UCD academic Áine Mahon on Eggshells by Caitriona Lally: ‘a delightful debut’

The defining purpose of fiction is to make us less lonely, said David Foster Wallace. In Eggshells, we see his insight finely sketched and coloured in

Eggshells author Caitriona Lally: “Eggshells,” says Áine Mahon, “is a delightful debut. Its every second sentence calls out for underlining or repetition, for the salutation of the tragi-comic in all its delicacy and all its glare.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Eggshells author Caitriona Lally: “Eggshells,” says Áine Mahon, “is a delightful debut. Its every second sentence calls out for underlining or repetition, for the salutation of the tragi-comic in all its delicacy and all its glare.” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

In Caitriona Lally’s Eggshells we meet Vivian – nine tenths fictional creation and one tenth our own personality.

Vivian is independent, creative, brave. She lives alone in Dublin in what was once her great-aunt’s house and she ventures outside only for the food shopping or the finding of secret portals. Personal hygiene isn’t a priority. Neither is money-making nor official employment. Indeed Vivian is fully sanguine about her lack of career. She types “Bubble-blower” and “Changeling” into online search fields and considers her daily job-seeking “more of a hobby than an action that could produce results”. When David from the Social Welfare attempts a home visit, Vivian’s off-beat reception (shooting a toy gun and shrieking Lalalalalalala in his face) sends him scurrying under the table.

Curtain-twitching neighbours despair at Vivian’s routines and appearance. They wish that “a woman her age” would spend more time looking for a husband and less time climbing trees. Equally despairing is Vivian’s married sister whose minor acts in the story play out sometimes from pity but more times from irritation. Indeed, for the greatest part of Lally’s book, Vivian interacts with others only to be chastised, cajoled, cruelly rejected or misjudged. This cast of fictional others is needed narratively for direction and depth – but always and increasingly we’re relieved when it’s gone.

Huge gulfs of Vivian’s time are spent in isolation. She potters around her house, potters around Dublin, potters back to her house. But this is the unusual and the lovely thing: in this unending isolation Vivian is never bored and she is rarely lonely. “Pottering” isn’t at all how she would describe her time. Rather, her daily activities (organising a meal made only of blue foods, posting her great-aunt’s ashes to imaginary people, visiting the “bog bodies” in the National Museum) hold a very definite purpose and a very definite shape. She actively advertises for a friend, “a Friend Called Penelope” to be precise, but this advertising is inspired less by loneliness and more by fancy. It is testament to the vitality and innocence – the openness to sheer play – that is her central characteristic.

The defining purpose of fiction is to make us less lonely, at least according to David Foster Wallace and his signature assessment of the postmodern. In imaginative access to other things and other people, stories and novels bridge the terrible distance between our own subjectivity and that of others. In honouring this promise Wallace’s own writing can be hit and miss but in Lally’s first book we see his insight finely sketched and coloured in.

It is the peculiar magic of Eggshells to envelop its reader in the safe and the familiar, in those half-comic private processes fully recognisable if not fully allowed. We feel safe with Vivian when she minds the chairs in her great-aunt’s house. We feel safe with Vivian when she identifies tea as a comfort yet one that keeps her awake “so I boil the kettle and make tea in my hot water bottle”. We feel safest of all in Vivian’s imagination, playing with the possibilities of words (“Gurple: The sound of a baby post-feed when it’s full of wind and joy”; “Vurple: The chief of a fox clan with jaunty taste in clothes”) or mailing a cheery letter to made-up “Ursula” of the Great Australian Bight.

Safety and adventure are the twin poles of Eggshells’ plot and their tension gathers together in Vivian’s ventures outside. “I need to be where buses are, so I decide to go to the bus station”. “I’ve never been to a fancy-dress party, but if I did go, I’d dress up as a migraine”. In this communication of the inner, Lally is pitch-perfect and assured. Her descriptions arefulsome and accurate and unerringly astute. “I find it very soothing to watch people get frights”; “I prefer weekdays to weekends; there are fewer people around and expectations are lower”; “I turn off the television because there are too many people doing things they are excellent at”.

Eggshells, in the final analysis, is a delightful debut. Its every second sentence calls out for underlining or repetition, for the salutation of the tragi-comic in all its delicacy and all its glare. And contemporary Irish fiction, surely, has long been calling out for Vivian. Like the eggshells of the title her story captures beautifully the smooth and the brittle, the round assurance of what we know and the breaking fear of the outside world ever encroaching.

Dr Áine Mahon lectures in the School of Philosophy at UCD. She is the auhtor of The Ironist and the Romantic: Reading Richard Rorty and Stanley Cavell (Bloomsbury, 2014)

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