‘An interesting and attention-grabbing volume’ – Dubliners 100, ed. Thomas Morris

d100A rewriting of Joyce and a collection of stories from Ireland’s up-and-coming and already-proven writing talents? For its first outing, Tramp Press has managed both to set itself a mighty challenge and to launch itself triumphantly as a pretty bloody clever impresario. Lest the title doesn’t clue you up, Dubliners 100 is a story collection conceived (by editor Thomas Morris, perhaps already familiar to some of you as the new force behind Ireland’s foremost literary magazine, The Stinging Fly) as a celebration of the original book’s centenary in the form of reimagined/rewritten/reinterpreted versions of Joyce’s fifteen stories. These are ‘cover versions’, explains Morris, in one of the most entertaining anthology introductions I’ve read in a while; stories that will ‘grant you access to the nuances’ of the originals, ‘to the finest and most interesting of the nooks and crannies’, whilst still standing as ‘spectacular vehicles in their own right’. Does he succeed? Well, the task, as I said, is a daunting one: Dubliners, as one of our reviewers here lately remarked, ‘has a fighting case for being named the greatest short story collection ever written’. If you’re a scholar of Irish fiction, modernism, short fiction, or, hell, any fiction, the chances are you’ve been thoroughly immersed in that book at least once, and whether it was a gleeful, bewildered, or stunned immersion, it won’t have been a forgettable one. Elliptical, beautiful, strange, sad and hilarious; politically complex and astute; a study, the academics tell us, into the cultural and spiritual paralysis of the capital of an as-yet unborn nation-state at the turning of the century that shaped our own: it’s safe to say that Joyce’s only collection is a big hit around these parts, and so we cracked this new text open with a not inconsiderable dose of trepidation. With some relief then, we’re glad to report that, while not quite replicating Joycean peaks of awesomeness, it’s an interesting and attention-grabbing volume that, despite its few flaws, certainly warrants a closer look.

When I said there were some tried and tested authors on board this ship, I was talking Patrick McCabe, Paul Murray, new superstar Eimear McBride, Donal Ryan, John Boyne and Peter Murphy; the others certainly aren’t untried, but are likely less well-known to many international readers: Sam Coll, Belinda McKeon, John Kelly, Andrew Fox, Michele Forbes, Oona Frawley, Evelyn Conlon, Mary Morrisey and Elske Rahill. The stories themselves are as varied, in style, substance and interpretive styles, as the list of authors itself, and while some of the writers have offered more pretty clear-cut rewritings of the original pieces in (more or less) contemporary settings, others have snagged on particular themes or motifs that they’ve instantiated in stories that are more like riffs on their progenitors than classic updatings. Joyce’s book is unified, obviously enough, by his authorship, as well as by setting and theme and subtle intertextual references between its sections; here, that unity is necessarily absent, and in fact, its variety presents the book, at times, more like a miscellany than like the cycle of linked stories that is how some describe Dubliners. In that respect, it’s arguably as much an homage to Ulysses, a text that is itself referenced more than once, in a sneaky reference to literary pornography, in the use of ‘snotgreen’. As Morris says, though, the stories have to stand alone as much as they need to be recognisably inspired by the originals, a task that is made more difficult by the fact that they retain those stories’ titles. The reader’s tendency (we’re taking ourselves as the gold standard; strike us down for such hubris!) to perform an inner compare-and-contrast, watching out for parallels and in-jokes, is likely to mean that the effect of each story as an independent entity is lessened; in fact, we’d be interested to hear how they’d all have done as non-commissioned pieces in assorted literary journals. Returning to reality, though, we didn’t find all the stories entirely convincing, and with Joyce himself as the on-call muse, our standard was perhaps unusually high.

To get the bad news out of the way first, then: what didn’t tickle our fancy? The opener, for a start: Patrick McCabe’s ‘The Sisters’, which manages to replicate Joyce’s gossipy structure and the double-header of adult versus child conversation and understanding, but, thanks to McCabe’s typical long-windedness and reliance on an artificially precocious tone for its child-narrator, he loses Joyce’s flat, understated humour and the subtlety and depth of his protagonist’s fascination with the events of the day, replacing them with lengthy exchanges that, we reckoned, would have been better executed by Roddy Doyle (if that’s not itself a cliché to suggest). Mary Morrisey’s ‘An Encounter’ is a well-executed account of a girl’s run-in with a suspicious older male and her complex relationship with her father, but it’s no more nor less than it sounds; whether or not it’s doing Joyce’s original a disservice feels almost inconsequential, because it’s in the context of this volume’s own stories that this piece suffers: it doesn’t hit the high notes of originality of many of its stable-mates. Paul Murray’s ‘A Painful Case’ was compelling throughout, and only let down by an ending (we won’t give it away) that felt too predictable and glib, even as its author’s pitch-perfect prose glides it to a neat halt. Likewise, Sam Coll’s ‘Grace’ struck us as less layered than it might have been, as vivid and believable as its scenarios and characters surely were: its account of its (anti)hero’s inevitable decline lacked the punch of original’s ending, though its attendant liggers and sots would feel right at home with Joyce’s own assorted and persistent misfits.

Of the stories that did work, though, the reasons for their success were legion: Eimear McBride’s ‘Ivy Day at the Committee Room’, for instance, is as unremittingly dense and non-expository as its inspiration: we recall many a bemused undergraduate glowering at Joyce’s oblique exploration of political ennui and corrupted nationalism, and it’s fair to guess that McBride’s version – a blow-by-blow rewriting of the original, but transplanted to post-2008 Ireland and starring a posse of financiers and political/economic know-it-alls – will elicit the same degree of bewilderment in the uninitiated; and yet, the satirical savagery of the older story is replicated with integrity in the new version, so that it both speaks back to the past and makes its own distinct statement about present-day corruption and cowardice. Belinda McKeon’s ‘Counterparts’ replaces Joyce’s alcoholic clerk with an aging intern in a dubious publishing job in the United States – an Irish ex-pat, Elizabeth’s addiction is to social media, and her every thought is filtered through her status updates, even as this fills her with disgust; her procrastinating, vicarious, virtual and unhappy way of life leads, of course, inexorably towards her undoing. Jon McGregor has published a much-lauded tale about a similar affliction – ‘Wires’ stars a teenager who also parses her life through her online cipher – but McKeon’s portrayal of a particular contemporary variety of existential ennui and noisy dislocation is, I think, more effective. John Boyne’s short and poignant ‘Araby’ swaps out Mangan’s sister for Mangan’s brother, and where Joyce’s quietly desperate hero heads in vain to a fair, Boyne’s runs to watch his neighbour play rugby: although it follows very closely in its inspiration’s footprints (in the structure of the story, the details of places and names, the seasonal references), there’s an internal logic and sadness to the story that makes it resonant even it, we think, it was read in isolation. Likewise, Michele Forbes’ ‘Clay’ was a knockout piece: unlike Boyne’s, it steps away from the original, tracing out a faintly similar track involving an oblivious and sad hopefulness housed in a doomed character, but differing in the detail: Conor is a fat nerd making his way home after work, only to be mocked by a set of juvenile trick-or-treaters. The story, though, is perfect in its narrowness: in a single journey, we get the entirety of a sad life so succinctly that we reckon Aristotle himself would be pleased. In a collection of fifteen, it’s hard to do justice to every piece, so we’ll finish with Peter Murphy’s ‘The Dead’ – surely, the most intimidating task thrust at any poor writer, because if every a short story were eulogized and worshipped, it’s Joyce’s novella-like closer. Murphy, wisely, doesn’t try to replicate the party, the hotel or the individual characters but instead gives us a brief, post-apocalyptic vision of the West of Ireland, and a narrator who finds himself in session with a gang of fellow-vagrants who turn out to be – sorry, a spoiler is nigh – ghosts, and ghosts, at that, who introduce their new pal to the original ‘The Dead’, thus ending this tribute volume with a good old spoonful of metafiction: this is James Joyce meets Riddley Walker, chockfull of neologisms that, again, call to mind Joyce’s later work while still holding to a kernel of truth from its originary tale.

Any Cop?: Oh, definitely. Even aside from the way it’ll make you rethink and revisit Dubliners, Dubliners 100 is a fantastic Who’s Who of contemporary Irish story writers. If you don’t emerge from this with at least one new (or old) book on your wishlist – well, we think you’ll not have read it with close enough attention.

 

Valerie O’Riordan


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