Charlie Chaplin’s Wishbone
By Aidan Mathews
(Lilliput Press, €17.99 stg h/b)
Once upon a time, and a very good time it was too, Aidan Mathews was the future of Irish fiction. Along with talents such as Neil Jordan and Ronan Sheehan, these writers whose work began appearing in the mid-’70s seemed to be on a mission to drag Ireland into the modernist, and even the postmodern, world. How times have changed. These days, Aidan Mathews might be termed the forgotten man of Irish fiction.
Mathews’ publishers on this occasion, Lilliput Press, tell us proudly on their website: ‘The verbal flair of Aidan Mathews is second to none, and the seriousness and the gravity of his contemplations a welcome counterweight to our desiccated, Anglo-American digital culture.’ The trouble is, that Anglo-American digital culture seems to have won, at least for the foreseeable future, and singular talents such as Mathews – inheritors, in Irish terms, of the experimental tradition of Sterne, Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Aidan Higgins, and the early Banville – have been bypassed, at least for the time being. Joyce and Beckett may be cool names to drop for the tourist industry, but who actually reads their prose now, apart from a few diligent postgraduate students?
Mathews, also a gifted poet and sometime playwright, has partly contributed to his own relative obscurity. While he may have been consistently good, valuing quality over quanity, he has hardly been prolific. His previous short story collection, Lipstick On The Host, appeared in 1992, his one and only novel, Muesli At Midnight, in 1990, and his most recent volume of poetry, According To The Small Hours, in 1998. His last full-length public sighting was a play, Communion, produced in The Peacock in 2003. Maybe he’s been busy with other things. None of which should detract from his welcome return with this splendid, if uneven, collection of short stories, most of which have appeared sporadically in various anthologies and journals in the intervening years.
He is still working at the extremity of the form, where character and plot, even narrative itself, are secondary to free associative language, often delving into the murky depths of his protagonists’ unconsciousness. He is particularly good on children, and seeing the world through the eyes of a child. The title story has a ten-year-old boy coming of age while on holiday in Kerry. ‘Cuba’ sees another young lad absorbing the adult world’s fears of nuclear destruction during the missile crisis of October 1962. ‘Access’ is observed from the point of view of a pubescent girl who has just had her first period, meeting her separated father on a Saturday afternoon in McDonald’s.
‘Barber-Surgeons’ explores formal and reserved male-bonding across the class divide in 1960s Dublin, with James Bond films a common touchstone, harkening back to a time when both professions were one. ‘Waking a Jew’ flits dream-like between contemporary Dublin and childhood memories of a concentration camp, sometimes unsettlingly in mid-sentence. ‘The Seven Affidavits of Saint-Artaud’ chronicles the imprisonment of French surrealist Anton Artaud in Dublin in 1937, creating a Rashomon effect with multiple, often contradictory, points of view. ‘A Woman from Walkinstown’, told for once in a colloquial voice, has Mary musing on the decline of the name Mary, while reminiscing about the coincidence of the stillbirth of her daughter and the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul. ‘In the Form of Fiction’ hilariously has a young man and woman, chatting in a café in Palo Alto, commenting At Swim Two Birds-like on the limitations of their creator/narrator, and all done without resorting to footnotes, as David Foster Wallace would have. Meanwhile, the concluding ‘Information for the User’ alternates obtusely between psychiatrist/patient sessions (the talking cure), and pharmacological instructions for the use of Peace of Mind (the chemical cure).
Not all those high, cold Modernist heroes, nor their more playful Postmodernist successors, lived happily ever after. But you didn’t really expect them to, did you? That doesn’t mean that they don’t have their place, still.