Monday, May 12, 2014

Something New

 We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE FAMILIES” by Vincent O’Sullivan  (Victoria University Press, $NZ35)

            After I had finished reading Vincent O’Sullivan’s latest collection of short stories, I tried the game of finding one apt epithet to sum up their tone and mood. I know this is a very foolish game. These fourteen short stories, many of which have had previous magazine publication, deal with a variety of different characters and situations. They were not produced by cookie-cutter. Yet there was a dominant mood I felt when I came to the end of them. What was it?
            Regretful? Rueful? Knowing?
No. None of these words quite captures the tone of the volume, but they do come close to it. There is a sadness, a dull heartache to much of what O’Sullivan writes about – perhaps a sense of missed opportunities, absences and lack of fulfillment in characters who have heard the chimes at midnight. After all, most of the characters in The Families are well into middle age, or past it - elderly people who vaguely understand that mortality looms. These are Songs of Experience, not Songs of Innocence. Only the very last story in the collection, “Luce”, is seen from a child’s perspective; and only one story, “On Another Note”, deals exclusively with younger adults.
The book’s title (also the title of a key story) is apt. Most of these tales are about intimate family or marriage relationships. Widow- or widower-hood (“Josie”). Adult children losing a parent and contesting their siblings’ memories of that parent (“Daddy Drops a Line”, “Getting it Right”). The mail-order marriage of an older Kiwi man to a younger Filipino wife (“Frame”). Divorce (“Holding On”). The spectacular crack-up of a marriage in events close to insanity (“Pieces”). A man pouring out his unease about his wife in a long conversation with a counsellor (“On a Clear Day”). A man’s inability to convey his experiences to his wife in any meaningful way (“Mrs Bennett and the Bears”). And then there are the funerals or the threat of funerals; and adjustments to having a diminished sex life; and the indignities of old age. The wealthy middle-class woman stressing over a young man who disrespectfully calls her an “old trout”(“Posting”). The guy who refuses to accept that his body is ageing, but who keeps getting confronted by the evidence (“Fainting and the Fat Man”). The old man in trouble in the nursing home (“Keeping an Eye”).
There now – I have name-checked all the stories, pointed to their subject-matter and in the process I have probably gravely misrepresented them by suggesting that they are all grim. This misses the variety of fictional voices telling the stories, and the frequently humorous (or resigned) acceptance of things as unavoidable realities. The woman in “Josie”, adjusting to widowhood, is remembering a husband who was a curmudgeonly Kiwi joker of the old school, her memories attached to a specifically Catholic milieu in the Auckland of earlier generations. It is not just a story of grief, but of commitment to a marriage in spite of a spouse’s obvious shortcomings. In a roundabout way, it is a story about love. Reading it, I was reminded of Randall Jarrell’s classic introduction to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in which Jarrell said that Stead’s story of a dysfunctional family would nevertheless remind people of the absolute necessity of families. O’Sullivan’s widowed and aged and wounded people have the same effect on me. We are not invited to look down on these people, or to see their characters as defective, but to see their experiences as an inevitable part of being human, loving, and taking the gamble on love for somebody else.
Reviewing a collection of short stories presents the same temptation as reviewing a collection of poetry. That is the temptation to pick out favourites. As a purely subjective reaction, and even though (as an author’s note tells us) it began as part of a literary game referencing Katherine Mansfield, I found “On Another Note” the most upsetting story, perhaps for the very fact that it is about younger people. She is 32 and stuck in Paris while her 26-year-old man is on business in Cologne. She misses him. Without him, she is not enjoying Paris as much as she thought she would. And hovering over it all, there is a sense of the uncertainty and instability of their union, as if it could evaporate, as if they are not fully committed. This is what makes it poignant – the callowness of her feelings, even though she is apparently sophisticated. Is it pity I’m feeling for the younger people here, innocent enough to think that six years’ age difference is a huge barrier between adults, unhappy enough not yet to know what a committed union really is? They are vulnerable children who think they are grown-up. And throughout it all there is the spot-on detail of how she and he are culturally different.
At the same time, my critical sense tells me that the title story “The Families” is the most complex and challenging in the collection, and the most penetrating as far as the family situation is concerned. An adult daughter comes back to her parents’ home in Hamilton after breaking off an engagement in Australia. Half-dependent once again, and living in what is now other people’s space, she faces up to a contrast in parents – a shoulder-to-cry-on father and a sharp, practical mother - and sibling rivalries with her sister. In some ways, these are typical family tensions, but presented in precise detail. The family of “The Families” is the most disconnected in the book and the story’s situation is the most unresolved. But a twist and a shift of focus once again suggest the absolutely necessity of coupling in spite of difficulties. Human beings are social animals and families are their natural unit, whatever pain this may entail.
Apart from the thematic connections I’ve already noted, what these stories have in common is the closeness and precision of O’Sullivan’s observation and his eye for the apt detail. Take this spot-on account of a modern funeral, as seen by a somewhat disgruntled older man, from the story “Fainting and the Fat Man”:
The funeral was three days later. Most of those in the church were from the same age group as the dead man and his wife. Friends spoke sincerely and some found it difficult to end what they wanted to say. There were also stories one was meant to laugh at, which these days seemed de rigueur for funerals. It brought home to Robin how out of touch he was with how fashions changed. He disliked it too when the woman minister thought it obligatory to smile as if to jolly things along, and mentioned God as little as possible, out of deference, was it, for the dead?” (Pg.108)
I almost rolled my eyes and groaned at the familiarity of this, which may indicate how much I myself now identify with the generation of the disgruntled older man.
On a different level, but still showing the author’s closeness of observation, take this longer passage from the story “Pieces”. The woman who is doing the observing is noting how much of social and family interaction – in this case at an awkward restaurant meal – takes the form of play-acting. People act out public roles. This is seen in the gestures and inept words of both father and son, and of the young woman being introduced into the family. Yet we are aware as we read that the woman whose consciousness we are sharing is detaching herself from her family, and her disengagement will eventually lead to extreme actions. The consciousness is as unreliable as any narrator ever is, and we are not invited to condescend to the people she is observing, or to see them as puppets. Her viewpoint is dramatized without necessarily being endorsed:
She has watched them, the two young men joshing, wasn’t that the word she had read for what they were doing? Not being father and son together so much as playing at it, acting out the bond she supposed they had seen in the movies and on TV, even the physical moves that went with it, Tom’s fist lightly punching on Gareth’s shoulder, Gareth’s exaggerated feinting, as though a boxer facing the real thing. And now, while they waited for the wine to arrive that would accompany the cheese, the boy covered his face with his open-fingered hand, his muttered ‘Oh God, you don’t really1’ when his father began on his sincere and slightly drunken praise of the young woman he, he and Mandy, would be proud to welcome into the family, he knew he spoke for Mandy as well, as if that needed to be spelled out, how proud they were of both of them. As he spoke, she watched the girl’s own mannered pose, her elbows on the cloth, her chin on her folded knuckles, a forefinger along one cheek, her eyebrows arched, appreciative. ‘I am not greatly surprised,’ her posture said, ‘but I am touched, believe me, I really and truly am.’ It was what the moment demanded, what the occasion called for. That hollow phrase, Mandy had thought, that perfect phrase. She raised her hand and pinched the bridge of her nose, so that Tom asked her was she feeling all right, not one of her migraines coming on? He and April and Gareth, each remembered that, their asking her that. How intense and remote it was, she remembered that, the moment they sat in, like figures in one of those souvenir glass domes, small and distant figures, where descending flakes so easily were stirred. The image coming back to her as she watched, as though from a similar distance, the little drama of the court proceed around her, the figures both close enough to touch, as distanced as the moon.” (pp.184-185)
            And as one last example, from the story “Posting”, there is this piece of acute self-analysis by an older woman, who feels she has been insulted by a younger person. It is the startling moment when age is at last acknowledged:
Angela liked to hang on to outrage. She’d have thought her favourite store would have had more class. Shown more respect. Not employed upstarts and smartarses. She would make that eminently clear! Angela was one for the enforcing word. Carol was laughing by the time their conversation ran out. Yet it came back to her over the next few days – the young man’s low-spoken, dismissive tone, the plunge of raw panic his words had given her. She accepted it now for what it was – not insult, not malice, but simply her having to accept that something had been said which was true, something that had never quite occurred to her. That when people looked at her, they looked at old age. All it meant, as she now accepted, was that she was in another place from where she had believed herself to be. Like anyone who finds herself in another country, she would have to behave a little differently. That was what it came down to. There was even something nice about that, about having to learn something new.” (“Posting”Pg.201)
In passages such as these, we are drawn into the characters’ thoughts without totally identifying with them. O’Sullivan’s frequent use of the third-person limited narrative voice is an indication of this technique. Nevertheless, we do share the characters’ feelings and see them as our brothers and sisters, no matter how battered their condition might be.
At the beginning of this review, I was fumbling around looking for one appropriate epithet to characterise this collection. I think I may now have come up it. In their ability to make us “feel with” characters, and without any overlay of sentimentality, the appropriate and exact word is compassionate.

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