Kissing the blarney goodbye
On St Patrick's Eve, Antonia Logue considers the new sophistication of Irish short-story writing
Saturday 16 March 1996
Much has happened in 10 years - besides a current zest for young, potentially fashionable Irish writers in British publishing houses, that paddywhackery cuteness Marcus refers to has almost completely disappeared in the contemporary Irish short story; witness the recent first collections by Colum McCann, Mary Morrissey, and Phillip MacCann, each of which were potent salvos of fierce originality.
Of the three most recent collections to emerge, Frank Ronan is perhaps the most established, with three novels preceding this volume of stories. Like many before him, the territory he marks in Handsome Men Are Slightly Sunburnt (Sceptre, pounds 8.99) is the idiosyncratic entrapment of relationships, and his take on them involves a variety of perspectives; the kid with the pregnant girlfriend and homoerotic urges, the widow whose life is refocused by a friendship with a gay couple, the married man who develops a habit of laughing at nothing in order to gain control of his marriage.
Ronan narrates his tales with an almost bemused displacement, gaining most currency when he abandons the glibness of his ironic musings, and instead wends his emotive prose through stories such as ``The Sticky Carpet" or "The Last Innocence of Simenon'', each one a consummate meander thorough sexual confusion and loneliness. Ronan is a soundbite writer, too easily lured into the one-liner ("You might as well take up with someone with whom you can have decent sex between the battles, so that the entire exercise isn't a waste.") Few devices hide lack of talent as effectively as irony, and Ronan desperately under-sells himself in invoking it; few of his peers can match him when he writes, without acerbic adornment, of love, especially between men.
The notion of an Irish literary diaspora is hardly a new one: the writing emigre is virtually a genre of its own. Michael Collins fits oddly in its encompass, having lived in Chicago since a teenager, but writes as if his life has never moved beyond the local pub. The Feminists Go Swimming (Phoenix, pounds 8.99) is a curious mixture: a style so arrestingly visual it hijacks the reader's concentration, dazzling with the energy and originality of the language; but the content is perplexing. Characters emerge like mummified stereotypes, as in ``The Drinker'', in which the sound of "the background thunder of steel kegs rolling into the cellar" is the central character's favourite "apart from the slow, almost silent whispering suck of stout being pulled by a barman and then left to sift into blackness. If there was a heaven, it had a small bar that never closed, set down near the sea." Ah begorrah, if it wasn't for his youth you'd swear he'd been script-associate on The Quiet Man.
Collins writes with what the critic Tim Pat Coogan once referred to as "a consciousness of being Irish rather than the consequences of it", and while no one ever demands that any writer exclusively explore the "consequences" of their nationality, this long-distance awareness of Ireland as a country of men worn down by tired women, of the smell of whiskey and taste of defeat, suffocates the simple brilliance of his language.
The publicity paraphernalia that accompanies Mike McCormack's debut collection Getting It in the Head (Cape, pounds 9.99) makes much of the fact that he worked in a butcher's shop until recently (until he got his advance presumably). The images of gristle and blood-under-the-nails suits this collection. In "Thomas Crumlesh", McCormack lays on a viciously inventive parody of the pretensions of the art world, with a character who gradually sheds his major limbs and organs for his art. It may sound chronic, but in the reading it gives Ian McEwan and Edgar Allen Poe a run for their money.
The title story explores the relationship between two brothers, one a drifter, one a dangerously precocious child. "Oestrogen" offers us a young Irish farmer newly arrived in Dublin to grow breasts via female hormone pills, before heading back to Mayo to convert his inheritance into an ostrich farm. "The Angel of Ruin" is the story of a student working in America at a perilously decaying chemical plant, and becoming obsessed by it, by its symbolism and its evil.
Decay and ruin seep through this book, driven by some of the finest prose to have emerged in over a decade. The Irish short story is thriving, and in the hands of writers like McCormack it can only continue to.
TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success
tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Which country would be hardest to invade?
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 4 Royal baby girl born: Duchess of Cambridge's second child will be a princess thanks to Queen
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
Daredevil, Netflix, TV review: Marvel wins first fight in bid for television domination with Charlie Cox's superhero vigilante
London art exhibition features portrait of Iraqi migrant shot dead in Iraq after being refused UK asylum
Grace Dent on TV: Peter Kay's Car Share made me genuinely LOL
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
Indonesia executions live: 'Hysterical' families heard prisoners being shot dead by firing squad
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds