Book Review: Levitation

Levitation, by Sean O’Reilly, is a collection of eleven short stories narrated in a distinctly Irish voice. They are raw and often unpleasant in their imagery. The characters lack empathy and emotional intelligence. They are self-absorbed and eager to indulge in whatever provides personal gratification. In the minds of the men, sex conveys a type of ownership and is given priority over what would generally be regarded as common decency. The author describes in detail acts I would have preferred not to have pictured in my head.

The collection opens with Hallion, a story that later continues with Hallion #2. Although not drawn to the tale initially, these turned out to be amongst the more palatable offerings in the book. The writing style took some getting used to as slashes replace more regular punctuation. Hallion tells of a man desperately trying to find someone, anyone, to care for his baby son that he may keep an appointment for a kneecapping. Hallion #2 deals with the aftermath. As stories these work. They draw the reader in to the accepted violence of the lives being lived.

Free Verse introduces a poetry writing barber named Clyde who has done time in prison. On release from this incarceration he published a book of verse on the advise of his therapist. The woman who inspired him, and to whom he dedicated the book, is not impressed. She wished to forget he existed and resents the reminder, given to her by a journalist. She confronts Clyde with an ultimatum that he struggles to accept.

The barber shop, in Capel Street, Dublin, along with its staff and clientele link each story in the collection. With a sizable cast of characters it was, at times, a challenge to keep track of their various relationships.

Rescue tells of a marriage under stress. Portia and Tiernan, a couple who seem ill suited except, perhaps, in bed are separated when one of their dogs attacks a child at a social gathering. Portia flees with the creature, angering her husband as his carnal needs are not now being met. He turns to drugs, a habit she had previously demanded he breaks. Eventually he follows her to the countryside. Tiernan is angered that his wife will not put his needs first.

The Cavalcade offers further degeneration. Two young people and an older man act out some sort of dominant/submissive sex game. Each are emotionally damaged. Graphic details of their encounters are provided. I found this sickening to read, pornographic in nature.

Downstream is also crude. Sex games are played, actions described, little understanding displayed between the players. Again, it was unpleasant to read.

The Three Twists offers more of a story, although with violent undercurrents. It provides little relief.

Love Bites/Dark Horses has a younger cast but the plot is somewhat opaque. Older family members have been caught misbehaving. There may be an abortion being dealt with. A young girl turns to the church but fears voicing her secrets.

Despite the sex, drugs and violence, many of the characters do still attend the Catholic church. Such hypocrisy added to the distastefulness rather than providing anything of depth.

Ceremony is set around a naming ceremony for a baby. It portrays men who feel hard done by, damaged to an extreme, if the women they want to have sex with do not act as they wish. For no reason I could fathom details of flatulence and the need to defecate are included. The characters are unlikable enough without the need for such typically schoolboy particulars.

Critical Mass II is described as an abandoned work and is written in this style. Again, unpleasant details detract from the story arc. A sister smears spit across her brother’s mouth, her bad breath repeatedly mentioned. The boy appears to be a sacrifice or seer. It is, as titled, unfinished.

Levitation is set in the barbers shop and includes many of the characters from the previous tales. It has a story arc but not one made entirely clear. As the final offering in a collection I was not enjoying reading, I had hoped for something stronger in this, the longest tale. It was not to be.

As mentioned, these stories include copious drug taking and sex. I became bored by the repetition, searching behind these porn inspired, teenage tropes for whatever meaning the author intended to convey. In the end it all became too murky. If there is brilliance it has been shadowed by the discomfort of the prose’s leering gaze.

Levitation is published by The Stinging Fly Press.

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Book Review: UnAmerican Activities

UnAmerican Activities, by James Miller, is a collection of ten interlinked short stories set in contemporary America. They tell of drug users and porn stars, college kids and religious fanatics, vampires and republicans. The dark, beating heart of the book explores the ingrained beliefs that drive so many to behave irrationally. Despite the perversions depicted the stories are somehow highly entertaining. It was an unexpected delight to find this such a captivating read.

The book opens with an ‘UnPrologue’ which explains the origins of the stories that follow. It sets the tone and is a story in itself. The reader is then introduced to the first of a cast of characters who will appear intermittently throughout the collection. Each story stands alone but it is the wider plot arc that kept me so engaged.

The first, Eat My Face, is a tale of drug users and gun toting criminals. Their backstories may garner a degree of sympathy but they do little to help themselves with the choices they make. High on meth, crack and alcohol they stoke their paranoias, sharing stories of vampires invading the higher echelons of influence, decrying those they blame for the sorry state of the world as they perceive it to be.

“Usurping the white man’s power. Taking our place. Overturning the order.”

Hope’s End takes an ex-pat Professor of Ancient American Cultures at Cornell on a road trip alongside a young student with whom he is having an affair. In Iowa they are arrested for indecency, thus preventing the academic from reaching his destination, an archaeological discovery in Dakota where a strange sickness is afflicting those involved in the dig. There are strange goings on at both locations, a pastiche of Midwestern American values and beliefs.

Exploding Zombie Cock completes the trio of introductory stories. It is set among wealthy students in New York playing host to a marine due to leave for a tour of Afghanistan and looking for a good time before he faces life threatening combat. When the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend shows interest in the personable young soldier jealousy rears its head. A potion from a witchdoctor in Haiti that has been gathering dust in a cupboard is deployed, with unexpected effects.

Pour Out The Vials introduces a family of religious extremists who believe the goings on in Dakota signify the coming of Armageddon. This is not the first time they have seen such signs and their teenage daughter has grown inured to the prophecies her mother makes through an alcoholic haze. With her father at church and her mother in a stupor she watches videos posted on a cultish blog, of strange happenings that are not explained.

The Kiss Of The Nephilim brings a vampire into the cast of characters. After everything that has gone before this makes sense, bringing to the fore the dark humour of these tales. The fantastical beings and events appear no more ridiculous than the recognisable actions and prejudices of the more everyday population. Behaviours are disturbingly familiar.

With five stories remaining there are still plenty of characters to get to know: a bounty hunter with a sideline in vampire slaying; an internet porn star convinced she can retain ownership of her body; a hellfire preacher decrying the wider population’s fake churches, determined to drive these false Christians back to what he considers righteous ways, by whatever means.

The final story offers a humorous dig at the author’s own circle and neatly rounds up what has been a clever, incendiary, ludicrous in places but always entertaining wider tale. There is an UnEpilogue which confirms that this was never meant to be of a work of fiction in the style taught in creative writing workshops.

“there’s no clear trajectory from beginning through middle to crisis and then on to acute crisis – you know, the moment in the story when all seems lost and from where things go on to climax and resolution, the five acts”

It is undoubtedly stronger for its originality, clever without being clever for its own sake.

This is a rollicking ride through the hinterlands of America – I suspect the author loves the country whilst recognising its many hypocrisies and failures. As a work of literature it is impressive in its lightly presented depth. A subversive, deliciously indecorous, gratifying read.

UnAmerican Activities is published by Dodo Ink.

Book Review: You Should Come With Me Now

“You think you see the real world. But you don’t.”

You Should Come With Me Now, by M. John Harrison, is a collection of forty-two short stories written by one of the pioneers of New Wave Fiction. It is his first published collection of short fiction for over fifteen years. The stories offer an unsettling view of a world that is at times surreal. In many ways they depict the negative, stripping back experiences and emotions to show how skewed accepted behaviour can be. The cast of characters vary in time and place but share a need to find a personal space where they can be a version of themselves each considers authentic. Some attempt to reinvent themselves and those they interact with to achieve this. The self-involvement of protagonists is dissected demonstrating how much is ignored if not fitting the narrative a person creates.

Slightly longer stories are interspersed with flash fiction. My favourite of these micro stories was Jackdaw Bingo which depicts a time when aliens arrive on earth and seek the dominant species to interact with and learn from. It is amusingly perceptive, as are many of these tales.

Another that deals with alien invasion is The Crisis in which London’s financial sector is taken over and the authorities, as ever, seek those willing to sacrifice themselves for what is claimed to be the common good.

“You can’t be the rulers if you have no country to rule.”

There are dreams, ghosts, psychodrama. There are manipulations and powerplay between individuals and those granted authority, the acceptance of such in exchange for what is regarded as a safe existence.

“The strangest thing, he says in a kind of gentle wonder, is to live in a time like this, both bland and rotten”

My view of the world is not as negative as is depicted but I can appreciate the sentiments to which the author gives rein. There is little explanation which adds to the potency of each vignette.

In Autotelia offers an alternative view of a future society where entrance to London requires strictly controlled medical checks. Told from the point of view of a doctor who has distanced herself from the disturbing nature of this work it ends with an outsiders view of the doctor. How challenging to be confronted with what others see.

Psychoarcheolgy is an amusing take on the discovery of the skeletal remains of the famous under construction sites.

“dig for the evidence, develop the interactive exhibit, crowdsource the story the public wants to hear. It’s the contemporary equivalent of the religious relics industry”

“Why have we suddenly started digging them up like this? […] All they mean to us is what we want them to mean.”

Dog People portrays the rise and fall of a sexual relationship alongside the complexities of family ties. In this interpretation hope is transient, resentments forever bubbling to the surface.

Although described as science fiction or fantasy, and many of the stories are not of our world, the leaps of imagination within each tale enable the author to parody real life politics, capitalism, and even his own domain, the literary elite. Many of the characters exude a quiet desperation, a distancing of themselves from other’s expectations.

A wide variety of subjects are covered with a few recurring themes. In a collection of this size there will be stories that resonate and others generating a less visceral response. I was amused, challenged and, at time, confused. Overall though my first foray into this award winning author’s work impressed.

Probably best dipped into rather than gorged in a sitting. A varied, intriguing read.

You Should Come With Me Now is published by Comma Press.

Book Review: Worlds From The Word’s End

Worlds From The Word’s End, by Joanna Walsh, is a collection of eighteen short stories that play with the meanings of words and the ideas they can convey. Some of the tales employ routine storytelling techniques, others are more opaque.

The collection opens with Two, which keeps the reader guessing what the Two may be. As with many of the stories, it references the passing of time in a not quite linear way. The setting is everyday but is inhabited strangely, reasons for this left to conjecture.

Bookselves considers how those who own books regard their possessions, how they accumulate and are used, how this changes over time. There are some gorgeous, rich phrases – books ‘fat with potential’, books left in bookshops because ‘they do not accuse you urgently enough’, books bought that now ‘ lie primed to spring, ever solicitous of your attention.’

The titular tale looks at a world that has run out of words which were too often misunderstood. It describes a relationship breakdown, where speech has failed as a means of communication:

“In the republic of words, I love you induced anxiety. How was your day? would elicit merely a sigh. I think people just got tired, tired of explaining things they’d already said to one another, exhausted by the process of excavating words with words.”

“You like women who are quiet? In the end it was not so difficult to let you go: you were only interested in the sound of your own voice. Pretty soon we had nothing left to say”

There are many interesting ideas to ponder throughout the book, although at times these rise above the storytelling, diverting attention from plot development. The insights are sharp and precise but translating relevance often less clear. Travelling Light, about the degeneration of a bulky shipment as it traverses Europe, could be a metaphor for many things.

I particularly enjoyed Femme Maison. Weaving the skeins of a familiar situation – going into a room for a reason only to be distracted, unable to recollect why there –  the story explores the changing value ascribed to accumulated possessions, including self.

Two Secretaries is an amusing depiction of unacknowledged rivalry in the workplace.

Enzo Ponzo challenges normalcy, telling an engaging story from an odd premise.

The Suitcase Dog I also found odd, one of the more opaque tales.

The premise and propogation in many of the stories can be strange in places yet each contains phrases that pierce the heart of the ideas they convey. They are perceptive, emotive. Several are also disturbing.

Simple Hans depicted sex acts more graphically than I care for.

Hauptbahnhof, about a person living in a railway station waiting for a person they someday expect to meet there, could be read as devotion yet is clearly obsession.

A collection that impresses for its use of language more than entertainment or ease of understanding. This is a book I have already returned to, gaining new insights with each revisit. It is a clever if not entirely straightforward read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

Book Review: The Beauties

The Beauties, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater), is a collection of thirteen, freshly translated short stories, presented in a beautifully bound edition of this esteemed writer’s work. The book is slightly smaller than a standard paperback with a textured cover, french flaps and clear print on quality paper. It is an ideal size and weight to carry and to hold. I mention these physical attributes as they are notably pleasing – fitting given the title.

The stories inside offer the reader insight into why Chekhov is considered one of the greatest writers of short fiction. They also provide a window into the mindset of the Russian people before mass industrialisation. There is cruelty and hypocrisy but also desire and a search for meaning. The private lives the characters live, their thoughts and aspirations, are timelessly relevent.

The collection opens with The Beauties, in which a schoolboy is travelling with his grandfather across the dusty steppe in summer, pausing for rest and refreshment at the home of a land worker. Here the boy meets a young woman whose unconventional beauty moves him, not with desire but a kind of sad longing that draws him, and the other men in the vicinity, to observe her every move. Several years later the boy, now a student, has a similar experience at a railway station. The imagery places the reader alongside the narrator as he recounts the feelings engendered by these encounters, the melancholy they create.

The Man In A Box tells the tale of a teacher whose habitual behaviour is regarded as odd by his aquaintances. When an additional teacher is sent to the village, bringing with him an unmarried sister, a plan is hatched.

“What a lot of things get done out of pure boredom, in the provinces – unnecessary, pointless things! […] I mean, why did we have to marry off Belikov all of a sudden, when you couldn’t even imagine him married?”

A Day In The Country depicts beauty in its knowledge and descriptions of plant and animal life. This contrasts with the harshness of the lives of the poor, who still manage small kindnesses. The man portrayed is unusual within this collection in not being entirely self-absorbed. He notices those in need and gives without fuss.

Several of the stories explore the temptations their married protagonists succumb to, even those who claim to regard their spouses with some affection. Being admired anew changes how both men and women view their families, the excitement of ardent attention proving hard to resist.

Marriage is presented in several stories as a restrictive burden, love as a feeling that is unlikely to last. In About Love parents try to trick a young suitor into accepting their daughter as his wife. In Grief a long married husband is fighting his way through a blizzard to get his wife to a doctor, driven by guilt and duty more than compassion. The beating of wives is commonplace. The casual cruelty meted out to animals upsetting to read.

The Bet is about man’s greed and egotism. During a drink fuelled debate, a wealthy banker challenges a young lawyer to endure fifteen years of solitary confinement in exchange for a hefty reward. Both men learn difficult truths about themselves as this time progresses. Their knowledge is unlikely to be put to use.

The final story, The Kiss, tells of an unassuming army officer who has no experience with women, and the effect on him of an accidental kiss. His outlook changes despite circumstances remaining the same. Hope is shown to be a powerful force.

The writing throughout is precise, almost simplistic, yet the insights offered have abiding depth. Few of the characters are wholly likeable yet they arouse a degree of empathy. These are snapshots of flawed humanity viewed through a studied, concise lens. They were a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Selected Stories

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

Selected Stories is a collection of twelve short stories written in spare, understated prose that resonates with poignancy and perception. Many are set in or link back to the same small corner of Gaeilge speaking north-west Ireland. Time frames differ but the characters harbour familiar hopes, joys and despairs. These are tales of small yet complex lives as lived inside individual’s heads where experiences are curated to fit personal ideals. Resulting disappointments or absurdities are sympathetically rendered. There are few surprises as the plots develop but portrayals are replete with insight.

The collection opens with ‘Blood and Water’ which explores a family’s treatment of an aunt, regarded as odd yet fortunate to have been born in a time and place that accepted atypical behaviour without need for scientific labels or state sanctioned treatment. There are kindnesses and cruelties dealt. Neglect is passive if selfish, discomfortingly familiar.
Family and how members regard each other’s behaviours is a recurring theme. Duty visits assuage guilt more than helping the afflicted. Those who leave are expected to desire a return, their reasoning regarded as insignificant. The difficulty of understanding other’s feelings shines through.

In ‘The Pale Gold of Alaska’ two sisters travel to America to take up positions as housemaids. The younger decides en route that she will marry instead. Particular challenges of tying one’s life to another are deftly depicted. The sisters believe they have each made the better choice and must thereafter continue to convince themselves.

‘The Day Elvis Presley Died’ explores a relationship between an Irish and an American student on holiday with his parents. The first shine of lust has worn away revealing still unacknowledged differences.

“She heard him, and understood what he was saying. But she went on imagining another story for herself”

‘The Banana Boat’ is also set during a holiday and explores the precariousness of life and randomness of death. It is told from the point of view of a mother trying to involve her teenage boys in family activities, which could too easily go awry.

The latter stories in the collection revolve around writers and their literary world. They explore the value of the craft, the possibility of originality, and how quality can or should be measured.

‘Literary Lunch’ offers an acerbic look at those who select the recipients of grants and prizes. There is sycophancy and favouritism alongside the desire for recognition. Those continually passed over become increasingly venomous. The consequences of revenge are ironically dealt with in the following tale.

‘The Coast of Wales’ provides a fine conclusion, dealing as it does with the impact of a death. Despite the morbid setting and subject matter it is an uplifting read.

Any Cop?: These stories are richly satisfying with a voice that is distinctly Irish yet universally relevant. It is fluent, effective storytelling.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Attrib.

Attrib. (and other stories), by Eley Williams, is a collection of seventeen short stories exploring the difficulties inherent in human communication. The author wields her prose with sensory precision. Her words and the silences between convey both the beauty and the grotesque nature of relationships. They reveal the distance between internal thought processes and their articulation.

Each tale captures a moment and the attendant waterfall of words cascading inside a protagonist’s head. These include simple observations, tangential dreams and unspoken aspirations. The difficulty of conveying even a fraction of understanding demonstrates the limitations of dialogue. A hand held, a kiss or a silence can say more than many words.

The collection opens with The Alphabet in which the narrator is slowly losing their vocabulary due to aphasia. As time passes their abilities deteriorate despite concerted efforts to slow degeneration. The telling is both poignant and piercing.

Swatch presents two young boys sitting in a cramped cupboard during a game of hide and seek. Peter considers objects through a lens coloured by the paints his father utilises. Stuart’s interests as they wait to be found are more prosaic.

I enjoyed Smote for the anguish of the narrator over whether or not to attempt a simple action, the consequences of which they chew on fiercely before having the decision taken from them. I will not pretend to understand all references made, as was the case with several stories, but the undercurrents still resonated.

Birdsong makes a recurring appearance, as does the complexity of lovers’ relationships and their misunderstandings. In And Back Again the protagonist ponders the possibility of proving their devotion by acting out the lyrics of a song despite being told clearly by the object of their affections how ridiculous they would consider such a gesture. The question hovers, who any romantic deed benefits the most.

Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef had me Googling to see if this grotesque practice had any basis in reality. I was distressed to find it did. Also distressing, for similar reasons, was Spines. Although an excellent study of the compromises made in order to maintain relationships the unnecessary and casual cruelty to small creatures had me in tears.

Platform considers a stranger inadvertently captured in a photograph during a moment missed by the narrator at the time due to their own concerns. It is a reminder that the whole world turns wherever we are with our own lives.

These stories offer much to contemplate alongside the original plot arcs and feats of expression. The moments of quiet brutality left me raw with their honesty, but this was a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.