BOOK REVIEW / Lost in a house of bugs: The Collected stories: John McGahern Faber pounds 13.99

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The Independent Culture
JOHN McGAHERN has toiled for many years at the lonely craft of serious fiction. He was nominated for the 1990 Booker Prize for his fifth novel, Amongst Women, and in the wake of this hard-earned notoriety Faber has published his Collected Stories. It is a large, impressive-looking book, and arrives handsomely packaged.

McGahern is the sort of writer usually categorised as 'literary'. His work is explicitly uncommercial, examinining the small, plotless epiphanies of human lives. He writes about the places he knows - Dublin and the countryside around it. His characters are farmers, accountants and school teachers who feel alienated from the city as well as the country, from their fathers as well as their mothers, from their lovers as well as their friends. Adrift in the aimless currents of their own lives they struggle, but usually fail, to achieve meaning or direction. Their occasional victories are ironic and brief.

In addition to this brooding, oppressive theme music, the main problem with McGahern's collected stories is that many of them are awful. The syntax is often tortuous, and the imagery contrived. The characters don't speak to one another so much as recite litanies. And when it comes to one of the most notorious hallmarks of bad prose - the said-bookism - McGahern may be the unacknowledged master. His characters never 'say' or 'ask'; instead, they 'burst out in a wild fury', 'dryly remark', 'ask with formidable seriousness', 'respond sharply to the rebuff', or 'change', as in: ' 'Were you upset when your marriage failed?' she changed.' (This latter resembles a typo the first few times it appears, but it is actually a loose poetic shorthand for 'changed the subject'.)

In 'Peaches', for example, a former actress and her writer husband have gone to Spain to get away from it all, and they exchange large chunks of dialogue such as the following:

'Why did we come here to this shocking country in the first place?' the woman accused.

'It was cheap and there was sea and sun and we thought it would be a good place to work,' he enumerated defensively.

'And you know how much work has been done?'

'Yes. None.'

To accept this dull, redundant patch of exposition as legitimate narrative, the reader has to believe either that the two characters are so severely brain- damaged that they must constantly remind one another what they're doing, or endure the fact that this is yet another really bad Hemingway pastiche. As in Hemingway, McGahern's characters rarely listen to one another; instead, they live their lives in a pattern of elision, side-stepping the emotional conflicts they don't understand. A typical McGahern 'confrontation' occurs as follows:

'It was the night of the Arts Ball their wedding quarrel began in the depression of bands and alcohol.

'You didn't want to marry me,' she said.

'I was there, wasn't I?'

'You deliberately left your passport behind.'

'I wouldn't have gone back for it if I had.'

'You resented being married to me - it was unconscious.'

'I hate this house of bugs. We needn't have ever moved from the actors'.'

'Never have moved when they were asking me at the theatre every day if I had the sailor in their flat yet]'

'It grew, until she threw the glass of whiskey stinging his eyes, and they ran from each other in the snow, big snowflakes drifting between the trees. She went to a hotel and he backed past the candles, now covered under snow, to the electric-lit room.'

Was this whole day to be the shape of their lives together?

McGahern's dialogue is filled with deliberate lapses and incongruities, marking the empty spaces his characters are always verging into. Unfortunately, though, there are times when the reader begins to feel lost in these spaces as well, unable to discern even the simplest narrative momentums: who's talking to whom, why, where, and what for. The sentences and paragraphs are virtually Procrustean - all the life has been measured out of them. At times you don't feel like you're reading a story but being infected with a sort of dyslexia.

Despite their attempts at poetry, McGahern's stories often suffer from being too literal. In 'My Love, My Umbrella', the man's umbrella goes up to protect himself and his girlfriend when they perform trysts outdoors in the rain, and goes down again when they're finished. McGahern's narrator tries to compose lyrics about his lover's body, but ends up sounding like a psychotic farmer: 'Her skin under the black hair had the glow of health and youth, and the solidity at the bones of the hips gave promise of a rich seed-bed.' He hopes that he and his girl will 'draw closer to a meal of each other's flesh', and just as the meal begins, he recalls, 'I globed the warm soft breasts in hands'. By the time you've finished reading this terrible story, you'll want to vociferously ejaculate: 'Hey, buster - keep your crummy umbrella to yourself]'

There are some good stories in this book - most notably, 'Parachutes', 'Eddie Mac', 'Gold Watch', and 'Crossing the Line'. McGahern isn't afraid to explore the circuitous paths people take getting nowhere, and his best prose is lucid and generous. But collected together, his good stories get lost in a thicket of imponderably bad ones. This is the sort of density and exposition that makes 'serious' or 'literary' fiction seem like a lousy idea.