It is probably too early to say that Thomas Morris’s debut collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing represents an important moment for the contemporary Welsh short story but, nevertheless, it certainly feels like one. Indeed, when taking two other essential recent Welsh collections into account, Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike (winner of this year’s Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize), and Clown’s Shoes by Rebecca F John (2015 PEN New Voices winner), it feels tempting to say that the Welsh short story itself is in an important moment.
Of course, the Irish literary community have produced a string of remarkable short story collections in recent years – something which is owing in no small degree to the institution of which Morris was recently made editor, The Stinging Fly magazine. It is this Irish connection that makes Morris’s debut unique amongst the new generation of Welsh writers, in the sense that, despite being set in Wales, it feels somewhat more like a product of the Irish literary scene than its Welsh counterpart.
Taking into account the fact that working alongside Fly founder, Declan Meade, Morris has helped to shape the current Irish scene – epitomised by writers such as Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett and Danielle McLaughlin – this does not seem terribly surprising. What is perhaps more surprising is that, having lived in Dublin for 10 years, Morris decided to set almost the entire collection in his hometown of Caerphilly (while one story is set in Dublin, it involves a group of Caerphilly men on a stag weekend, and is therefore still very much a Caerphilly story).
This self-imposed exile from Caerphilly has unquestionably given Morris the level of detachment necessary to be able to write about the area without the sentimentality which can sometimes bog down depictions of Welsh life. And in the book’s centrepiece – the stunning balancing act between melancholy humour and melancholy despair that is Fugue – he travels home for Christmas via the medium of central character Bethan, like an alien with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. The territory Bethan finds herself in is a no woman’s land between the disappointments of the life that she has made for herself in Scotland and the cosy yet stifling home-life that she no longer belongs to in Caerphilly:
“On the way back from Cardiff, your father asks you questions about Edinburgh and Tim. You answer vaguely, and look out the window as the landmarks of approaching home draw near. You haven’t been back in a year, and you’d forgotten that these places – Castell Coch, the roundabout at Nantgarw, the Total garage on the dual carriageway – even exist.
“Side on, your father’s eyes seem like two swollen capital Ds – glassy and unreal ...you’re sat there in the passenger seat thinking am I really this man’s daughter?”
Morris is very good at noticing small details, and small details indeed about Caerphilly itself (and no doubt residents of the town will find much to smile and flinch about in equal measure throughout the collection) but his real talent is in the way that he makes idiosyncratic minutiae signify universal truths. The story closes with a moment of startling poetry, whereby Bethan’s perpetually sinister anxiety dreams appear to have seeped into the fabric of reality.
This act of exile is also quite a Joycean thing to do, of course, and you feel that Morris must have been influenced by the substantial amount of time that he would have spent in the company of Dubliners while putting Dubliners 100 together (the 2013 anthology in which he commissioned contemporary Irish writers to each ‘cover’ a story from the original.) This is not to say that reading We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is a particularly Joycean experience but what it most certainly is, is a collection written in the spirit and tradition of a work that many would think of as the definitive short story collection.
Writing about a single location offers a short story writer the opportunity to show that all the facets of human existence can exist in one place. Speaking about Dubliners, Joyce suggested he was setting out:
“to write a chapter of the moral history of my country... I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me to represent the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life.”
While it is not the case that Morris is attempting the same thing in regards to Wales and Caerphilly here, there can, at the same time, be little doubt that the idea will have crossed his mind, because, make no mistake, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is the work of an unapologetically ambitious author. It may not be an overtly political book but it is a work that is intrinsically interested in human psychology and emotional politics. In this sense it does present us with a chapter in the life of contemporary Wales.
And Morris is far from being apolitical. The social problems facing a country which, in some ways, is still coming to terms with the effects of the Thatcher-orchestrated closure of the mines 30 years ago, are never far away in a collection which champions the dysfunctional and the heartbroken. While unemployment, literacy levels, alcohol-related health problems and high suicide rates are serious issues throughout the UK as a whole, they are particularly acute in some areas of south Wales and, although the picture of Wales that Morris presents us with is in many ways an affectionate one, this is nevertheless the backdrop against which Morris’s often dysfunctional characters – characters who often not only feel displaced in their own town but in their own skin – act out the drama of their lives. This is perhaps never more tellingly spelled out than in 17, when the narrator recalls that he hadn’t realised the extent of his first girlfriend’s depression (she has recently committed suicide):
“I couldn’t see it at the time, not because I was shallow or didn’t care... but a lot of my friends were cutting themselves, even Gareth, so it didn’t seem like a big deal.”
The fact that the narrator thinks of self-harm as being almost endemic amongst his peers and therefore normalised as a result can surely only be a terrible indictment of society and, at root, government policy – and it is in subtle, delicately handled moments of revelation like this, that Morris reveals both his politics and his artistry.
There are several reasons why We Don’t Know What We’re Doing feels like an important moment for the contemporary Welsh short story but the two main ones are entirely obvious. Firstly, because it is a work about 21st-century Wales, which tells us important, unapologetically honest news about what it is to live there today. And secondly? It is simply very, very good.
[ John Lavin interviews Thomas Morris ]
[ John Lavin reviews We Don’t Know What We’re Doing ]
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris is published by Faber, at £12.99. Hodges Figgis offers a 10 per cent discount to Irish Times Book Club readers.
[ a live event in the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thursday, January 28th, at 7.30pm. ]
Morris is editor of The Stinging Fly magazine and edited Dubliners 100, a Tramp Press collection of stories updating James Joyce’s original to mark its centenary