Being Various review: Irish life from many angles
New collection of short stories features everything from crime fiction to young adult, magical realism and new modernism
Kit De Waal’s story, May the Best Man Win, paints a filmic portrait of a Birmingham pub during Muhammad Ali’s last fight, against Trevor Berbick. Photograph: Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Being Various: New Irish Short Stories
Edited by Lucy Caldwell
Faber & Faber
“Was there ever any worse advice than write what you know?” asked Kit de Waal last year. The self-described “middle-aged woman” who “visits Tesco and tends to her garden” writes about no such character in her work. Inhabiting “other lives”, exploring “the full range of our imagination and ability” are far more interesting and worthy.
Jan Carson, in a recent essay for the Stinging Fly, expressed a similar sentiment. In workshops, she saw students struggle to “make shit up”, instead producing “slightly amended accounts of incidents which had happened them”. There was no creative leap, no departure from the me/my/us, to the “other”. But as any decent writer or reader will tell you, seeing things from other perspectives is what literature is for.
Both Carson and de Waal feature in Being Various: New Irish Short Stories, an anthology where “otherness” is abundantly (perhaps, ironically) present. De Waal’s May the Best Man Win paints a filmic portrait of a Birmingham pub during Muhammad Ali’s last fight, against Trevor Berbick. A white but black-by-association barmaid, black bus drivers, West Indians in trilbies, white strangers with a television set, a Jamaican Berbick supporter – it is a story that hangs on tensions among its diverse cast.
Carson’s Pillars is a more interior tale about a divorcée struggling after her husband leaves her. The world seems realistic except for the “pillar” she carries – an indescribable thing that leaves her marked but also, in a perverse way, helps her. Our imaginations are forced to make a leap; to see things and people differently and to try to understand.
Of the 24 stories, these two are neither outliers nor representatives. We get everything from crime fiction, to young adult, to magical realism, to new modernism. Many of the most realist stories – Danielle McLaughlin’s A Partial List of the Saved, about an Irishman who brings his American ex-wife to his father’s 80th, or Belinda McKeon’s Privacy, about an Irishwoman in New York experiencing sewage problems, for example – are also the most impressive for their mastery of craft and ability to refashion the world into an interesting narrative.
Conversely, Nicole Flattery’s Kafkaesque portrayal of a woman who falls in love with a chicken will make you feel she has invented the short story, and show you how far one can throw one’s voice and still remain seated in the ancient form.
Why “ironically”, then? Well, by its name and history this anthology claims a certain sameness. Begun by the late David Marcus and subsequently guest edited by Joseph O’Connor, Kevin Barry, Deirdre Madden and now Lucy Caldwell, New Irish Short Stories has become something of an idée fixe in the Irish literary scene. Yet editors have always pushed against its definition. “New” didn’t necessarily mean young, nor did it mean best. “Short” was as short as a piece of string, and “story”, well, as Kevin Barry observed: “these writers are up to all sorts”. And then the zinger: “Irish”. That false determiner of “us”. What exactly was it getting at?
When Joseph O’Connor edited, he poked at the idea a little. “If you’re Irish enough to qualify for the Republic of Ireland football team, under the one-grandparent rule, or to cheer for it, even ironically, when it’s playing against our friends in England, you’re eligible for a seat on the squad bus.”
But Caldwell seems to burst open the notion of Irishness completely, interrogating, first, her own “complicated relationship” with the place she’s from, then setting out her wish to portray the “fresh narratives, perspectives and multiplicities that are coming from immigration to a place so long and persistently defined by emigration.”
The anthology ends up being two-thirds female, one-third Northern, two-thirds born in Ireland, two-thirds currently resident – a mix that’s never going to be all-encompassing but still feels representative of the Ireland of today.
We get a man internet dating in a direct provision hostel, a country where the babies are all replaced by letters, a lesbian with a Muslim girlfriend going home to a Belfast family that is “more complicated than Peshawar”. Irish life is flown at from many angles.
But what of the reader, who is likely to get tossed about amid all this variousness; who, as Deirdre Madden observes in the introduction to her edition, often gets forgotten in the eagerness to showcase? Are anthologies for readers at all?
For all the careful curation, I found myself coming at this work tentatively. Like a mean kid in a playground I ran towards the friends that looked familiar to me: Kevin Barry, Sally Rooney, Louise O’Neill. I picked and chose, fixed and straightened, tried to put a bit of smacht on the place. Which isn’t really the point. Back to de Waal: was there ever any worse advice than write what you know? Perhaps read what you know.
Not that those familiar things aren’t wonderful. But the trick here is to match the familiar with the strange, to try a little harder with the ones you’ve never met. Anthologies, and the short story as a form, are not easy. They will never be the popular kid, the jock, the head girl. They are something else. Something other. Which makes them cool.
And perhaps a work like this is not for readers at all, but writers. Why not, when there’s so many on this island of ours; when, as Kevin Barry points out in the introduction to his edition: “at any given moment […]there are ten thousand maniacs battering their laptops with caffeinated fingers”.
This work will shake you up a little. It will be like going to a “Foreign Movies No Subtitles group”, as two of Yan Ge’s characters do, or, as one of Lisa McInerney’s characters does, dating Gérard Depardieu without speaking any French. You might be expected to recalibrate your balance, to learn and relearn. Which is what’s great about it. You will gain something, if you hop aboard, look around; as the great American short story writer Lorrie Moore said, “see what can be done”.