“A wholly individual portrait of Dublin and its characters” – Levitation by Sean O’Reilly

Levitation, as a collection of short stories, follows closely in the footsteps of James Joyce’s Dubliners. The stories are often set, to differing extents, around a barber’s shop on Dublin’s Capel Street. In ‘A Little Cloud’ (from Dubliners) Joyce wrote:

“his soul revolted against the dull inelegance of Capel Street. There was no doubt about it: if you wanted to succeed you had to go away.”

Life in the Dublin of the 1980s and 1990s isn’t much different to that of Joyce’s Dublin, the same morose frustrations and ambitions to emigrate, and the same revolt of the soul.

Sean O’Reilly’s Dublin is home to people who lack control over their lives, a love triangle that contains a sex addicted taxi driver, an on-off relationship that drags on for a decade begins in London and ends in Dublin. In the heart-breaking story, ‘Ceremony’, a man goes to the christening of his ex-girlfriend’s baby, she has post-natal depression, he has never recovered from the ending of the relationship, and the resolution of their relationship turns around the twin horrors of human life. Alongside the observation that “it’s still bloody terrible what can befall people who don’t deserve it” is the dreadful realisation: “we couldn’t have done it any differently, not a single day of it.”

Depicting characters unable to escape their emotional paralysis (also at the centre of Dubliners) and equally unable to create a narrative for those lives: “the endings never stop and the beginnings are scarce” O’Reilly brings a Northern Irish sensibility to Dublin. Many of his characters are refugees from the North, and share the Northern suspicion of communication. They may have escaped from the violence of the Troubles but language is still dangerous, “I was silent the way you’re supposed to be.” In two stories, ‘hallion #1’ and ‘hallion #2’, O’Reilly describes a young father’s journey around Derry with his baby son as he tries to escape, before accepting, a punishment shooting. It is written with a rhythm and imagination, with characters trapped in an intractable situation, that calls to mind James Kelman’s An Old Pub Near the Angel.

The collection ends with ‘Levitation’, which is mainly set in the barber’s on Capel Street and follows Valentine, a fifty-something who lives with his mother and whose life changes when he decides to learn to drive. Valentine’s driving instructor tells him “you are blinded by empathy.” The empathy of these stories (and those of James Kelman’s, Joyce’s) is built around O’Reilly’s language, he builds a casually literary language, evocative and allusive, from the language of anecdote and male banter so that the barber’s shop, like a pub, becomes full of people who “know true wisdom yearns to be shared.”

Any Cop?: Sean O’Reilly creates a wholly individual portrait of Dublin and its characters, not easy for a city so dominated by Joyce’s imagination, with a language that is vividly individual.

 

James Doyle

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