Michael Harding on Room Little Darker: ‘so much fun you’ll probably frighten yourself’

Book Club: ‘Stories spin with such control and elegance you must read them. Feel the sweat of it. The passionate hotness of it. The power and pulse that lie at the heart of it’

June Caldwell: her stories move from heart to heart with playful ease, fun and surprise. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

June Caldwell: her stories move from heart to heart with playful ease, fun and surprise. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

I’m not good with ideas. I tell stories because it keeps me out of trouble. The minute I offer the world an opinion on anything, I am exposed as wrong, foolish and deluded.

But I was asked to comment on this book of short stories. So here goes.

Well it’s a book of short stories.

And it’s funny how we use that phrase. Short Story. Like how long is a short short story? Or how long is a piece of string? There’s no answer. Maybe they’re both the same length.

The short story is a template. I first came across it in secondary school. We had a book of short stories on the syllabus. We even answered questions on the Leaving Cert English paper about “the short story”. As a concept.

It’s a literary genre that allows academics and critics to create secondary texts around it. Texts about the text. Articles about the theme. PhD papers about the meaning. So many trees get wasted, creating such texts around a work of art. Instead of engaging with the simple artistic act itself. Read it.

So I don’t want to say anything further that would bury these good stories in a load of constipated notions. I’d prefer to release the stories, long or short, from the book. Let them fly. Like paintings that got liberated from gilt-edged baroque frames at the beginning of the 20th century. Just read the book out loud and ignore texts about the text.

Because storytelling is as intimate as music. It’s open-hearted. It calls the listener to belong emotionally, just like a song does. It goes from one heart to another.

In a music session people don’t listen to one song and then discuss it all night. The song breaks into the heart and stirs emotions. The only commentary the song demands is another song. The noble call. And so the night goes on. One song after another. Each being a kind of commentary on the one before. Just like Anna Karenina is a commentary on Madame Bovary. Like Beckett’s prose is a commentary on Joyce’s prose.

And that’s how I read these stories. As a response to all the other stories.

One love song after another. A commentary on what went before.

And this song is funny. And shocking. And rich in metaphors. It would make me want to sing. Make me want to see life the way she sees it through her lens; as an extraordinary, weird, funny, made-up world of true being.

I encounter June Caldwell in her stories. My eye on the page. The words in my ears. And as I meet an Other in her stories, so I have left my own self forgotten for a while. Which is completely liberating.

It is widely accepted that there are some stories and novels woven, not from the heart but from an aesthetic quilting of language that meets the approval of an audience already literate in the quilting game. And sometimes I have put down a book half way through because my heart is not in it. Sometimes it’s even clear that the author’s heart is not in it. Books so intelligent and erudite, and psychologically complex that I long for a pint with James Joyce, or Dermot Healy, or even a long intimate chat with Virginia Woolf. But I suppose a coffee with June Caldwell would suffice. Because her stories move from heart to heart with playful ease, fun and surprise.

But wait. I have begun to create a text about the text. And I could go on, but I won’t. Nobody needs my opinion on this book. Just to say that her stories spin with such control and elegance that you must read them. Feel the sweat of it. The passionate hotness of it. The power and pulse that lie at the heart of it. Read the book because you’ll have so much fun that you’ll probably frighten yourself. And after that. Go back and read it again.
Room Little Darker by June Caldwell (New Island; Head of Zeus) is March 2018’s Irish Times Book Club choice. Next: Alan McMonagle. The Irish Times Book Club podcast with Room Little Darker author June Caldwell was to have been recorded at Ennis Book Club Festival, which sadly was cancelled due to the bad weather. Promiscuously, we have now got into bed with the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival. Readers are invited to come along to the free event at the dlr LexIcon Level 4 in Dún Laoghaire on Sunday, March 25th, at 7pm. Admisison is free but booking is essential

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