Old certainties gone for new writers

My review of New Irish Short Stories, edited by Joseph O’Connor from the Sunday Business Post.

Last February, Irish novelist Julian Gough was at the centre of a literary spate about the state of contemporary Irish fiction.

In comments published on his personal blog, and later picked up by the Guardian online, the Berlin-based writer railed against the ‘‘pompous, provincial literary community’’ back home.

‘‘Just when we need a furious army of novelists, we are getting fairly polite stuff published by Faber and Faber that fits into the grand tradition,” he said.

New Irish Short Stories is the third instalment in a well-established series from the same venerable London publisher bemoaned by Gough – so is this latest collection of new Irish writing more ‘‘fairly polite stuff’’, or a fiery, visceral rejoinder to the state of chassis we currently find ourselves in? The answer, almost inevitably, is a bit of both.

New Irish Short Stories follows up well-received collections of the same name that covered 2004-5 and 2006-7, both edited by the Late David Marcus, a titan of the Irish literary scene responsible for over 30 short story anthologies.

New editor Joseph O’Connor has preserved many of Marcus’s traditions, maintaining gender balance, as well as plenty of Northern voices. O’Connor has also adopted a pleasingly catholic conception of Irishness that allows for the inclusion of the likes of Richard Ford and Rebecca Miller, alongside established Irish authors and emerging writers.

While Marcus’s first two collections dealt largely with an affluent Celtic tiger nation – with stories set everywhere from Peru to Tuscany, and scant references to those twin pillars of Catholic Ireland, the Church and the GAA- this volume is loosely rooted in Ireland’s current crisis.

The cover features a panoramic glimpse of the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin’s docklands at dusk, framed by cranes and half built office blocks; as O’Connor caustically notes in his brief introduction: ‘‘Old certainties are shattered.

We got fooled and we know it.” Crisis, in all its forms, threads its way through several of the stories included here: the global financial crash provides the backdrop for Joseph O’Neill’s slight tale of a New York highflyer in Italy, while it is an altogether more personal crisis of meaning that drives the anonymous protagonist in Philip O’Ceallaigh’s blistering The Fuck Monkey.

The global character of many Irish lives, and writers, is well represented. There are contributions from Bucharest, New York and Canada, stories set everywhere from Llandudno and London to Minnesota and Manhattan.

But some of the strongest pieces are suffused with an ethereal placelessness that mimics the disorientation of modern Ireland without seeking to faithfully reconstruct it in realist prose.

Crisis and confusion resonate throughout The Blacklight Ballroom, Peter Murphy’s powerful, dystopian vision of the future, set in a cashless society ‘‘nearly a year into the civil war that no one cared to declare a civil war’’. Echoes of JG Ballard, Michel Faber and contemporary science fiction abound too in Eoin McNamee’s short, unheimlich tale of post-industrial Russian workers on the edge of nowhere.

Elsewhere, Frank O’Connor’s description of the short story as an ‘‘intense awareness of human loneliness’’ infuses predictably adroit, delicately crafted contributions from Roddy Doyle, Dermot Bolger, Colm Tóibín, William Trevor and Kevin Barry.

When New Irish Short Stories is good, it is great, attesting to the continuing strength of Irish creative writing.

However, a few too many sepia-tinged visions seep into the 25-plus offerings on show.

The shadows of Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Edna O’Brien and, particularly, John McGahern hang heavy over much of the newer work, with some of the writers featured seeking solace in well-trodden tropes of Ireland past.

Whether it is the shame of poverty in the 1950s (Vic McDade’s A Gift for my Mother) or the spectre of child abuse in Elaine Walsh’s Midnight Blue, there is a cloying, over-familiar feel to such clichéd depictions of Irish life.

Thankfully, not all the emergent contributors are buried under the weight of McGahern and company.

Kevin Power, whose debut novel Bad Day in Blackrock was published to deserved acclaim in 2008, delivers a coruscating dissection of Irish politics via the medium of the 2006 student union presidential elections in an unidentified Dublin university on College Green.

Another author who is certainly not guilty of any lack of imagination is Colum McCann. At barely four pages, Aisling is the briefest contribution, but McCann’s vision of a suburban Irish housewife wrestling her demons is perfectly realised – and devilishly funny to boot.

By their very nature, multi author compendiums of short stories are often uneven, dyspeptic affairs that struggle for a coherent flow with so many different voices.

New Irish Short Stories is not helped by the rather curious decision to present the writers in alphabetical order, which results in several jarring juxtapositions of tones, topics and styles. The absence of new immigrant voices is, as O’Connor acknowledges, also regretful.

Ireland has witnessed remarkable tumult and flux over the last decade and a half.

Unfortunately, at times reading this collection it feels that, like many of us, the next generation of Irish writers is still struggling to catch up.

This article appeared in the Sunday Business Post 20 March

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