There has been lots of debate about the present rude health of the short story in Ireland, and some attempts to say why it is doing so well, why we are in what seems like a revival.
Kevin Barry, in the introduction to his new selection for the fourth Faber and Faber book of new Irish short stories – not the 'best new', which was dropped with Joseph O’Connor’s selection in 2011 – makes some attempt to answer this.
Acknowledging the ‘bawl of demonic energy... of a newborn infant’ that characterises all of the stories in the book, he wonders if it is that Irish writers, facing up to the world, may sound a note of ‘laughter in the dark’ or even ‘against the dark’, and promises that we’ll hear that note many times in the collection. We do.
The darkness is often existential. Recessions, present and past, are there as backdrops to many of the stories, but in at least three of them characters speak of their sadness in situations that seem, on the surface, to be perfect examples of material wellbeing, suggesting unhappiness and unease from other sources.
In Neasa McHale’s ‘While You Were Working’, for example, a woman prepares to leave the house she shares with her husband to whom she’s tried to talk about her unease the previous night. When she claims that they are 'just flying along', and her husband asks why that's a bad thing, she replies: ‘I dunno.'
Meanwhile, Molly McCloskey’s seemingly autobiographical piece, ‘City of Glass’, provides an outsider’s eye on the Ireland she arrived into in 1989, when ‘the good old days were about to begin’. 'There was a recklessness in the air, a lack of censure that made the place easy to fall in love with... The country was a beautiful failure – verdant, profound and full of laughter.’
In a picaresque account of her early days in the west of Ireland, and an attempted marriage, she says, ‘it was the very ease of my life that made clear it was wrong, because there was nothing – no want, no trauma, no lack of love – that could account for my unhappiness'.
In Mary Costello’s ‘Barcelona’, a woman’s husband orders quail in a restaurant, and when he peels back the skin and tastes its dark meat, ‘A terrible piercing loneliness entered her.’ It’s a cliché that the Irish short story is always trying to come out from under Joyce’s shadow, but this story is like a contemporary re-telling of ‘The Dead’.
In Costello's story, however, the modern-day Gabriel casually pays for porn with his credit card in his hotel room, while his marriage unravels in the intrusion of memories of Gretta’s Michael Furey – the damaged anti-vivisectionist Luke, who, she says, ‘changed my heart’.
Barry’s chosen title for this collection, Town and Country: New Irish Short Stories, is a good way of signalling the mixture of new and traditional – the new lives of rural Ireland that feature aspects of the urban and reflect their modern complexity.
Michael Harding’s ‘Tiger’, also autobiographical, has its lonely narrator like a Meursault, watching life from his Castlebar apartment, ‘the Lithuanians every morning in the third-floor apartments to my left, watching cartoons as they take their breakfasts. Always cartoons.’
His piece, like McCloskey’s, is evidence of one of the most interesting aspects of developments in the genre: the slippage of memoir into it, and the ending of any distinction between the two.
One of those in the book to whom the older category of ‘best’ would apply for me, and who always worked fluidly between fiction and memoir, is Des Hogan. Hogan – the consummate stylist and genius of his generation – makes nonsense of any idea that experimentation or mixing of genre is new in the short story.
The story here, 'Brimstone Butterfly', is both a brilliant example of how he plays with the form, and his predominant voice and themes: travel in Eastern Europe, encyclopaedic knowledge that makes him other, outside convention, erotic, childlike – but also brilliant, because it brings his experience of travelling in the Balkans back to Dublin in his friendship with two Croatians at a particularly painful moment of his own life:
‘In a glory hole by the Royal Canal with a view of Mountjoy jail I find a traumatised brimstone butterfly – yellow with orange spots – who was stowed away among images wrapped in cotton teacloths my mother sent me when I lived in Limerick – images numerously scrutinised, even my Madonnas, as possible pornography.’
Hogan shows here the poetry of his writing – its dense subtlety of allusion in which his own trauma, the looming possibility of incarceration, his past, homoerotic art, images of hell and punishment, all become fused in the image of the fragile creature he releases in the direction of Mountjoy jail.
The other ‘bests’ for me who are missing are Barry himself – fair enough, perhaps, as editor, Claire Keegan, who is perhaps the best practitioner in the genre in Ireland presently and seems an odd absence, and Bernie Mc Gill.
McGill's short story collection has just been published by the new imprint Whittrick Press. She took part in a discussion alongside Barry when the book was launched as part of the Belfast Book Festival in the Linen Hall Library last month. The discussion was chaired by Irish Times journalist Sinead Gleeson, who directed almost all her questions to Barry, quoting him back to himself.
McGill’s absence from the book is representative of a bigger absence, which goes beyond any personal discrimination of my own. There is no writer from the North of Ireland included.
Without too much thought, if I think of ‘short story’ and ‘Northern Ireland’ I think of Bernie McGill, Carlo Gebler, Peter Holywood, David Park, David Lewis, Rosemary Jenkinson. And that is just a ‘present and not a studied thought’, so it is a little sad to see the border so healthily alive in this genre and not respresented. (I don’t think it applies in the same way in poetry, though, and it definitely doesn’t in writing for children and young people.)
You might not have to stop any more while a white-shirted custom’s man checks where you’re going and what you are carrying, but in short fiction it seems you still need a passport that will take you via Dublin or Galway. Clearly none of the Northern Irish writers have been issued with this.
I know it is probably the most disappointing and inevitable thing that we readers do with a selection – to look for what is not there. I don’t mean to diminish this wonderful selection by a writer whose own talent makes him best placed to make it at this present time, but such things are always read retrospectively as snapshots of the time they came from, and so the absence of the northern voices can only be disappointing and distorting.
Town and Country: New Irish Short Stories is out now, published by Faber & Faber.