefully selected, and if we never see a real doubt in their attraction, their feeling for each other, this is a careful stroke from Rooney. Perhaps we’re supposed to feel it in the abstract, without her direction, much as we saw their love as abstract without any context. I somehow doubt this: Rooney has done everything with purpose.

Normal People is an atypical love story told typically. Marianne doubts she can be loved, but rarely doubts her own doubt. The truth that we reach at the end of the story is hard fought for but inevitable. Marianne has been through false loves, but her one love, despite upsets, remains true. It’s a love she’s rejected, run from, put down and mistook for something else, but it was never in doubt. It was never something to be interrogated as both real and unreal; as the possibilities of a falling coin, however weighted by circumstance. The emotion between Marianne and Connell was never to be questioned, rather always true, it just didn’t come with directions on how they should handle it.

Rooney portrays a couple the reader may doubt (and has certainly crafted a story where I was filled with doubt) but this is never reflected in the characters. Unlike their love becoming real in my mind as it becomes real to the world within the novel, the doubt I feel over loves in my life—doubts anyone could feel over any emotion—is never addressed by Rooney. Their world is truth, their experience is truth, and this may very well be the truth of love. For me it’s hard to see anything as unquestionable truth, except for the occasional purposefully crafted romance, and from this the love I’ve read in Normal People is experienced as written; seemingly as fantasy.

The Importance of Strong Drink, Strong Emotions, and Crying in Bars

Everyone who matters to Jessica noticed her coming into the pub, except for me. I didn’t notice their noticing until she was already sitting next to me.

Now I see why she drew their attention. Her face is red and flustered. It seems to be struggling to contain a more gnarled, knotted face beneath. The sleeves of her new hoodie—a baggy green hoodie—are stretched taut, past her hands and balled into her fists. She’s biting on her upper lip.

Everyone who matters to Jessica is silenced by her tears, and so they casually ignore her; giving her her independence; giving her the space to sit with herself on the stool at the counter in our local. I’m sitting next to her, so I don’t want to ignore her. She needs space, freedom, but not to be ignored. Despite this I feel like I’m hanging; suspended; in another world where we don’t exist, where I can’t reach out to her, or if I could I would never close the distance.

I don’t know what to say to someone upset. There’s a gagging where my mind connects to my thoughts; a gagging as though someone has placed a plastic bag between my words and my lungs. I join everyone’s silence.

Aaron, the barman, our friend, moves behind the bar to in front of us. He flashes a haphazard smile at the people sitting at the other end of the counter. The people he flashes a smile at seem small and distant but still lean towards us; a whole presence waiting on us.

Jessica’s arms are folded across her chest, covering a sports logo. She’s almost hugging herself. She could be on her couch, in her home, after finishing an upsetting film. She hasn’t noticed Aaron standing in front of us. I think she’s trying not to acknowledge him, or trying not to acknowledge herself before him.

Maybe she has noticed, because now she looks at him, then past him, then past me to the board where the beers are listed in chalk. I can feel her looking past me because I still don’t know what to say. I feel like I want to say something, but all I can think of is the word, ‘I.’ It’s as though I want, but there’s nothing beyond the want, or a reason to find the want. If there is a want for me—somewhere—a reason, it’s as vast as the city outside us; the city we come to this bar to escape from. Now the city isn’t outside. There’s nothing to escape. The world doesn’t exist. We’re all sitting in silence. I want to hold her. For her, and so me, for everyone to feel OK.

Aaron speaks up and asks, “A beer?” Jessica sniffs. “Or something stronger?” he continues. “We’ve got in more of that Game of Thrones whisk—”

“Tap seven,” she says. She sniffs again. She rubs her finger beneath her nose. She rubs her hand against her forehead. She looks up at me. The plastic bag is not only caught on my lungs but is wrapped around my head now. I still can’t speak. She returns to hugging herself, tugging the fresh green hoodie around her. I breathe. The plastic bag is like a film over the night with her a beacon shining against it; making us all vague and indiscernible; reflecting off our artificial surface.

Aaron walks the eight feet to the other end of the bar, to tap seven, and begins to pour. Everyone sitting there, the people who know Jessica, look at Aaron. Their eyes widen, questioning, apprehensive, pleading with him. If they looked at me it would be the same.

Stu coughs, a stuttering cough, then asks about the Game of Thrones whiskeys.

“The Baratheon one is decent,” Aaron says. “Jessica tried it when it came in a week ago.” As he says her name his eyes dart towards where we sit. Now the bar breathes. The film on the night has begun to decay, or maybe bubble and boil. Its hold is somehow thinner.

“What did he think?” Stu asks.

Jessica doesn’t move. “She,” she says.

At almost the exact same time as looks fly between us—the people outside ourselves—Stu corrects himself. “‘She!’ Sorry, yeah. Sorry! What did you think of it, Jess?” he says, as though blessing himself.

“It was good, better than the others I tried.” She looks down the bar, taking us all in, taking Stu in. She smiles. “It was definitely the best of them.” She carefully rubs a knuckle from her bent finger beneath her eye. “You should definitely try it.”

Aaron finishes her beer and places it in front of her. “Your Christmas pint,” he says. “On the house.”

“Thanks.”

The film around everything has mostly dissipated. I think it was Jessica’s smile that did it. She smiled though upset.

“I thought you were going out west for the holidays, back home? Did something happen?” I ask her.

“Yeah,” she says. She tugs at her hoodie as though she’s swamped.

“Fucking family,” I say.

She laughs. There’s a crackling to her laugh.

“When did you get back?”

“I came straight from the bus.” She stands. “A bus with no toilet. Excuse me.” She doesn’t move. She’s biting on her lip again. I place my hand on her shoulder. “What’s the point in going home to change?” she says. She laughs as she rolls her eyes. She turns and rushes towards the bathroom. My hand falls away from her as she leaves.

The presence of people at the other end of the bar are looking at me as I turn to them. “What’s wrong? What happened?” Alex asks.

“Family. She didn’t say.”

“A lot of families would find it hard to accept,” Greg says. “Transphobia’s virulent. Especially with parents.”

“No treatment but time,” Aaron says. “And care.”

There’s a few nods from the bar.

“Is that it?” I ask.

Stu looks as though he’s about to speak but stops himself, and everyone turns away as I feel Jessica push in next to me. I turn to her as she lifts her drink. Her hands are shaking.

“What happened?” I ask. “Did one of your family say something? Your father? He’s always been an arse.”

“No. No-one said anything,” she says.

“If you want to talk about it,” I say.

“They gave me this hoodie.” She pulls on it, thumb and index finger pinching it away. It snaps back towards her chest, settling to the same looseness it had just seconds before. “It was beneath the Christmas tree. There was a note suggesting I wear it for the day.” She gasps in air as she speaks; gulping on the words as if they would flow and form into an ocean, drowning her, drowning us all if she didn’t somehow swallow them.

“It looks comfortable,” I say.

“It’s a male hoodie,” she says. She’s smiling, but her eyes are watering.

“You pull it off.”

“It’s what it represents.”

I nod. I don’t understand what it represents, then suddenly I do. I put my arm around her, then hug her.

“Thanks,” she says. She smiles and rubs her eyes again.

I look at her, straight on, really focusing. I try to see a man. I don’t. I don’t see the shape of a man, I don’t see a man’s face. I think of the ‘Thanks’ she just said. It’s not a man’s voice. It’s deep, gravelly like a radio DJ’s, but it’s not a male voice. It’s Jessica’s. It’s hers. All she is is hers. I tell her this.

She sniffs and smiles, and rubs at her eyes, first her left eye, then her right. I notice she’s not wearing mascara, any makeup, and for some reason I can hear the sound of her finger on skin; the sound of a tear being rubbed away in a silent pub.

I’m looking at her, a little awed, until I notice she’s smiling at Aaron. He’s placed two amber-coloured shots in front of us, holding a third in his hand. He winks at us. “Merry fucking Christmas!” he says. He downs the rum. The bar’s chaos seems to wash in around us.

“I thought it would be hard,” I say.

“What?” she asks. She lifts her glass. The surrounding press of people is beginning to jostle us again.

“Adjusting to you. Seeing you as a woman when I’ve known you as a man for years. It’s not. You are—” The plastic bag catches in my throat, halting me.

“I am,” she says. She knocks back the shot.

Answers and Questions and Doors – On the Honest Ulsterman

Throughout my life I was upset because I felt I had no identity I could give myself to. Then I came around to the idea that identities are’t really that important (if they even exist,) so I wrote this short story, “Answers and Questions and Doors: A Text on Questions, Identity and Answers for the Grand Association of Door Openers” published on The Honest Ulsterman

It would be an achievement, of sorts, if I could tell you how many doors I’ve opened in my life. A rough estimate is possibly something I could manage. I’ve worked this job, opening doors, for seventeen years.

Coming out of school, or at least leaving school, not finishing school, is always taking a chance. You don’t know where life will take you other than the fact you’re going somewhere. Friends had babies. Left school. Friends had boyfriends. Left school. Left the boyfriend. All that in some kind of order anyway. Friends had difficulties with the aul wans. School aul wans. Home aul wans. Actually auld aul wans, thinking back. Left school. Left home. Became aul wans, eventually. Usually in that order. I left school because it didn’t have any more answers for me.

I guess, in a way, I was lucky to leave school in the manner I did. There was nothing pushing me out. I was pulling me out. I dragged my life behind me, a right good tug, and it vaulted before me. There I was, with everything laid out, a career somehow ahead of me. Pure luck. It’s entirely this manner of addressing life that wound me up in this job where I open doors.

For a decade houses have been built and I somehow managed to end up opening doors during the decade houses weren’t being built. Or apartments. Or factories (although they tend to have less doors.) Nothing was being built. No train stations, bus stations, lightrail stations. Even offices, now open plan, then less so, with some doors to be opened weren’t being built. And I lucked into a business where doors weren’t being opened. The people who built doors needed someone to do exactly that, open them up. Health and safety. Or box ticking. Something along those lines. I couldn’t tell you how many doors I’ve opened in my life, so maybe that will be my last question: how many important doors have I opened?

It frightened me when this future would have come. Slowly rising, welcoming, announcing itself with emptiness. Is this what I chased? I didn’t ask. That’s what I was afraid of; that coming present; me chasing questions across fields, across cities, and yes, through doors. The present, now, passed, or then to be, where all there was was a, “What’s next?” or a, “What’s this?” There were deeper questions. Some questions are deep, some are shallow, some barely count. But this future would have come, asking one last question. And then this last question would have been happily answered. There would be no more questions. What would having everything answered mean?

https://humag.co/prose/answers-and-questions-and-doors-a-text-on-questions-identity-and-answers-for-the-grand-association-of-door-openers

Review – Songs For Sad People To Dance To by Gadget and the Cloud

Presume you exist: a request that requires you to believe things not-you exist. You, separate to the world, are capable of interacting with things not-you—another presumption. It’s a request asked by Gadget and the Cloud (Kelly Doherty), taking hold of her place as soundtrack to the scenic facade of 4, maybe 5am. There’s no dawn (emblematic of her entire album), but the sky is hinting that brightness may come—not that you fully believe in it—if only you wait for light on the horizon, waiting in time not under your control. All you know is you have to collect yourself into one sack of meat, thought and movement, and decide to act, but instead you’re caught considering who you are, where you are. Gadget and the Cloud says give me a moment, stay dissolved just a little while longer, be engaged. By who? Who knows, who cares. Isn’t this already living?

There’s a question in Gadget and the Cloud’s Songs for Sad People to Dance To (SfSPtDT, an album all questions), and it’s entirely coming from someone who’s firm on an answer: I exist, with this music as proof of a relationship to a borderline world.

Another question is whether this album is for someone, of someone, or to someone? My interaction with it changes at every step. Close listening will provide one result, another result as it seeps from the background, and hearing it post-four-beers—while typing a review—provides yet another result. Is this album meant to transport me, interrogate me, or speak for me? At some point you have to brush yourself off and walk through that front door.

This all speaks against the separation in the songs on the album. Each is different enough to bleed into your 7am, or 11am, or 8pm happily individual. The changes within each track make it so it’s not so much a conceptual album, but an album of songs made up of concepts so varying in their detail that every one could be a full album in its entirety. 3600 Seconds opens, a hint in its one hour-ness that it’s far bigger (not in sound but in thought) than its 4:09 minutes will give you. Transitions within it can be alarming or sedate, entirely dependent on your attention to it over your attention to yourself. This could be said of the entire album. If some music can be described as layered then SfSPtDT rejoices in making the layers obvious. This is the question of where you exist: ‘listening to’ versus ‘being with’ the music will give you two different results.

The crux of listening to SfSPtDT, is whether it is there to be interrogated or experienced? ‘Is your life one that happens or one you control’ is the question not asked but assumed by SfSPtDT playing through your speakers. If you’ve let Doherty take control you can question her intent or let her direct. Then, the next question, is this the way—the way she describes—the way you want to be? I’m not sure an answer can be found that unites all in Gadget and the Cloud’s music, instead it leads you to that point, if you want to be taken there, and lets you choose your own response. The middle tracks, Always, Magnitude, and So Shy, are where this is most obvious: So Shy, with vocals, eventually pushing you to decide whether the lyrics are speaking to you or for you. Two songs towards the end, Continue and This Year, re-integrate themselves into more traditional conceptions, all the stronger in how they stand in relief to your expectations, maintaining their rhythm throughout, a reward for listening. The final song, And I Told You Something True, encapsulates the journey you’ve been on. Whether that journey was profound or meandering I don’t know. Maybe Gadget and the Cloud doesn’t say, but through implications hints it can be both, and both are equally valid.

If some albums demand a generosity, to be involved with their spirit before you can appreciate them, then SfSPtDT is not one of them. It does take an open mind. A willingness to accept there’s intent, even reason, behind what may seem out of place. The overall question the album asks is are you someone separate to the music, are you within it, or does it matter when you can’t decide? The problem set by Songs for Sad People to Dance To lies at the point where you can’t bring yourself to start: who am I in response to everything around me, music and all. It doesn’t demand anything of you, and that may be its flaw. But let it question you, let it guide you, and it’ll provide: if not an answer, then at least with its rising and abrupt higher rise again, with its slow not-quite-breaking and almost instant re-building, it may pose issues in a way you never knew possible. These sincere doubts of purpose and selfhood Gadget and the Cloud embraces, and if you embrace her music you might accept these—and your—unformed parts of potential as you realise a new dawn has come, it just took your awareness.

Songs for Sad People to Dance To by Gadget and the Cloud is available on cassette and for digital download on Bandcamp.

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