I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Blue Notes

Catherine Kelly
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…

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