Monday 22 February 2016

Charlie Chaplin's Wishbone by Aidan Mathews

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 cafĂ© 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.

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Slade House by David Mitchell

This book review was in the Sunday Independent a few weeks ago:

Slade House

By David Mitchell
(Sceptre, €17.99 stg h/b)
English born, Clonakilty (by way of Japan) resident David Mitchell’s new, shortish novel is an offshoot from his last one, 2014’s rather more epic tome, The Bone Clocks. It shares with its predecessor an overriding theme of Immortality and How To Achieve It, although while in the previous work this goal could be arrived at through fair means or foul, here we take a dramatic turn towards the dark side. The complex emotions of grief and hope, and how they feed off each other, also emerge as central concerns in this particular tale. All this, as well as being a contemporary variation on the venerable tradition of the scary Halloween haunted house story.
  Every nine years, over a timespan beginning in 1979 and culminating in 2015, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ finds their way, via an obscure door down a dark alley, to the titular abode. There they encounter, in various elaborate, occult-induced disguises, telepathic twins Norah and Jonah Grayer, who feed off the souls of these ‘engifted’ victims to further their own longevity.
  The first of the five sections, each told from the point of view of a different narrator, began life as a stand-alone short story published on Twitter in 2014. Entitled ‘The Right Sort’, it is recounted by 13-year-old Nathan Bishop, whose literal-mindedness signals that he has Asperger’s Syndrome (leading one to speculate that, in Mitchell’s view, Twitter’s 140 character per post format is a medium ideally suited to those with Asperger’s – and that observation is meant as no disrespect to those living with the condition, but rather as a jibe at those who live as though they might as well do so). Accompanied by his depressed, pianist mother, Rita, purportedly to a party where she meets Yehudi Menuhin, a grizzly fate awaits young Nathan.
  Next up is recently divorced policeman Gordon Edmunds, seduced by the equally recently widowed Chloe Chetwynd (a roleplaying Norah). In 1997 we are introduced to a university Paranormal Society field trip, which does not end well for insecure student Sally Timms. 2006 sees Sally’s elder journalist sister Freya lured by supposed witness Fred Pink (a roleplaying Jonah), who thoughtfully provides much of the twins’ colourful back story.
  Things reach a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion in 2015, with the appearance of this cycle’s intended target Dr. Iris Marinus-Fenby, a psychiatrist who knows more about the twins and their scurrilous activities than she lets on. Aficionados of Mitchell will recognise her name from previous novels of his, as it is his habit to have characters reappear across his entire oeuvre, in what he has described as ‘a kind of uber novel.’
  Given the scale and ambition of some of Mitchell’s previous books, from 1999’s debut Ghostwritten, to the subsequently filmed Cloud Atlas, and the more recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks itself, and not forgetting the more straightforward but equally compelling number9dream and Black Swan Green, Slade House may appear as a more minor addition to the endlessly unfolding Mitchell canon. But it shares his signature entertainingly inventive imagination. Postmodern narrative pyrotechnics married to traditional page-turning suspense: he’s got it cracked.