shining the spotlight on short story collections
Doire Press, 2011
Reviewed by Sara Baume
“You hoover the bedrooms, over and back, dust,” he said, “everything is dust, dust, dust, and in that dust is the secret, over and back, over and back, every now and again it gives out a nugget of gold, and when it does you have to stop going over and back and pick up the nugget.”
When I was a schoolgirl, I remember being taught that the correct method of reading aloud was to halt and count to three on encountering each full-stop. Of course this isn’t the natural way children speak. Naturally, children express themselves much like the narrator of And’s inaugural story, Heaven, with gambolling impatience and unnecessary passion, in one very long sentence without pause to reconfigure their words into a more acceptable version of the truth. The little boy in Heaven is speaking of his mother‘s death: “…and I was thinking about that while they were talking, how could she say she wasted away to nothing when her face was still there, and her eyes closed, and her fingers clasping her wooden beads, and she could be asleep, and I could go back to bed and pretend with my eyes closed and wait for her voice…” The story’s breathless pace and elliptical structure is a sign of what to expect from the nine which follow.
The purpose of the conjunction ‘and’, as described by my word processor’s inbuilt dictionary, is “to indicate an additional thing, situation, or fact.” It’s an apt title; Mullarkey’s style of story-telling is remarkable for its preoccupation with additional things. Most of his characters suffer from the condition of being inundated by the world around them, and by life. Every detail begets another, and another, and another. In Breakdown, Isaac is sitting “alone in a crowded carriage, listening to the world, thistles ready to fly, telegraph wires dropping to eye level, rain drops drawing lines on the glass, Portarlington, forty one and a half, straw bales, deciduous birds, dappled cows, thirty two and three quarters, tire tracks in a field of cereal, gravel mounds…” and so on. Kung Fu begins in a classroom with a schoolboy about to be slapped by the master’s cane, but is supervened by an elaborate Tour de France analogy to which much of the rest of the story is devoted. Mullarkey’s prose is telescopic, yet in order to achieve such richness of description, a certain amount of narrative coherence has been sacrificed. The stories of And are splendid, yet inchoate.
It doesn’t help that many of the characters are prone to daydreams and reminiscence. Murph is a writer battling against the make-believe universe inside his head, disillusioned by the meaningless slog of reality. In Murph’s Advice, he contemplates the catharsis of writing, of unburdening oneself by burdening a character instead: “Create a character, and let him write it down, and you’re off the hook, you’re off the hook, you can hide behind him, let him be exposed, naked to the judgement that would destroy you, make you silent, make you retreat into your shell, that’s what to do.” It’s hard not to interpret Murph’s words as Mullarkey’s confession as to how this story, and perhaps all ten stories, came to being written. Each is deftly weighted with matters of mind, spirit and soul. This is most affecting when tackled obliquely, as in Maam Valley, when the little girl Teresa tries to figure out the workings of a spider web, and as in Breakdown, when Isaac says to his wife, Dolores, “Why do you think we throw stones in the water?” And Dolores says, “It’s a way of trying to touch it without getting wet.” It may seem strange that the clearest wisps of wisdom rise from drunks and children, yet what they have in common is a less unobstructed route into the psyche and a less inhibited way of expressing themselves than you or I, not to mention a general disregard for the use of full-stops.
While Mullarkey’s abstruse technique occasionally detracts from the stories of And, his skillful portrayal of the abounding inner lives of his characters, the epic span of their thoughts in spite of the smallness of their lives, make it worth persevering to the collection’s end.
Read an extract from the story Heaven on the Doire Press website.
About the reviewer: Sarah Baume reads and writes in a small house on the coast. Her reviews, interviews, articles and stories have been published online and in print, from HTMLGIANT to The Stinging Fly.