The power of great literature lies in its ability to reflect society. Writing about John McGahern, the American author John Updike called it “that tonic gift, the sense of truth – the sense of transparency that permits us to see imaginary lives more clearly than we see our own”.
The tonic comes in large doses in Thomas Morris's debut short-story collection, We Don't Know What We're Doing, set primarily in the Welsh town of Caerphilly. The troubled, centreless narrators drift through the everyday in search of meaning. They are mostly young – teenagers to twentysomethings – and their listlessness says much about a society that has lost direction. As editor of the Stinging Fly magazine and last year's Dubliners 100 anthology (Tramp Press), Morris may be known to Irish readers already. A native of Caerphilly, he studied at Trinity College and lives in Dublin.
His Welsh heritage comes through in his stories with names such as Rhys, Rhian, Bethan and Gareth. Repeated locations – Caerphilly Castle, Morrisons, the ironically titled Castle View housing development – give the feel of an interlinked collection. Recurring themes have the same effect: absent parents, traumatic pasts, depression and mental illness, double lives.
In 17 a teenager mourns his first love: "I'll put it this way: when we broke up, it felt like I lost thirty pints of blood." As he capers around Caerphilly with his friends, getting arrested on drunken nights out, a brutally honest depiction of the ebb and flow of young romance underpins the antics. Not yet 18, the narrator is already weary with life: "And you know what I'm most tired of? Knowing that this is just the start, that I'll only get more tired as I get older, that I'll have a life of being –"
Beautifully written in unshowy prose, the 10 stories in this short collection are also very funny. A newly married teacher in Castle View wonders why his wife no longer desires him: “He goes to google ‘why does my girlfriend not get aroused?’ but halfway through typing, Google auto-suggests ‘why does my girlfriend hate me?’.”
In Bolt, a gem of an opening story, the narrator, Andy, moves in with his girlfriend's mother when the girlfriend dumps him. Compounding his mother issues, Andy seeks out another maternal figure in the form of "the town's only psychiatrist", a woman twice his age who asks him to hit her in the face when they have sex.
Morris takes risks with his humour: jokes about paedophilia are crass but appropriate to character and setting. A stand-out story, All the Boys, follows a bunch of Welsh lads to Dublin for a stag weekend. A clever first-person-plural voice tells the story in the future tense, which gives a suitable fait-accompli feel. The omniscient voice offers multiple perspectives – the pliable groom, the watchful father, the best man under pressure, the cocky London brigade, the dark secrets that get dredged up on such weekends of excess and release – landing the reader in the middle of the stag, where grown men break down or pass out, "vomit softly coating the curb and cobblestones like one of Dali's melted clocks".
Lives left behind are examined in Fugue, as Bethan returns to Caerphilly for Christmas and is ignored by her friends. Lives are in flux in Big Pit, where a sister looks to her younger brother for shelter when her marriage splits up. In How Sad, How Lovely another lonely narrator finds solace in a friendship with a neighbour, the grotesque humour of his worms affliction highlighting his marginalised role. After they've had sex the neighbour, Emma, delivers the news: "I think I might be a little bit pregnant."
Contrasting nicely with the anxieties of the youngsters, 78-year-old Jimmy, in Strange Traffic, is on the lookout for his third wife: "He was in good enough shape to last another ten years, and where was the point in going lonely all that time?"
In Clap Hands the gruelling life as a single mother of Amy, a nursery worker, is poignantly depicted. After her husband remortgages their home and absconds to Australia to find himself, Amy is caught between the demands of her ailing mother and her three children. She emerges as a modern heroine, refusing to take out her loss on the next generation.
In the final story, Nos Da (the Welsh for "good night"), Morris envisions an alternative world where a father watches his family through a camera as he contemplates his mediocre relationship with his new girlfriend. Information is dispensed incrementally, building suspense to a heart-breaking realisation. In this strange new world of deathday parties and Memory Tapes, these characters have little left but their past.
They do not, like most of the characters in this fresh and at times brilliant collection, know what they are doing. But their author certainly does.