People in My Brain, by Pat O’Connor, Limerick Writers’ Centre, 133 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1916065345
About ten years ago, I was invited to lead the annual August Kavanagh Weekend in Inniskeen, Co Monaghan. There were fourteen people in the workshop and to my surprise only three of them brought poems. The rest wrote memoir pieces or a chapter of a novel or a short story. Pat O’Connor’s story stood out and I found it compelling. It made an immediate connection with the reader from the first sentence. According to Sean O’Faoláin, that is the first job of a short story writer. To make “an immediate and intimate connection” with the person who sits down to read a story. A couple of years later in 2011, O Connor’s story “The Haggard” won the Seán O’Faoláin International Short Story Prize run my Munster Literature Centre.
What is interesting to me about O’Connor’s book People in My Brain is that many of the stories begin in a familiar place. In “Advice and Sandwiches”, a young woman leaves her office at lunchtime, passed over yet again for promotion, despite her work rate and her conscientiousness. In addition, her boyfriend is about to leave her for somebody more “exciting.” On the street near her workplace, she comes across a line of people queuing for “advice and sandwiches”. In the most unlikely situation she gains an experience that changes her.
Change, Anne Enright reminds us, is primarily what the short story is about. “Something is known at the end of a short story – or nearly known — that was not known before.” (Introduction, The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story). What I admire about the stories in People in My Brain is that many of the openings leap off the page, though the title suggests that these “people” are more imagined than real. According to the great Mary Lavin, the short story writer must know the characters from the beginning. A novelist has time to develop and get to know his characters, to find out who they are and how they will act. A short story is “an arrow in flight.” (“An Arrow in Flight: The Pleasures of Mary Lavin”, Paris Review, June 12th, 2012). Many of Pat O’Connor’s stories are set in an apparently familiar world, and move to somewhere unfamiliar, extraordinary, or dystopic.
In “Keeper Hill” Timmy Ryan wonders if he will watch Limerick in the Munster football final in his local pub, while his wife and daughter go to Dublin to shop at the Dundrum Centre.
“Why don’t you go for the walk and listen to it on your phone?” Emily had said. She laughed, took his phone and programmed in the radio-station. Showed him how to use it.
Will Limerick win the match? Will he get to hear it as he climbs Keeper Hill? As he climbs, we are reminded that “it was the third summer in a row that rainfall had broken all records”. The friends who normally walk with Timmy, Ger, a geographer, and Laz, an economist, who teach at the University of Limerick, argue on an ongoing basis about the planet’s rise in population. By the end of the story, Timmy’s world, and our world, is altered forever – and not by the outcome of a football match.
I mentioned Emily just now. She is of the new generation. As is the character in “The Fly”:
My job is supply chain management, and since broadband became instantaneous my work clothes are T-shirt and pyjama bottoms. Yesterday, I had my lunch sent from England, ordered a footstool from China, and received a potted plant from Borneo. I think we should stop evolution right here because we are at the apex.
The title of the story gives a clue as to what arrives with the new plant … and the arrival of the fly ‑ which is no ordinary fly – strikes an ironic and mischievous tone given the opening lines. In many of these stories, Pat O Connor takes the pulse of the times we are in. The young couple in “Tulips” have two or three jobs each – they struggle to make a living and the struggle is a strain on their relationship. Many of the characters feel a sense of displacement. Or they fall asleep in one world and wake up in another. In “Chinese Sunglasses”, Monica from Ireland, a twenty-four-year-old on a visit to Tianjin, a suburb of Beijing, goes shopping in the Antique Market and finds a pair of sunglasses with a difference. The sunglasses have earphones attached, and Monica finds that she has a partner in communication who guides her through the market as she goes in search of a silk jacket. It is a journey not to be missed. The story is a naturalistic allegory that dramatises an encounter with big brother, Chinese style. The surveillance that technology brings is both eerie and convincing.
In an interview with the Observer in 2005, John McGahern commented that Ireland had changed more in the previous thirty years than it had in centuries before that. And the pace of change, since then, makes it hard to gain a perspective. Writing about the American short story, Joyce Carol Oates described the form as a quest, cultural, spiritual, racial: “a theoretical experiment in newness, exploration, discovery”. (Introduction, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories). In a way that is distinctly American, past structures such as land, religion, and history no longer defined the arrivals in the new world. O Connor’s stories are part-observation, part-experiment, and focus on the uncharted present. Have we in Ireland landed in the New World? These stories imagine, “What if?” The characters in “Boxes” look out the window as food is dropped in white boxes, and wonder where it comes from. We could be in the Sudan or Ethiopia but we are not. The boxes are a metaphor for the way our relationship to food has changed. “Binman” is a naturalistic allegory dramatising a man’s experience of fertility and birth.
Many of these stories involve a search – to explore and confront the changes that we face at an ecological and environmental level. They ask how do the changes in environment affect the organisms on the planet, especially us humans. These changes are wrought by developments in technology, by economic expansion and have changed in our lifetime the way we live. Frank O Connor has said that the short story is born from the fragmentation of old certainties and the absence of any new ones, and this produces in the writer a lyric response, “a retreat into the self in the face of an increasingly complex reality”. (Introduction, The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story). These stories are at times puzzling, humorous, entertaining, grotesque, and moving, bringing a perspective on what our lives are like now and how they may be in the future.
Catherine Phil MacCarthy’s collections include The Invisible Threshold (2012), Suntrap (2007), The Blue Globe (1998), This Hour of the Tide (1994), and One Room an Everywhere, a Novel, (2003). She is a former editor of Poetry Ireland Review (1998/99). She won the Fish International Poetry Prize in 2010, and received The Lawrence O Shaughnessy Award for Irish Poetry in 2014.