Short stories can be highly plotted, event-driven narratives that satisfy the desire most of us have for story, a desire that is so strong, ancient and universal that it seems not mimetic and secondary but as basic as a desire for water or food. Or they can consist of reflections with the merest hint of action or plot.
Several of the pieces in this collection fall into the latter category. Their considerable appeal lies in their exquisite language, and their acute and witty observations on people and their foibles. Aidan Mathews’s natural idiom is richer in vocabulary and terms of reference than is usual. He possesses in abundance the prized quality, in Irish-language writing (and speaking), of “saibhreas teangan”. No down-home colloquial voices with the vocabulary of intellectually challenged 10-year-olds need apply for lodging in Mathews’s stories: there are a few voicy pieces in the collection, but the voices are clever and limber. So this book gives us stories that are unusual, challenging and refreshing – proof, if it were needed, that the short story is not a form regulated by some tyrannical literary troika, enforcing verbal austerity.
In practice, as Mathews demonstrates, it is one of the most accommodating of genres. You can do whatever you like within its flexible boundaries, as long as it’s good.
In the Form of Fiction – according to the blurb "a parody of a creative-writing class" – is a display of verbal gymnastics reminiscent of the prose of Samuel Beckett, Flann O'Brien and Lewis Carroll. It's a mad hatter's tea party, a crazy conversation between a man and two women in a cafe in Palo Alto. Like the characters in At Swim-Two-Birds, they are well aware of their reliance on their author, who has his limitations:
“I am supposed to walk home from here,” the waitress said. “I am supposed to walk all the way to Menlo Park. How am I going to manage in these shoes?
Sure enough, she was wearing espadrilles, the very same as Beth/Beth Ann’s.
“He only knows espadrilles,” the waitress said. “Espadrilles and court shoes and slippers with pompoms. He knows moccasins but he cannot spell the word and therefore avoids it assiduously . . . I am only asking him to do some basic research.
Several of the stories, such as The Seven Affidavits of Saint-Artaud, are equally absurd, and postmodern.
They require careful attention and close reading and rereading if their meanings are to be understood. But even when it takes considerable concentration to figure out what is going on in the story, the experience of reading, even in a lazy way, is fun.
The parts are easier than the whole, not least because of the abundance of amusing comments or moving insights (and Mathews is good at combining profundity and comedy): “Sometimes you feel so happy and wistful at the same time that you wonder should you see a doctor. September does that sort of thing to people.”
Unsurprisingly, the most affecting stories are the most direct. Access describes, wittily and touchingly, an afternoon spent by a divorced or separated father with his daughter.
Barber-Surgeons, playing on the original parallel of these two occupations, narrates in select episodes, mainly located in the barber's shop, the very formal but loving relationship of two men.
The title story is also by comparison with others in the collection a reasonably accessible account of a boy’s holiday in Co Kerry, in a place not too far from the resort where Charlie Chaplin occasionally spent his vacations.
A Woman from Walkinstown, one of the stories in the collection that uses a colloquial voice, includes the kind of brilliant observations on ordinary life that abound in the book: "There was no Mary born in the whole of Ireland in 1992. I don't know about the North. I don't care about the North. Not a single one was born here. There was Miriam, Maureen, Maggies galore, but not Mary . . . Except as a middle name or an initial or a Confirmation name, maybe, in Sixth Class. Confirmation names mean nothing, of course."
Most of the stories fall into the category of high modernism or postmodern: they are self-reflective; they draw attention to their fictionality and delight in wordplay of all kinds: puns, associations, etymologies. (And there are rather too many Jesuits.)
The collection reminds us of how rare modernism is in Irish (or English) fiction, perversely, even though our most celebrated novels – Ulysses, At Swim-Two-Birds and Cré na Cille – are great representations of this school; although Irish literary fiction in general tends to prefer rich language to strong storyline, the pattern of the modern masterworks has seldom been emulated.
As David Lodge has pointed out, commenting on the English novel, the 19th-century realistic novel, modified but in relatively minor ways, has won the Darwinian race: readers like a story, characters who seem real, and language that is relatively accessible.
Thus in Ireland the kind of exquisite but accessible prose and essentially traditional forms written by, among others, Edna O'Brien, John McGahern and Anne Enright thrives, while the At Swim-Two-Birds type of writing has faded.
Imagination and intelligence
Recently, publishing fashions have changed, thanks to the risks taken by the likes of Tramp Press. There is space for everything, including the avant garde, and it suits a certain kind of imagination and intelligence.
Aidan Mathews has the particular verbal gift and original way of seeing the world that this kind of writing requires. In less able hands such writing can become meretricious and tedious. But he is a master of the style.
This is a brilliant, thoughtful and highly amusing book, a collection of stories and prose poems to dip into from time to time, and to savour.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a writer of short stories and novels. She teaches creative writing at University College Dublin