Joyride to Jupiter, by Nuala O’Connor, New Island, 176 pp, €10.95, ISBN: 978-1848406155
Nuala O’Connor has already established a significant reputation as a novelist and as a poet. In taking up the challenge of another form, she has proven her skills yet again as a versatile writer. Each of the nineteen stories in this collection has been previously published in anthologies and in internationally reputable journals such as Granta, The Stinging Fly, Numéro Cinq, The Lonely Crowd, Guernica, The Irish Times and The Chattahoochee Review. Validation indeed.
Obviously, in a short story, there is an intensity of focus. O’Connor manages to convey both world and character through succinct evocation of the senses: “Mushroomy, caramel-tinged tea” (“Joyride to Jupiter”); “I turn the shell-lip to my mouth, slide the oyster in and massage it briefly with my teeth” (“Consolata”); “standing on his puddled clothes, all chest-fuzz and stomach and genitals” (“Fish”). O’Connor’s prose is darkly wry, with minimal lyric flourishes, much like Sara Baume’s or Danielle McLaughlin’s work. Her depictions of people are particularly observant, and her less appealing characters are described with great relish: “He had that fat-person aura: a curdled, damp warmth that spoke of unwashed folds” (“Futuretense®”).
In the eponymous opening story, we are initially endeared to the narrator for the love and compassion he shows for his wife, who is slipping into dementia: “What do you call it? Legs, you know. Woolly. It jumps.” But gradually we find ourselves immersed in a complex tangle of ethics in which our alliance with him becomes more and more uneasy.
Secrets, skeletons and the grey areas of morality are O’Connor’s specialty. Consolata describes a daughter’s return to the family home, to introduce her mother to her new boyfriend. The story unfolds with a bristling dialogue between mother and daughter (“‘I fired Patsy.’ ‘Ah, Mam, not again. How will you manage?’ ‘I’m alive amn’t I?’”) Later, a solitary walk through the family’s apple orchard, next to a convent, reminds the narrator of a sex act she witnessed as a child, resulting in an enforced silence. The setting is subtly conveyed: “I wandered, kicking at boggy windfalls to see their brown bruises split.” Even the smallest gestures offer a kind of symbolism.
In several stories, first-person narratives establish feisty, defiant female characters. “Napoli Abú” begins: “Fuck knows how I ended up agreeing to go to Naples with a spinster.” Of course, the “spinster” has some dark secrets of her own that make her an altogether more interesting prospect for the narrator (and for the reader) than simply a “partner in the pathetic” state of singlehood. The second story, “Penny and Leo and Married Bliss”, is an alternate evocation of Molly’s monologue in Joyce’s Ulysses, and begins: “Yeah, if you don’t mind, he wants breakfast in bed.” The pleasure of O’Connor’s version is in the contemporary nuances: “‘Yeah,” she tells us, ‘the other day Leo was on Facebook, on the tablet; I leaned over to see whose timeline he was gawking at and he tilted the thing away from me, the bugger.’”
The stories are pin-pricked with O’Connor’s trademark acerbic humour and random, unexpected asides: “I heard a chap on the radio … who cooked his own hip and ate it. He said it tasted of goat.” (“Napoli Abú”). The stories are mostly set in Ireland, with an occasional foray into different terrains, but always with an Irish element. “Shut Your Mouth, Hélène” takes us to the New World, where a French couple and an Irish family team up on a trek along the Connecticut and Merrimac rivers, with dark consequences. Another story is set in some unspecified future where potential parents net flying babies like butterflies (“Yellow”). But whatever the time frame, each story – in fact, each paragraph – is constructed with scrupulous care and adroit manipulation of the process of revelation.
O’Connor also captures the poignancy of ageing with delicacy. In “Squidinky”, an older man strips for a lonely widowed tattooist he is subtly trying to court: “He stands and looks in the mirror, pushes his shoulders back to right the sag of his skin.” In an earlier moment, it was the tattooist who was hovering in front of the mirror to examine “my shirred jowls and the yellow tinge to the waterlines of my eyes. ‘Not too bad,’ I announce, because if I say it enough it might be so.”
Descriptions of setting, and weather in particular, often chime with metaphorical resonance: “The sea sways and shimmers under the awakened glow of a March sun” (from the above-referenced story); “the empty cart rattled and grumbled under the rage of the sea storm that did not want to let go of the land” (“Men of Destiny”).
In “The Donor”, the narrator is a man who uses his wiles to gain access to a son born via his donated sperm. As with “Joyride to Jupiter”, the reader squirms uncomfortably with the ethics of the situation, understanding his desperation to meet his son, and also recoiling from the abuse of trust. Needless to say, things don’t end well.
While there are recurring underlying themes, the intrigue of these stories is in their diversity of subject matter: a lesbian couple with “wasted wombs” become attached to a young Greek boy in “The Boy from Petrópolis”; in “Room 313”, a female guest initiates an intimate moment with an immigrant chamber maid, who takes advantage of the situation in her own way. In “Futuretense®”, a copy-writer’s blurbs for various perfumes are influenced both by her recollections of her dead brother, for whom she selected his first aftershave, and the charms of a young bus driver.
There are several poignant flash fiction stories too, including “Girlgrief”, where a four year old girl who has lost her parents gradually lowers her resistance to her grandmother, and “Fish”, where a neighbour, looking out of her window, catches her fifty-three-year-old neighbour in the garden, “in the raw”. One of O’Connor’s many skills is in writing without a vestige of sentimentality, while still creating a lump-in-the-throat reaction.
Whether located in urban centres, in far-flung locations or in rural areas, these dramas evoke Irish reality and culture today. While they play out perennial themes – adoption, conception or pregnancy difficulties, conflicted mother-daughter relationships, paedophilia, infidelities, surprising alliances, suicide – the specifics of subject matter in each case give the stories contemporary relevance.
Part of the beauty of O’Connor’s writing is in the devastating simplicity of the telling. These stories will haunt you. Strap in.
Afric McGlinchey’s second poetry collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, which was nominated by her publisher for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, is available here: http://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=380&a=221