Midfield Dynamo, by Adrian Duncan, Lilliput Press, 128 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1843518082
In “Design No. 108”, the opening story in Adrian Duncan’s exhilarating collection Midfield Dynamo, the author sets out as he means to go on. “When we were very young,” says the story’s narrator, “my brother and I used to stand in front of the window of our living room and peer out at the world.” The window is in the wall of an Irish bungalow: in fact, this is bungalow design No. 108, “The Hazels”; and, we are at once told, the window in question is wrong, it’s too big, it’s “massive”.
So far, so conventional – and so very specific: this is a terrain and a set of precise images instantly familiar, at least to any Irish reader; we all know about Ireland’s bungalows and their varying associations to do with bliss and blitz. This is home ground – and it is disconcerting, then, to have this sense of complacent familiarity so immediately upended. The massive window blasts inward, its jagged shards wounding and disabling; and soon, the story begins again, with another time line, and another, and another. Each of these narrative threads reveals a dangerous internal world, before moving into outside spaces that are no less fraught. Each thread is absorbed by questions both of materiality – glass, floor joists, nails, and ill-wrought cavity blocks, the stuff of buildings against which and within which our lives are lived – and of provisionality, for buildings have life spans just as we do. The story captures a world of sensation, of fluidity and motion, of tactility and of morphing form.
We are accustomed to thinking of the built environment in static terms, even as it is repeatedly torn down and rebuilt around us; and conditioned to put up with construction, thinking of the gleaming finishes to come. In Duncan’s fiction, however, the construction process is the point: form is endlessly plastic, to be stretched, unfolded and played with, as a necessary part of the life cycle. And, while buildings are designed and constructed according to strict theory and precise mathematical formulae – get these wrong, and the building will fail – they are also impregnated from their beginnings with life and experience. Not sentient yet alive; not living yet breathing; not warm-blooded yet warm, providing a space and environment in which lives can be lived out.
An intense awareness of the possibilities inherent in the environment around us, both built and otherwise, serve to animate the stories in this collection. Their tone appears deliberately ascetic, with what we might recognise as threads of lyricism required to work for their place. This idea appears at its most explicit in “Prosinečki”, which opens as an ageing footballer sits in the stadium changing rooms at half-time: he hopes for some play towards the end of the second half; and in the meantime the physio has injected painkillers into “my now gently bloating knee”.
An epiphany comes – though too late in his career – when he realises that his role model, the Croatian midfielder Prosinečki, never handled the ball, according to some fine notion of brio or flair or lyrical beauty. Rather, “his decisions were always at the service of what was necessary as he faced the manifold problems emerging before him on the pitch”. This, the unnamed narrator realises, was the “moral decision on the ball”.
It is surely unusual to have a writer declare a personal credo in such terms – and the message of the story is underlined powerfully, when a lyric impulse does indeed earn its place as a goal is – surely it is – set up: a spring is released, and “The ball slows into its languid arc, and as his body coils and his eyes wince shut, bringing him into the great pre-impact dark that every footballer knows, I gasp deeply, once more, at the impotent, incidental and unforgiveable beauty of it all.”
These stories seek and discover scenes of beauty – in the process permitting notes of lyricism to earn their place – in overlooked and distinctly unglamorous contexts, to deeply moving effect. In the title story, for example, connectedness is found in street lamps, in the life-enhancing cables of the Rural Electrification Scheme, in the literal dynamos of the Irish countryside – even if its energy is feared and rejected, as it is by the householder who gives away her light bulb which “has been making my house feel small at night, and I am afraid that the thatch will take flame from it too”. The result of such linguistic discipline is transfusive, providing as it does a sense of passion that offers powerful engagement beyond mere lyricism.
The connectedness of the characters that people these stories is all the more potent for being provisional and terrifyingly fragile: the suggestion is that as the world is plastic, so too is any possible contentment or happiness potentially a fleeting affair. And all the more reason, therefore, for this precious connectedness to be seized and engaged with in the moment.
This fundamental conviction also drives and explains the absurdist thread which runs through this collection. The Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms supplies the collection’s epigraph, and Duncan has spoken in several interviews of the influence of absurdist philosophy upon his own writing, in particular of the power of willed illogicality to enrich the experience of sadness, seriousness, joy, the quotidian. “Half Bird Half Bear”, which opens in the liminal space of a German bus station, is reminiscent of Ionesco in its portrayal of the spaces between and sometimes insurmountable obstacles to communication: “I did not reply. I could not grasp Wojciech’s sense of grievance, nor could I ignore it. It was not the first time that week I feel short of the pitch of his world. I looked at my watch. The bus would be along in five minutes.”
In “Two Towers in a Forest”, meticulous descriptions of the narrator’s house and its form (“constructed with red brick”) balance – or clash – with the forest in the Irish midlands in which he plans to build two towers to please his mother. The forest is dark, strange, tormented – this is a forest from German folktales, not a Longford forest – and one of the towers will be a fantastical ziggurat, but one measured and engineered to the last millimetre. ‘Design No. 108’, meanwhile, reads as a homage to Kharms himself, and shares that writer’s interest in images of sudden violence, falling and breaking, and in the workings of chance – and all captured in language that glances at the rhythms and mood of European fairy stories.
These stories scatter images of material detritus, and frame scenes of loneliness and isolation – and yet it is clear that the great theme of this collection is connectedness. It is an idea all the more powerfully suggested by being quite unleavened by sentiment or false optimism: in Midfield Dynamo, as in Duncan’s novels, the structures of life must not only be built but endlessly renewed and maintained – and this process, this world of construction, is the point of it all, and the reward.
Neil Hegarty’s latest novel is The Jewel (Head of Zeus).