Breakdown, by Cathy Sweeney, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 218 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1399617789
Modern Times, by Cathy Sweeney, The Stinging Fly Press, 148 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1906539832
‘A Story Of Our Time: Notes on Kafka’s The Judgement’, by Cathy Sweeney, The Stinging Fly, Issue 44, Volume 2: Summer 2021
‘“First Love” by Samuel Beckett’, by Cathy Sweeney, The Stinging Fly, Issue 34, Volume 2: Summer 2016
For well over a decade, Cathy Sweeney has been publishing short stories and the odd essay or review in magazines and journals such as The Stinging Fly, Banshee and The Dublin Review. Twenty-one stories were collected in Modern Times, which came out in 2020, and now we have her debut novel, Breakdown. Sweeney began writing stories in her thirties while working as a secondary school teacher. She wanted, she says: ‘to get out from underneath dominant narratives I felt trapped in almost like a fly in a web, which is why a lot of my stories are quite astray in terms of the way I think and write’. Writing as escape and survival, an undoing, a narrative flight from narrative. No doubt shreds of web cling to the fly that gets loose.
‘White’ is, Sweeney says, the first story she finished and thought, ‘this is a story’. It is the final story in Modern Times and serves as both urtext and summation for the book’s preoccupying themes, tropes and stylistic tendencies, many of which carry through, in expanded form, and with many alterations and additions, to Breakdown. Marriage as trap and some sort of comfort; nurtured consumerism and the dead conventionality of contemporary middle class life; what Sweeney has in interview termed the ‘untameable nature of desire’. An inwardly torn narrator or protagonist (I, You, He, She; in “White” I); a disruptive encounter, interval, rupture, or event; an obsessive urge; everything left at the end as it began, or worse, or so slightly better it’s hard to tell. (Breakdown is here, for me, the exception.) Stark, precise, inexplicit imagery; thrilling word-choices; brief lyrical flourishes; time passing in rushing summaries and concatenated sprints; and humour – linguistically mischievous, dark, damningly satirical, subtle, absurd. For all they share, though, the stories do not tend to get muddled in memory. Each narrative voice is distinct.
Sweeney has spoken of her wish in a story ‘to get straight to it’, to write in ‘voices not afraid of brutality, and ones that can strip back all life’s falseness’. This gets close to, but does not quite, oppose falseness with brutality. The brutal truth. Her main characters – female or male – are most often quietly raging, frustrated beings in grating marriages, bound to home and spouse, and sometimes children, by familiarity, habit, drained energy, the hassle of breaking free, and the easing distractions of shopping, home improvement, TV, affairs real or fantasised and the palliative effects of food and alcohol, especially cheese and wine.
From the opening sentence of ‘White’, we know something is off: ‘July was hot and I was sickened by upturned flies on the window sill.’ What was alive is now dead, carcasses lying around the house, a mess. The narrator – we later discover her name is Stella, or so her husband calls her – is listless and irate. Her absentmindedness and inability to finish tasks give her husband an in for petty point-scoring: ‘Peter thought I was hilarious. He knows I am cleverer than him, so he loves it when I burn things or lose the car keys.’ (In another story, ‘The Chair’, marital tit-for-tat is evoked through the metaphor of a chair each spouse uses at regular intervals to administer shocks to the other. ‘I have heard of couples abandoning the chair completely. It’s all the rage in some circles. Live and let live, I say, but I cannot imagine a marriage working without the chair. I mean, where would the anger go? How would you both remember, week to week, day to day, what love is?’ The humour is not dry; it’s parched.)
Stella seeks salve in an urge to paint the bedroom white, so she and Peter go to the hardware store (‘a vast candy centre’) for supplies. ‘Peter ran around throwing things into a trolley, smoke alarms and rawlplugs.’ Her husband is energised, out of control. But, consider the detail in that naming of items: smoke alarms should warn of danger, save lives, tell you when to flee; rawlplugs fill an absence, a hollow. Sweeney may be at times brutal, but these stories thump with feeling. Seeking assistance, Stella tugs the trouser-leg of a man on a ladder. This turns out to be Johnny Ryan – ‘I’d given him a blow job once behind the sports hall.’ – and Stella is disturbed, but buys Brilliant White, and she and Peter leave. Paint and painting are described in sensuous detail and the act seems to invigorate Stella’s appetites. Then painting becomes a kind of obliterating conceptual artwork. (In the story ‘Oranges’, a man left alone while his wife and baby are away fills every vacant space in his home with oranges, leaving only the fruit bowl, where a single orange left by his wife rots. Inner states prompt outward acts, acts not assuredly symbolic, but suggestively volatile, a deliberate splurge of meaning.)
Marriage makes one secretive. Stella takes up smoking again but does not tell Peter. (I would say that the secret resumption of smoking in a Sweeney story is a sure sign that a marriage is in trouble, but no marriage in a Sweeney story is not in trouble. And divorce is no better. Even the woman in ‘A Love Story’, ‘who loved her husband’s cock so much she began taking it to work in her lunchbox’ winds up divorced, and said husband, remarried to a ‘young and modern’ woman, experiences ‘intense but fleeting nostalgia for the good old days’.) Stella does a lot of pretending, lying, not saying. (In ‘The Story’, the narrator finds a story hidden behind the boiler in their new house and does not tell his wife: ‘the deeper a man gets into marriage the more he learns to keep something for himself’.) Stella is in deep. She keeps much for, or to, herself. And her self is disintegrated, split between act and experience, body and mind: ‘When Peter came back we would make love. He was gentle, never anything sleazy, and with his face glued to my neck, I admired the white walls and played song lyrics back in my head.’ Phrases unclench and release. The ironic taunt of ‘make love’, the horrific pathos of ‘glued’, the white walls reflecting an inner blankness, the lyrics likely from the Kris Kristofferson CD that accompanied her painting – ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ comes to mind. Then there is ‘head’. What else has been in that head? To whom has that head been given? The next line begins: ‘Johnny Ryan was ahead.’ Later Stella will orgasm in bed with Peter as she thinks of Johnny Ryan ‘pushing the back of my head hard onto his cock’.
Some sort of coherence is found only in the respite of solitude: ‘I loved the mornings when Peter was gone.’ Smoking, Stella feels a connection with the cosmos. Moments of lyrical intensity arise almost always when the narrator is alone. Stella: ‘Sometimes I read, but words seemed to sieve through pauses like light drops, spooling to heaven, never sagging.’ But such moments are scarce in the blur of days. Sweeney evokes the numbed passing of time and the soporific repetitions of unquestioned consumerism with a swift clarity that shocks and dismays: ‘Days rolled by like leaves and Peter kept talking about holidays.’ The career to death is obscured in bland plans for another sort of vacation. In ‘Blue’, the narrator’s ‘You’ is a woman addressing herself: ‘You go to work and come home from work and watch TV and sleep and take the kids to football or dancing or piano lessons and clean the house and drink more than you should and shop online and have sex with your husband and continue seeing the man from work.’ So much life goes by in a sentence. Each serried item is equal, affect steam-rolled by hectic compulsion. The keenest pitch is hit in ‘The Death of Actaeon’, after Chapter Four’s paragraph of rote tasks and narcotic respite: ‘Chapter Five: Five years pass.’ Likewise Chapters Nine and Eleven.
It is not easy to step off the swirling go-round. ‘I thought of leaving Peter,’ Stella tells us about half-way through ‘White’, ‘but by the time I got to unbundling health insurance and who got the cat, I was bored’. There is a moment a few lines on, a sort of abandoned climax, but things do not come to a head. ‘I thought of telling Peter, “If I break now, I will be lost forever.” But some things are never worth saying.’ Stella is not lost – or in a sense not, and she stays, transgressing first the boundaries of polite conversation with her in-laws, and then the boundary of marital fidelity (not with her in-laws). Stella attempts to re-enact the teenage blow job with Johnny Ryan but the brutal, presumptuous Ryan takes control: ‘In school, Johnny was in the dud class. Girls like me used to score those guys for fun. Tomorrow I would get a pill and flush him out.’ This apparent infidelity, and subjection to unwanted intercourse, depicted with an elliptical clarity, ensures a sort of fidelity to marriage, family and home. Or, at least, Stella intends to stay. She considers taking a year off work to have the baby she knows Peter wants: ‘I needed something to weigh me down.’
There are fantastical occurrences in some of the stories. Sweeney plays with history and myth, fable and fairy tale. Rain and hay and ‘moths – not two but twenty, the ones you think are butterflies until someone says otherwise’ come from the mouth of the woman in ‘The Woman With Too Many Mouths’. Cause or origin are omitted. The seemingly inexplicable is unexplained. In ‘The Woman Whose Child Was A Very Old Man’ a single mother keeps her son in a freezer in place of the daycare she cannot afford. When she’s at home she takes him out to thaw and he develops at an accelerated rate. This allows her to live and work, first in a shop and later as a successful writer of short stories and then novels. Writing, she forgets her child for longer and longer periods. Finally remembering, she returns and retrieves him from the freezer. He is relatively unharmed, though he has aged inordinately, and becomes a feature – alongside an Olivetti typewriter – of her brand image. The story ends in a park with her ‘tucking in his blanket against the breeze, wiping spittle from his mouth or crouching down close to his old wrinkled head to point out a butterfly, or how the light spangled gold and white in the branches of overhead trees’. Which, with its tender companionship and shared attention to the world’s beauty, is as happy an ending as you’re going to get in Modern Times. And even then the passage is redolent with reminders of ageing and life’s brevity. If ‘The Woman Whose Child Was A Very Old Man’ is what another Sweeney narrator calls ‘the once upon a time kind’, then, like ‘White’, Breakdown is its stated opposite, a story ‘about real people and real life’.
In ‘White’, after her encounter with Johnny Ryan, Stella feels ‘a desire to keep moving’, a desire she does not heed. But it is to just that desire that the narrator of Breakdown, a married mother of two adult children, commits. And again unlike Stella, this woman breaks, and is lost. To find herself elsewhere.
In her essay on Kafka’s story ‘The Judgement’, Sweeney quotes the translators of a book by Tristan Garcia: ‘a seemingly insignificant instant … can suddenly leap out and give us a feeling of epiphany like a shock of electricity. This shock once again exposes us to the intensity of real life and pulls us out of the mire of routine which we have sunk into without even realising it.’ The narrator in Breakdown gets such a shock one evening when her husband, Tom, ‘who runs his own media company’ returns home boasting of having ‘sealed the deal’. She cannot celebrate with him, feigns illness and escapes to bed with her glass of wine. The following morning ‘something snaps’ and instead of dropping her son to school and going to work, she sets off on a roadtrip – proceeding at each stage on impulse – that will take her from suburban Dublin, via Arklow and Rosslare to a rented cottage in rural Wales. She tells us in the opening pages: ‘I have no idea that I will never come back.’
Breakdown begins with a collective injunction: ‘Mothers are not supposed to go on roadtrips.’ It is told in chapters titled by generic location: House, Motorway, Shopping Centre, Town, etc, that follow the progress of the narrator’s journey; alternating with interchapters of memory and reflection. Both, it becomes clear, are told by our narrator from her Welsh retreat. This is the opposite of immersive. We get not what the woman felt or thought at the time, but how she feels and remembers and remakes herself (and other people, places and things) in the act of telling. As Sweeney writes of Beckett’s ‘First Love’, ‘The reader is not expected to simply suspend disbelief and walk straight in to a world the writer has created.’ We must – we cannot but – keep our remove. ‘Memory,’ the narrator tells us, ‘is the great filmmaker, gathering up fragments and making them into images. When I think back to that morning now, I see myself in a silent landscape as though on old cine footage being projected onto a screen.’ Nothing in the novel is unmediated. The narrator sees herself again and again in screens, mirrors, windows, or imagined in the eyes of others. She engages in a prolonged, painful self-scrutiny, a strenuous examination of self and society. We witness her gradual metamorphosis – physical, emotional, and moral. It is an account of a life (so far) in retrospect, of a transformation both momentous and modest, a conversion narrative, a coming to terms, and a breaking out as much as down. It is the story of a refusal to go on as before, a refusal to comply, to be complicit, to be caught up in ‘the black whirring of the TO DO list’, a refusal to get things or get things done. A refusal to pursue an impossible perfection. No more will she suffer the anxiety and despair that pursuit engenders, or perpetuate the harm its pursuit by adults does to their children, and the world. She admits pain, felt and inflicted, and to be endured. This narrator is having no more of ‘Humans Remaking the World as Paradise’. Everything, she comes to believe, ‘is breaking down’ and ‘has always been breaking down’.
With the imbricated to-and-fro of the narrative the narrator refuses to keep within what the she calls ‘the neat lines of the middle classes’. There is, she says, ‘no line at all, just moments’. The language is often simple and direct, the telling anything but. As she rewatches herself move through those moments, things, people and places trigger more memories, which in turn lead to reflections on memories, analyses and auto-critique, to further associative excursions. Finding her daughter’s name in a rack of Room Signs in a service station make her reflect on her role as mother: ‘I knew I would have bought it for her as a child. That for me, being a mother consisted of buying things for her. A lifetime of polyethylene before they were three.’ It is a moment of self-accusation. She has, she says, started to dislike her daughter, ‘or dislike her type: young women who live at home in converted attics with en-suite bathrooms, who have credit cards and Instagram accounts, boyfriends and girlfriends, veganism and feminism and the power to decide who is a creep and who isn’t, who is a bitch and who isn’t. Young women who fly on airplanes but go crazy if someone forgets to recycle a yogurt tub, who blame everything on their parents’ generation and cry if they see a dead fox on the road.’ She has brought up her daughter to have and be everything she now turns her back on: entitled suburban comfort, consumer spending, calculated self-presentation, advertised commitment to abstractions, unchecked hypocrisy, reflex sentimentality and a pitiless moral arrogance. She remembers being pregnant with her daughter, ‘the feeling I had of being connected to my body … to all bodies, to trees, to birds in the sky, to the Earth turning on its axis’. But the consumerist imperative did for that: ‘even before Lauren was born, the feeling faded, the PURCHASING began’. And all that purchasing has led to a glut of stuff. There are long lists of baby paraphernalia, things accumulated, scatters of litter, detritus, her own discarded clothes. In her bag there is ‘too much stuff … to find anything’. This is not just a matter of objects in the world: ‘For years, things had mounted up: in drawers, racks, presses, the utility room, the shed, in the hot press, in the glove compartment of the car, under beds, at the back of closets, the bottom of old make-up bags and in recycling bins, in the back of my mind, in the arteries of my heart.’ Breakdown is the story of a woman’s quest to get out from under not just a dominant narrative but all that attendant stuff and to seek something akin to the connection she has lost, or forsaken. And for that, she must ignore all pleas for her return.
Along the way she reflects too on her son and husband, her mother, the life and early death of her father. Messages from her brother take her back to their childhood in Arklow, and to their mother’s old age and death. A bag reminds her of her best friend, Elaine, their friendship and drift apart. She learns to feel again through and with and as her body, to see the world afresh, honing in on minute particulars, or reimaging landscapes as painting (an old habit rediscovered), seeing her own reflection as an extra in a French film, then as a Picasso, describing texture, and taste, musty smells and chirring birds, and colour. Colour in particular with exquisite precision.
Sweeney’s form is supple and expansive, allowing her to add to her narrative assemblage short historical summaries and essayistic commentary on a range of topics from motorways and the death of industry to sex and shame and the ongoing self-censorship of a gloating society with ‘a shiny new story to tell’. An unquestioning belief in stories is an abdication of responsibility. As Sweeney’s essay on Beckett goes on, this ‘is political as well as personal’. One way of accepting a story is playing the role it expects of you, complying with its laws of failure and success, admonishing yourself in its terms: ‘Perhaps because it was also true that a lot of the time I performed the role of Good Mother, not just for my children, but for society. I was afraid, not of failing, but of being seen to fail. The worst thing possible for a woman is to be considered a BAD mother.’ Not going against cost dearly: ‘And for this fear I sacrificed a real connection with my children.’
No more; ‘no more lies’. She craves, she insists on, real feeling. No more silencing of emotion. No more SANITISE THE LANGUAGE or NEVER SPEAK OF IT AGAIN. Any expression of vulnerability, pain or desire is preferable to etiquette and the moral high ground: ‘If, instead of chastising me, Tom had hit me or even broken down, crying like a boy, then I’d have gone back with him to the house in the suburbs. No question.’ But he had come ‘not to rescue but berate’. He had not come with love. This realisation precipitates a few days of ‘shocked survival’ and then discreet baptism and rebirth: ‘I got up, had a shower, walked into the village and took the bus to town, where I went to a café and had the best carrot cake I ever tasted.’ But making the break is not easy. Freedom is not bliss. Some days the narrator enjoys ‘easy rhythmic thoughts’, others her mood plummets. She tends her (rented) garden, keeps hens, has a mongrel dog, and grows close to a woman called Lena. While she accepts a loneliness ‘that will always be there’, as the novel eases determinedly to a close, she feels ‘the delight that comes when the senses are fully open to beauty and wonder, to the aliveness of the world’. We are far from the squirming urgency that made her flee, her initial rage recollected in tranquillity. In the final lines, she angles a rebuking mirror at certain canonical nineteenth century stories of women doomed (by their male creators) for their transgression. Their fate will not be hers, she assures us: ‘And the door shuts at the beginning, not the end.’
David O’Connor is a reviewer and writer living in Dublin.