Modern Times, by Cathy Sweeney, Stinging Fly Press, ISBN: 978-1906539832
In 1911, the writer and political activist Emma Goldman took to the pages of her anarchist magazine Mother Earth to denounce marriage as an institution. “That marriage is a failure,” she wrote, “none but the very stupid will deny.” I thought of this line as I read “The Chair”, a story that appears towards the end of Cathy Sweeney’s first collection. In this very brief narrative, a married couple takes turns administering electric shocks to each other. “The Chair” has something of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” to it: violence made banal through repetition – torture as tradition. The wife observes that some couples have abandoned the ritual of electric shocks but she is sceptical: “I cannot imagine a marriage working without the chair. I mean, where would the anger go?” This character would probably disagree with Goldman. Maybe she is one of the “very stupid” whom Goldman dismisses, or maybe she is comfortable with functional failure. She and her husband muddle through, always at a strangely high cost. In ‘Love Story’, which opens the collection, a marriage built on another gruesome act disintegrates, but after the divorce the husband finds himself daydreaming about his former wife and the odd, disfiguring ritual that connected them.
Like many of the stories in Modern Times, “Love Story” and “The Chair” are quick – one and a half, and three pages respectively – and acidic. Sweeney’s tone tends towards distance. In “The Show Trial” a glimpse at a dystopian courtroom, she holds the narrative at arm’s length. Specific details are fuzzy or omitted, like a dream in which no one’s face will come into focus.
Sweeney’s work has drawn comparisons to Kafka, as strange short stories tend to do. A more recent point of comparison might be the Japanese writer Yoko Tawada, who also deals in nameless people and untethered strangeness. Within Sweeney’s narratives, images of decay recur like a series of nightmares. A cheerleader’s physical disintegration goes unnoticed. A man buys an endless supply of oranges for his wife and watches them slowly rot “because they are all touching against each other” in the darkness and heat of the fruit bowl. In “The Palace”, the home of a ruling king and his family becomes diseased and slowly falls apart. The narrator observes that “my wife dates our own trouble from that time”. Their “trouble” seems to be what some divorce courts would call ‘irreconcilable differences’. Asked by a therapist to write down what they need to be happy, the narrator’s wife writes “meaning”; the narrator writes “money”. They go on living together; large sections of the palace collapse. The rot goes unacknowledged and untreated.
Goldman might have argued that she was trying to look that rot in the eye, to dismantle the palace rather than ignore its disease. She claimed that loneliness is an escapable part of married life, in which married people find themselves living like strangers. “Can there be any thing more humiliating,” she asks, “more degrading, than a life long proximity between two strangers?” Loneliness is at the heart of Modern Times. In the story that follows “The Chair”, the inhabitants of an unnamed place begin to turn blue. An unnamed character notices that as her husband turns blue he develops a smell “in which all the pheromones have been used up”. Their life together is drained of desire. They divorce, the blue continues to spread through skin and furniture to the walls of her home. Like the decay in the palace walls, nothing seems able to prevent the colour’s expansion, not the divorce, not exercise, not mindfulness. The only options are denial or acceptance. The protagonist of “Blue” chooses to “accept that you are blue and embrace your blueness”. The precise meaning or consequences of that decision remain unclear.
If I sound like I’m describing an unbearably dour collection, this isn’t quite true. The bleakness of some of her characters’ lives – their namelessness, their aloneness – is offset by stories that are threaded with the surrealist logic of a fairytale or a dream. They suggest that there is something else going on beneath the surface, that life holds other possibilities beyond the repetitive patterns of romantic relationships. There are moments at which a character comes close to the kind of meaningful life that evades the wife in “The Palace”. In “Flowers in Water”, a film maker spends three months caring for his young daughter. The years that follow are difficult and dull but when he remembers those months, “something in him will, for a moment, come to life again”. Another character, in a story titled “Alexander the Great”, holds a different memory in her mind and briefly experiences “an intense but short lived desire to begin my life again”.
But the possibility of something beyond the ordinary in not always benign. In the opening paragraph of “The Love Child”, Sweeney writes:
This is the story of a woman who wasted a great deal of time (a) expecting her married lover to leave his wife and (b) expecting her single lover to propose to her. Of course, in the end something entirely different happened.
Because we are reading Cathy Sweeney, “something entirely different” is to be expected. At this point in the collection, it is also to be expected that the thing that arrives is a cocktail of violence, disappointment and genuine emotional connection. Her characters are sometimes bored to death but the stories they inhabit are never boring. Sweeney’s writing offers neither solutions nor relief. Instead, her stories are like splinters, getting under your fingernails and leaving little bloody marks.
Catherine Kelly studied English at Oxford and KCL. She lives in London