The Short Review

shining the spotlight on short story collections

Review: The Irreal Reader anthology

The Irreal Reader
Fiction and Essays from the Café Irreal
Edited by G.S. Evans and Alice Whittenburg
Numerous authors including Diploma de Honor Konex winner Ana María Shua (Argentina), Michal Ajvaz (winner of the Magnesia Litera prize in the Czech Republic), Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Simic, and Pushcart Prize winners Bruce Holland Rogers and Caitlin Horrocks.

Guide Dog Books, 2013

Reviewed by Aiden O’Reilly

… in an irreal story, the unreal is continually juxtaposed against the real such that the reader can never find a ‘point of rest’ because he or she is never certain which ‘reality’ he or she is in.

— appended essay by one of the editors, G.S. Evans

For the Irreal imagination, both the accidental and universal symbol refer to the source of bewildering, destabilizing trauma.

— appended essay by Dean Swinford

For those new to this type of fiction, reading this collection will require a re-boot of the brain. Gone are the familiar toeholds of character and plot. Gone too is any claim for the piece to be descriptive or symbolic. What’s left is the experience the piece is designed to evoke. That experience may include anxiety, bafflement, wonder, a sense of skewed familiarity, maybe even frustration. Reading these fictions is akin to a stroll through a gallery of modern art. The viewer steeped in realist portrayals may take a moment to adjust, to “get” what’s going on. And to push the modern art gallery a step further, there will inevitably be those who give up on some pieces impatiently.

Given the heterogeneous nature of the anthology, it might give an idea of what to expect if I describe a couple of the more accessible pieces. Jose Chaves’ All I Misunderstood as a Man makes Complete Sense as a Parrot begins:

I am enjoying a cup of coffee with friends at a small café, when the conversation turns gray with politics. Suddenly, they are no longer friends, but large green parrots …

This piece has an obvious metaphorical meaning. It has a pleasingly transparent structure, and yet is rich enough to bear being re-read several times.

Bob Thurber’s Shuteye is a domestic scene written in standard snappy prose. But the second sentence is: “Donna had my heart on the table and a steak knife in her hand.” The story invites a reading as an allegory. Yet the severance from realism is so stark that it resists any easy interpretation. An anxiety remains; there is arguably a direct interaction with the unconscious mind. Many other pieces share this characteristic of being like a probe planted deep in the psyche. They lodge in memory and keep surfacing, grasping for meanings.

Kevin Sexton’s The Spindler is an intense tale of an encounter with a skinny, spider-like stranger who inspires revulsion in the narrator. Anyone who has ever had nightmares of chasing someone, or being chased, will tap in to the energy this story unleashes. The spindler and the loathing he arouses have the force of a symbol, but one which is personal and not universal.

Anything I might say here about the definition or workings of the irreal is pre-empted by the thirteen theoretical texts that constitute the last sixty-four pages of the book. Such a large number of critical essays (mostly) dedicated to a self-definition of the genre is unprecedented. Imagine if a love story was appended with several tracts on the nature of romantic attachment. There is a precedent however, though not in fiction. Modern art often leans on the associated theoretical perspective; the audience has come to expect the sheets of paper pinned alongside the works.

The perceived need for these appended essays is another indication of just how far from ordinary fiction these irreal pieces roam. The phenomenology of the act of reading – the way one’s eye scans the sentences and constructs a narrative – is put in question. It’s an invigorating experience. The best pieces have a character of ‘thingness’ about them, in that they can be read again and again from different perspectives.

One of my favourites, Richard Kostelanetz’ Openings, is a list of purported opening sentences of stories. It makes for such fascinating reading I have to resist the urge to keep quoting the best ones.

The irreal as a method may be more familiar to readers in regions beyond the English-speaking world. Central Europe has its Kafka and Schulz. South America has Borges and García Márquez. As explained in the essays, the editors of this collection were impatient with the staid realism of American letters, and set up an internet journal to seek out and publish non-realist genres. The Café Irreal has been running since 1998. It is partially based in Prague, and their list of leading writers through the years is impressively international. Such a project would not have been possible before the era of the internet. The editors’ assessment of this project as of 2013 however is not positive.

The staid, realist orthodoxy of American letters that most of us were seeking to shake now seems more entrenched than ever, aided by the growing number of MFA programs in creative writing, most of which use realism (especially in the form of personal narrative) as the template for ‘fine writing.’

Many of the fictions in this collection are short: flash fiction in fact. I would argue that flash fiction, or short short stories, are a natural preserve of irreal techniques, in the English-speaking world at least. The irreal is not as uncommon as the editors seem to conclude. In novels – English-language novels – however it is indeed rare. The essays point out what we are missing by remaining within ‘the cult of experience’ to use Rahv’s expression. They argue that the restrictive definition of fine writing, in the USA at least, is no coincidence, but ties in with a disinclination toward the intangible and impractical typical of American culture in general.

Intriguingly, the essays also look at uses of the irreal in other arts: in the visual arts and in music. Irrealism and Ambient Music by Garrett Rowlan was a revelation to me, and I’ve spent several hours browsing through the tracks he references.

This collection is a fascinating mind-stretcher, a door open to an entirely new gallery. Perhaps it is best read in brief forays. It is a book of international significance and influence much greater than the limited media attention would suggest.

About the reviewer: Aiden O’Reilly lived for nine years in Eastern Europe and is now based mainly in Dublin. He has worked variously as a mathematics lecturer, translator, building-site worker, and property magazine editor. In November 2008 he won the biannual McLaverty Prize for short stories. His work has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Prairie Schooner, The Irish Times, and The Dublin Review. His short fiction collection Greetings Hero was published in September 2014 by UK-based Honest Publishing.

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