A dating app “where married people can find discreet, anonymous affairs online” is the forbidden fruit at the centre of Joseph Murray’s debut novel, Fling. Tara and Colin have lived for years in a lovers’ utopia but after numerous failed attempts at IVF things are beginning to sour. It doesn’t take long before each has secretly downloaded this “new cheating app” and is texting a potential paramour. When, under an alias, they both find a 100 per cent match, it’s not hard to guess who that match will be. Cue a You’ve Got Mail-style romcom, where the pair’s fraught real-life dynamic is contrasted, much to their oblivion, by their blooming textual love affair.
With Fling, Murray joins a new wave (or perhaps ripple) of Irish male authors writing in the romance genre. An oft-derided mode, it’s far trickier to pull off than it looks. Fling does a good-ish job. It has all the trimmings: punchy premise, archetypal structure (in this case lots of misunderstandings and missed encounters to drive the drama), comic tone and, of course, star-crossed lovers. Murray, a digital content specialist, film graduate and TikToker, draws on an internet meme-heavy “canon”. Where Joyceans know the Greeks, Murrayans know the provenance of “ask him if he’d still love you if you were a worm”.
However, the book’s main issue lies in tone. It values a comic gag above everything, leaning heavily on recycled jokes and one-liners. There are some zingers. You can imagine a line like, “I prefer the term semi-bisexual. Heterosexual makes me sound boring”, being delivered in a Mindy Kaling comedy. But page after page naming alternatives for “give her the old nail and bail” grows tiresome fast.
Moreover, it’s hard to like these characters because we feel that the author doesn’t, really. Failing feminist Tara; emasculated Colin; and their younger sidekicks, brassy Emily and testosterone-fuelled Rory, are set up in formation for the purpose of riffing on generational and gender divides. Because they are being exploited for laughs, their defining characteristics (prudishness, cynicism, progressiveness, roguishness) end up feeling mawkish and annoying. Like most comic characters, they are caricatures; parodies of themselves. But there was scope here to go deeper and closer; to try, in good faith, to understand them and find humour in realism instead of exaggeration.
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All that said, Fling is still lively and propulsive, light and unobtrusive. And (since reviewers are as guilty as anyone of a shallow gag) if it’s not a love affair, it will still be harmless fun.