“Unconventional adjustments” – Modern Times by Cathy Sweeney

IMG_27May2021at153441Sometimes an opening sentence delivers such a devastating punch that we readers know we’ve begun something special. Think of poor Herr Gregor and his transformative dreams, and Tolstoy’s platitude about families. Here is the opening sentence from Cathy Sweeney’s story collection, Modern Times:

“There once was woman who loved her husband’s cock so much that she began taking it to work in her lunchbox.”

In this slim story’s two pages, Sweeney subverts that sneering misogynistic cliché by showing a man who didn’t mind relinquishing control in a relationship. Years after this couple’s amicable divorce, the ex-husband “occasionally put his hand to his crotch and found his cock firmly in place [and] experienced an intense but fleeting nostalgia for the good old days.”

Many of Sweeney’ stories mock or fracture the forms and expectations of fairy tales, upending them by just transmuting or electrifying one piece of reality. For example, in “Blue” specific body parts of some people start to turn blue for no apparent reason: no panic, no investigations, no recriminations, just a different colour. Turning blue becomes a metaphor for an inexplicable malaise, which soon dissolves into the new normal. In “Woman Whose Child Was a Very Old Man,” a writer stumbles upon a radical day-care solution for her toddler that involves a freezer. Her innovation allows her to balance her need to write with her maternal responsibilities.

Although many of the women and men in the world of Sweeney’s stories are slightly damaged, they remain survivors. They’ve made unconventional adjustments. They have learned how to deal with shortcomings and failures, reinventing and redefining their perceptions of life. For example, in the remarkable “The Birthday Present,” a wife acknowledges her diminishing sexual desire by giving her husband a sex doll for his 57th birthday. Priding herself on her practicality, she and her husband determine the doll’s specifications together: “there are lots of choices to make before an order can be processed—nipple preference, labia style, hair colour, chest measurement, ethnicity, and so on. More choices than when we installed our new kitchen.” Her neutral comparison completely denudes the doll’s existence of any value judgment; it’s just another home appliance. In “White” a woman deals with her undefined frustration with her career by deciding to paint her house white. Her sense of ennui leads to careless sex and odd, dangerous choices fuelled by the recognition that she needed “something to weigh me down.”

Another theme is the transformative power of art and the imagination. Yet even Sweeney’s takes on such trite ideas are fresh. For example, in the whimsical piece “Flowers in Water,” a man improves the tiny provincial town where he lives through the art of his invisible camera with which he makes films. He creates his insignificant art solely for himself without any taint of ambition until he realises his young daughter appreciates his art as well, allowing them to reconnect for a summer after his divorce. The power of narrative is explored in “The Story,” where a home-owner moves into a new house and finds a story “wrapped in newspaper and hidden behind the boiler.” He greedily reads it without sharing it with his wife to satisfy a longing that he never knew he was missing. One of the collection’s funniest and darkest stories, “The Chair,” recasts Kafka’s “Penal Colony” as in-home therapy for couples who take turns systematically zapping their anger into their marriage partner. Another story deconstructs a version of the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The perspectives of its characters emerge into the narrative as though from a nested Russian doll, slipping from one unreliable narrator to the next.

“The Celebration” is a delightfully disturbing bit of hallucination about rampant sexuality (incest, lesbianism, and threesomes) among the decadent rich. A hint of magical realism flavours “Oranges,” where a man who doesn’t even like oranges fills his house with them and luxuriates as they slowly rot while his wife and child are gone for a two-week vacation.

Any Cop?: As I was reading Sweeney’s stories, I was struck by just how devastatingly insightful the following passage appears in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic that is devastating the world, especially its working classes, its disaffected, and those outside of gated community (palace) gates.: “No one mentions the sickness anymore. Some people say it is worse beyond the outer limits of the palace, but there are always those who like to take a negative view.” Stories for a pandemic. . . .

Chris Oleson

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