Sex, dinosaurs and MFA fiction: new short stories for The Spectator

This article first appeared in the 7 May 2016 issue of The Spectator.

How many debut collections does it take to stand up to one of the most accomplished short-story writers of the past half-century? In this case, it’s three against one. Under the Rose is Julia O’Faolain’s first short-story collection in over 20 years, bringing together stories published between 1968 and 2006. Danielle McLaughlin follows in her wake, picking up the pieces of post-crash Ireland in her debut Dinosaurs on Other Planets. Greg Jackson is the latest virtuoso on the US literary scene, writing stylistically self-conscious stories with titles like ‘Wagner in the Desert’ and ‘Metanarrative Breakdown’. As a practising psychiatrist in New York City, Arlene Heyman has no shortage of material. Her first book,Scary Old Sex, dares to broach the subject of lust in later life.

Julia O’Faolain is the author of seven novels, but her earliest fiction took the form of short stories. Her father, Sean O’Faolain, won acclaim for his politically charged stories of Irish life, and Julia’s Ireland is a country of complex social codes, defined by the ‘trip wires of class and cruelty’. Other stories reflect her life in Paris, Rome, Los Angeles and London, and she is at her most incisive when using the first-person voice. Readers should be warned that there’s no hand-holding in these stories: you are plunged straight into a character’s psyche, far beyond the logic of linear narrative. This is particularly exhilarating when the characters themselves have erratic tendencies, as demonstrated in ‘Man in the Cellar’ — a lengthy letter from a wife to her mother-in-law, cheerfully describing the revenge she has taken on her abusive husband. Gossip, pride and social assumptions all play a part in skewing the truth.

Danielle McLaughlin’s stories have none of the psychological nuance of O’Faolain’s, but she writes with a meditative intensity which gives her subject matter (domestic friction and failing affections) a certain gravitas. The prevailing mood is portentous sincerity with occasional forays into the absurd. In ‘The Act of Falling’ an avian apocalypse (birds dropping from the sky) is an eerie equivalent to a family’s plummeting finan-ces; when the protagonist witnesses a flurry of new ducks being secretly released into a park lake, she interprets the scene as an allegory of society’s willingness to be deceived. In this case, the misplaced poignancy is not without humour. However, all too often the stories end on a note of melodramatic lyricism, as the characters cast their gaze plaintively towards the sky, the stars or the sea. As a collection, the stories can seem like a string of ‘little losses’ — an extended ellipsis.

If the tagline ‘stories of existential crisis from the privileged middle classes’ hasn’t already put you off, it’s worth persevering with Greg Jackson’s Prodigals. The post-Foster Wallace generation of American writers tends to channel the jittering verbosity of the tortured genius, and Jackson’s drugged-up trust-funders are well suited to the task. His stories of writers, film-makers and professional tennis players are based upon a theoretical concept rather than a plot, and the characters inevitably end up reflecting on the futility of their existence. The locations are lavish (Palm Springs, Provence), the prose is sonorous (‘Hara and Lyric moved through their vinyasa poses’), and the metaphors are just short of ridiculous (‘I had the familiar feeling of being a cracked vessel refilled by blind servants’). The book screams of youth trying to prove itself, but Jackson wouldn’t necessarily disagree. Instead, it’s part of the book’s performance, what one character describes as the ‘speaking aloud of cleverly formulated ideas’. You couldn’t exactly call it self-satire, but it does act as a buffer between Jackson and his critics.

While Prodigals represents the most fashionable form of the short story, nibbling at its own limits like a frantic addict, Arlene Heyman’s Scary Old Sex is at the other end of the spectrum. Her stories are measured and sober, but they break taboos undreamt of by Jackson’s lot. The subject matter is spelt out in the title. Bodies long past their best attempt feats of flexibility described with the exactitude of an anatomist and the compassion of a well-trained shrink. It’s Heyman’s sensitivity to the tragicomic potential of the situation which makes her prose so extraordinary; the story ‘Dancing’, which combines themes of sex, terminal illness and the fall of the Twin Towers, would seem impossibly bad taste in the hands of another writer. Heyman isn’t exactly a newcomer (in her youth she was the muse of Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth), but her stories suggest someone who has lived a life other than writing, and learnt from it. Danielle McLaughlin, likewise, was a solicitor before publishing her first story in the New Yorker. It just goes to show, you’re never too old.

Read this article in The Spectator.

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