A début collection from an Irish writer who’s been knocking around the international short story scene for quite a few years now (think The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Stand, Unthology and even Prairie Schooner) is, predictably, something that’s bound get us excited here at Bookmunch Towers (an excitable zone, admittedly, but, we think, a discerning one). Anyway, as enthused as we were, we came away with slightly mixed feelings, on outcome that we typically parse as being a bad sign – but in this case, we’re genuinely muddled. Does the bad outweigh the good – in fact, the great? We’re not sure. Let’s break it down.
It’s a long book: fifteen stories, and that includes an eighty-page novella (the titular ‘Greetings, Hero’, one of the book’s stand-out pieces). Long’s neither here nor there, of course, despite what the publishers insist (come on: have you ever been put off an otherwise decent book simply by the fact that it’s over three hundred pages?), but there’s such consistency (if you’re feeling churlish read: lack of tonal variation) in the constituent stories here that, for a collection, it did feel ever so slightly on the hefty-slash-repetitive side. On the other hand, O’Reilly’s thematic unity (alienated masculinity; the sham of boom-time Dublin; the impossibility of connecting with others, of connecting with oneself) is so damned unified that the pieces appear as hugely clever variations on a theme – making that same lack of variation feel crucial to the book’s development. It’s an uneasy balance. We would have liked a greater range of voices, we would have liked to hear a new riff, we would (more on this later) have liked to hear from at least one woman – but we were, all the same, mightily impressed by O’Reilly’s act of ventriloquism in infusing each (well, most) of his pieces with the same estranged, almost neurotic sensibility, such that each succeeding story, while it might feature a nominally new character with a different name and backstory, felt as though it were a further unveiling of the same master-story, the same unhappy protagonist. Rather than a limitation, then, at its best, this trick felt like an enormous accomplishment; the book acts as an exploration of a deeply unhappy consciousness in a deeply dissatisfying situation. At its worst, though, and here we’re thinking of the book’s early stories, of the point before which the cumulative effect has had time to actually accumulate, it does feel rather like a one-trick effort.
Let’s take a look at some of the most impressive pieces. ‘Greetings, Hero’ follows an Irish man, Geoff (surnames aren’t on the menu), between Dublin and Grodgoszcz, Poland, and back as he tries to establish himself in the world; far from being a ‘hero’, though, Geoff is sinking away from success. ‘The kind of job I have,’ he tells us, ‘sometime it’s better to be half asleep.’ He’s in awe, of a sort, of his Polish acquaintance, Silent Michal, whom he sees as a hermit, as an authentic man, because Michal doesn’t engage with the world; when Michal’s treated for un unnamed medical condition and turns out to be just like everyone else, Geoff gives up: time passes more quickly, he admits, when ‘I’m not thinking at all.’ The contrast between interior and exterior lives is a recurrent theme, and O’Reilly’s characters cannot commit – to roles, to relationships, to jobs, to places. They worry about authenticity. In ‘Words Spoken’, Mervyn, a self-made, self-conscious web designer, is enraged by a well-traveled plumber’s ability to express himself openly about his life and his emotions, while Mervyn himself worked for six years in a basement stockroom because, he figures, ‘I wanted to see if I could bury myself under ten feet of earth and be silent and content’. At the end of this piece (the closing story), he feels he can finally cut himself loose of this ‘dead self’ and live a more authentic life, and this, really, is the overall trajectory that the book takes: from the deceptive and self-deceiving lads of the first stories, to the self-determining heroes of the last several (see the homeless child of the powerful ‘Stripped Bare’, and the resolute (if thoroughly unpleasant) narrator of ‘Unfinished Business’) we see the book’s title morph from irony to a slap on the back. Heroes in any epic sense they’re not, but they do shift from being bystanders in their own lives to becoming conscious shapers of their own futures. So that’s good, right? Right!
What’s our problem, then? Well, it’s a simple one: there’s ne’er a female in this text, with the exception, perhaps – perhaps – of Amanda in ‘Words Spoken’, who isn’t on the receiving end of sexual attention. This is the male gaze writ large: women barely speak as secondary characters, they simply don’t speak as primary characters, and they’re not seen by the narrator(s) in any roles other than as sexual objects (sexual partners at a push). Even in the semi-love plots, the women (Elena in ‘Contempt’) are there to exemplify a failing on the man’s part and to fulfill his sexual needs. Women here aren’t given the interiority that the men are – even the independent Amanda isn’t considered by Mervyn as a self-determining figure in the way that Chris, the introspective plumber, is. Okay, you say, but this is a book about male alienation, about male angst, about the pressure upon men to be heroes in a world where there’s scarce enough opportunities to play the hero – of course women are sidelined. It’s a particular type of narrative. We’d argue back, though, that there’s little to be seen of any liminal arena in which a counter-narrative might emerge; if the men-being-men world is tough, then we might look to the (more realistic) world of men-and-women-in-it-together. The social world here – men hanging with men struggling with manliness – isn’t untrue, but it’s incomplete. In a text that’s clever about its representation of alienation, why isn’t clever enough to hint at the world beyond Geoff’s and Mervyn’s and Ruben’s circles? The best counter-example to the passive/sexualized female occurs, in fact, in ‘Self-Assembly’, a story about a man’s relationship with a woman he’s made himself from a kit (think Lars and the Real Girl, only less sweet). Genevieve calls Eugene on his dumb friends, his relatively pathetic life; she’d ambitious and assertive, even if it’s in the name of pleasing him. The story’s very self-conscious about the objectification of women: Genevieve is an object, but she’s an object with attitude and she’s influencing Eugene’s life. Still: the most effective, affecting female character in the text is an object pieced together by a man. It’s hard to get around that, however knowing and ironic it might be (and it is a poignant story; we did enjoy it). The book, then, presents us with a series of characters – Kevin in ‘Human Behaviour’ is a fine example – who are rather despicable misogynists, but it doesn’t go far enough in flipping that picture around. We know the men are fools, and we see, as the book progresses, similar men achieving higher levels of self-awareness, but we’re all the time, all the time, missing the female voice. Alison Bechdel would go to town on this one.
Any Cop?: Well, as we said, we’re not too sure. O’Reilly’s an absolute master at conveying a certain way of life. If you want depressed men on building sites, lonely teachers, bitter bachelors, you could hardly do better. We haven’t seen many other portraits of Ireland at that period that nail the complexities of rapid expansion and urban alienation so brilliantly – this isn’t martinis in the Shelbourne; it’s shoddy, expensive bedsits and shyster landlords and a country in flux. We loved that. And the deeper you get into the collection, the more compelling it is: from ‘Greetings, Hero’ onwards we were thoroughly, staying-up-past-bedtime, hooked. We reckon a shorter version – four stories lighter, at a pinch – would have shoved it up a notch. But as it stands, the first third feels weaker and the ladies simply ain’t represented, and that last, for us, is a major red flag. If this (from an indie publisher) gets enough press, it’ll have rabid fans and furious detractors: we’ll be intrigued to see them slog it out.