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Disappearing Act: Wrong medium for a method actor

Book review: Robert Sheehan has plenty of ideas but lacks the skill to fully realise them

Robert Sheehan
Robert Sheehan
Author: Robert Sheehan
ISBN-13: 978-0717189700
Publisher: Gill Books
Guideline Price: £17.99

Disappearing Act, the debut short story collection from the actor Robert Sheehan, bills itself as “a host of other characters in 16 short stories”. The concept of the collection is that Sheehan “disappears” into his cast of characters, placing himself within their heads and setting up shop within their psyches.

The stories that follow resemble a sort of method acting through prose, these disparate characters regaling their tales as if possessing Sheehan, ventriloquising him like some old milkmaid on an episode of Most Haunted. It’s an act that would surely impress if presented upon a stage, but Sheehan’s translation of these tales to the page leaves much to be desired.

There are stories in this collection that are genuinely worthy of merit, for example the weird and memorable Medusa, which ponders the question: what exactly would Medusa's sex life be like? Or Gertie Cronin: Memories of a Young Guard by Joseph Sheehan, which is an evocative tale of a hard-as-nails Corkonian. 
However, I feel the reason why these stories work better than the others in this collection is because they stray the most from Sheehan's original conceit. Medusa does not offer much of Sheehan's ventriloquism and Gertie Cronin is purported to be a straight transcript of a tale told by the author's father.

However, it is in the pieces that better resemble monologues than short stories that the collection, and Sheehan’s writing, fall down. There is Vending Machine, where Sheehan embodies a horny trucker who fantasises about being “between the big thighs of a gifted brown woman called Kendra, or Divine, or Mangia”. Or Alleyway, which involves a Patrick Bateman-like character and is full of awkward references to consumerism through the form of trademark symbols (“Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit™”, “iPad™”, “Samsung Galaxy S20™”). Or there is House in the Country, an extremely bloated story that takes up most of the middle section of the book, features a character named Twat and, at one point, someone defecating in a full bathtub.

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Sheehan doesn’t exactly help himself either with his misjudged self-penned introduction to the collection in which he questions “do we create the stories we tell ourselves inside our heads, or do they create us?” and posits “I wonder, is this human experience of ours about comprehending the mercurial forces that exist on both sides – the immaterial (the indoor stuff) and material (out there, the world)? And, once understood, is it about curating the ideas that get to make the passage across and become action?”

His decision, too, to subtitle each story with the location in which it was written, such as “in the changing rooms of the gym off Brick Lane” or “on a plane to Dubai”, comes across as somewhat patronising to the reader. They serve solely as symbols of Sheehan’s lifestyle, stories being written “on a boat to Nusa Penida, Indonesia” or in Bali or New Orleans or Los Angeles.

Truly, how exactly is the reader meant to react when we are told the story we are about to read was written “in an Uber in London”?

In terms of Sheehan’s subjects and themes, he very much fits within the tradition of Irish writers such as Kevin Barry, Patrick McCabe, Enda Walsh and Martin McDonagh. The stories tend to have a sinister edge and a focus on the grungier side of life. The author Sheehan most resembles, however, is his fellow Gill writer – Blindboy Boatclub.

Both Sheehan’s and Blindboy’s writing focus on the darker aspects of humanity and both rely on absurdity to try to extrapolate on that. However, when you place both of these writers side by side, Sheehan’s weaknesses only seem greater. There are some stories in Sheehan’s collection that you just wish Boatclub had got his hands on first. For example, the story Funeral, which feels the most directly like a Boatclub pastiche (though there are some shades of the rural menace of Colin Barrett). Names such as Willy Boland and Father Looney Tunes, as well as the subject matter of a vindictive man attending the funeral of his enemy, feel so close to Boatclub’s style and voice that comparisons are surely justified.

Disappearing Act is a portrait of a writer with plenty of ideas but, sadly, lacking in the skills needed to fully realise them. These characters and stories would come alive if presented as short plays or monologues but as short stories they feel stifled and trapped in a format that prevents them from flourishing. Disappearing Act is an honourable experiment from Sheehan but, ultimately, it is a failed one.