New fiction review: Room Little Darker by June Caldwell
It is fifty shades darker as submissive sex and rubber-clad gimps vie for attention
June Caldwell: her modernist style and tendency to switch forms never let the reader rest
Room Little Darker
Robot boys that rehabilitate paedophiles, sex-change clinics, demoralising orgies, alpha submissives caged in a Leitrim farmhouse and ogled by rubber clad gimps – June Caldwell’s debut collection of short stories makes Fifty Shades of Grey seem like a Disney movie.
Room Little Darker is a fiercely inventive collection with a strong social slant. Caldwell, a former journalist, laments the current state of Irish society and seeks to rip up the rule book. The 11 stories in her challenging collection sometimes go so far into the surreal that they lose the plot.
Caldwell’s modernist style and tendency to switch forms never let the reader rest. Each of her stories announces itself with a bang. The outrageous ideas for the most part have a realistic undertone, grounding Room Little Darker in a world that is oddly, awfully, familiar.
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Graphic sex links the next three stories, from the “pain so excessive and profound, I pass out cold”
The opening story, Upcycle: an account of some strange happenings on Botanic Road, concerns a former tyrannical father who haunts his wife and daughter when he dies. To the daughter he appears as “a ferret slinking in and out of the bed bars at my feet, leaving drops of sweat and other depositions for me to see in the mornings”. That this is perhaps the most conventional story in the collection says plenty about what is to follow.
Graphic sex links the next three stories, from the “pain so excessive and profound, I pass out cold” that the alpha submissive experiences in Leitrim Flip, to the drug addict in Dubstopia who wants “to bang the nurse in the Mater who took his bloods”, to the animalistic sex in a doorway that a student has with her lecturer in Imp of the Perverse.
Behind the explicit detail, everyone is hurting. The nurse that Gonzo wants to bang wants to know if his girlfriend Carol “took mushrooms when breastfeeding the day the baby died”. It is a grimly evocative story, a powerful portrait of the pain and debasement of addiction that has echoes of Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs.
The Glens of Antrim sees two former lovers remember their smutty sex life with a nostalgia that turns bitter. BoyBot, arguably the most subversive story in a collection that thrives on destabilisation, sees a convicted paedophile writing to his former lover about a new robot that’s designed to satisfy paedophiles’ sexual wants but also rein them in when they get too perverse.
Another interesting take on sex and betrayal sees a woman undergo a futuristic sex-change in The Implant. “This shouldn’t hurt,” goes the foreboding opening line, delivered by a doctor “from one of those Eastern bloc countries with no wallpaper, where teenage girls are pushed into steel shipping containers”. The woman, or “subject”, undergoes the operation to punish herself for her partner’s infidelity.
Maligned females are a recurring theme, strikingly in SOMAT, which was first published in Sinéad Gleeson’s anthology of Irish women writers, The Long Gaze Back. Centred on a decision by male doctors about euthanising a female patient who is pregnant and brain dead after a stroke, there are strong overtones of the pressing social issue concerning women’s reproductive rights in Ireland.
Husband Peter Papadoo looks for “an in-the-know, big league doctor, an expert, an un-doer of crummy miracles”. The doctors, meanwhile, think of their tee times. Head honcho Falvey acknowledges that the right to life is a complex issue, “without being sure exactly. Sometimes that’s how complex complexity is.” Caldwell’s fury at the injustice jumps from the page.
In a collection loaded with arresting imagery, some of the analogies overreach
With its modernist style, Room Little Darker has similarities with Claire Louise Bennett’s debut Pond. Short story writers like Diane Cook, Kirsty Logan and Northern Ireland’s Jan Carson also come to mind in the collection’s preoccupations with the surreal, sex, reproduction and gender inequality.
Currently living in Dublin, Caldwell has an MA in creative writing from Queen’s University Belfast. She has won the Moth International Short Story Prize, and has been shortlisted for the Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award, the Lorian Hemingway Prize, and the Sunday Business Post/Penguin Ireland Short Story Prize.
In a collection loaded with arresting imagery, some of the analogies overreach. A drug dealer is a “grade A psycho who’d snap your fingers off quicker than a fat kid at the zoo smashes a Kit Kat”.
But there are countless others that do work: “the grubby suitcase inside his head”; eyes that are “yellow as a frog’s belly”; a taxi driver who’s just learned about dating apps, “a kind of Hailo for getting your hole”.
For all its shock factor, the collection can also be deeply moving at times, as with the final story, Cadaverus Moves, that charts in vivid scenes a sister’s relationship with a beloved brother who is terminally ill. Flitting from the grim present day back to childhood, it offers a snapshot of a life in reverse lived to extreme. In Caldwell’s worlds there is no other way.