Mere weeks since Granta’s Best Young of British Novelists 4 was released with its accompanying media brouhaha, comes Town & Country, the latest in Faber’s New Irish Short Stories series. Whether or not the dates were coincidental, I can’t say, but certainly, it’s hard now not to examine the latter in light of the former, seeing as both are setting out the same class of stall; i.e., to promote and celebrate the up-and-comers of their respective nations. Plus this latest Faber volume has been edited by Kevin Barry, who’s probably the most well-known contemporary Irish story writer doing the international literary rounds right now, thanks to his Sunday Times win a couple of years back, and that does lend the whole thing a certain frisson—particularly if you’re in the Barry-fanatic camp, as am I. But, stepping back from fangirl-land, and before we turn to the book itself, let’s quickly examine the remit here. As far as I can gather from Barry’s less than informative introduction, New Irish Short Stories is an anthology of specially commissioned works by Irish-born, Irish-resident, or former-Irish-resident writers. A loose UK equivalent (other than Granta) would be Salt Publishing’s relatively recently established annual series of Best British Short Stories, edited by Nicholas Royle. Whereas Barry has approached his chosen few and solicited new work, Royle selects what he considers the best work already published that year by British writers (he’s also tighter on the nationality front, I think, but I’d side with Barry there, because I reckon issues of identity and nationality are often more complex than passports would have it). So while Salt favour tried and tested reprints, Granta and Faber both want to give their readers new work. So far, so good, since new is exciting and tantalising—but it’s also risky, and, with a large dose of regret, I’d have to say I’m not sure the risk paid off in this particular volume. The writers might, by and large, be astounding in their back-catalogues, and thus they might, of course, represent the cream of the crop, but if this particular selection of stories represents the pinnacle of contemporary Irish short story writing, then I’d conclude that it’s not the greatest of outlooks. I’ve got similar reservations about the Granta book, mind, and Faber’s single-editor approach does make it more partisan and so, arguably, defensible, than Granta’s sweeping statement of a group effort. Nonetheless, this isn’t the book I’d hoped it would be.
So. I’ll start with the ones that didn’t quite do it for me, so we can end on a high. What disappointed me overall, I guess, was the same thing that irritated me about the Granta collection: a lack of experimentation. Barr’s such an innovative writer, linguistically, that I expected to be continually startled here, but, by and large, that wasn’t the case, and some stories were startling only in their conformity. Greg Baxter’s ‘The Mark of Death’ is riddled with clichéd misogyny (‘Was I always in love with her? Was that the reason I despised her?’) and faux-significant, ill-considered prose (‘And I am just about to speak, and say all of the above, when I realise the shrug did not mean that at all. It meant something quite indescribable.’ Or, ‘It is the expression the city wears, like a face, but without features.’). ‘Hospitals Requests‘ has Pat McCabe rambling in full overly-elaborated and awkwardly adjectival style: ‘My heart it literally stood still in its chest when I first saw her; however, little did I dream that her arrival on our humble doorstep would in actual fact effect a cure for my malady, banish my obstinate delirium forever.’ Bawdy nostalgia and reminiscences of teenage misadventures: it’s been done, and it’s been done better. Neasa McHale’s ‘While You Were Working’ is a decent handling of a woman’s attempt to leave her lover before the relationship sours, but it relies too heavily and too colloquially on dialogue: the attempt at verisimilitude makes it drag, so that it lacks that terse impact that Barry himself communicates so well in his own dialogue. Molly McCloskey’s ‘City of Glass’, again, is interesting; a picaresque in short story form, as a young American works her way around the coast and the men of the West of Ireland, and has a short and disastrous marriage; the context, thought, and the themes—adultery, boredom within relationships, the effect of the boom on Irish social and economic life—pretty much retraces all the ground Anne Enright trod with The Forgotten Waltz (though, as you might recall, I wasn’t fond of that one, either). Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s ‘Joyride To Jupiter’ covers the sadness and horror of a partner lost to dementia, and, though it’s decently written, it’s a fairly predictable story, up to and including the ending (no spoilers!); the hints about child abuse are a clever addition, adding ambiguity to the reader’s relationship with the narrator, but I’m not sure, still, that this elevates the story to the level I’d like to see in an anthology like this one. Likewise, Paul Murray’s comic tale about the Devil on holidays in Cork, ‘How I Beat The Devil’, slots nicely alongside Granta’s Naomi Alderman piece, which featured the Prophet Elijah dropping in on a London suburb; both stories are funny, but light, and not especially thought-provoking, and neither seem placed to best represent the best of the new.
Lest I sound like the most dour reviewer in town, I should say that are a decent clutch of great stories here. Keith Ridgway’s ‘Godīgums’ features a desperately panicked, sad, and slightly manic interior monologue about lies and bravado that has a real ring of truth to it. Mary Costello’s ‘Barcelona’ expertly captures the misery of a drifting couple on holidays; it’s as good as anything in The China Factory, her début collection. Colin Barrett’s ‘The Clancy Kid’ has vicious energy, characters that pulse with life, and a linguistic verve that was massively refreshing, coming as it did halfway though the book; and Barrett nails the intense bleak aimlessness of small town life and youth without descending entirely into misery. While Eimear Ryan’s ‘The Recital’ didn’t impress me to the same extent, it did feature one of my favourite phrases in the book: ‘There was a judge who sat at the bar in full judge rig-out, her wig sitting neatly in her head like a vestigial brain.’ Finally, Lisa McInerney’s story about a pair of teenage friends shopping was one of the most nuanced portraits of female friendship I’ve read in a long time; a story ostensibly about the narrator’s plot to lose her virginity slowly twists into a meditation on knowledge and adulthood and the moments when friendships quietly disintegrate; the last two paragraphs are heartbreaking. And how’s this for writing: ‘They returned their attention to the rack in front of them. Her friend danced her index and middle finger over the brittle, plastic limbs laid out like suspension files in a cabinet marked Saturday, Boring.’
Any Cop? A very mixed bag, and now, I imagine (and hope) entirely representative of the best that Irish short story writing can offer, but with some stunning moments all the same.