Wattle and Daub by Brian Coughlan review: Good ideas, mixed results
Debut collection of 21 short stories whose cleverness is hampered by a lack of restraint
Brian Coughlan: The humour too often misses the mark
Wattle and Daub
When we think of the Irish short story, we tend to think in terms of literary fiction, having claim to many great practitioners of the form in this country past and present. But there are plenty of other types of short stories – twists in the tale, flash fiction, detective stories, science fiction to name a few – that, rather unfairly, get less of a mention. This month sees the publication of two collections that look to rectify the situation and perhaps show that the ground is shifting. Tramp Press’s A Brilliant Void, edited by Jack Fennell, is a compilation of classic Irish science fiction stories. Meanwhile, Cecelia Ahern’s new collection Roar gives us 30 stories depicting the lives of modern women.
Brian Coughlan’s debut, Wattle and Daub, is certainly not literary fiction. The 21 stories within are brief, anecdotal accounts of the absurdity of life as the Galway author sees it. In some pieces – a creature trapped in the walls of a woman’s apartment, a Truman-esque, computerised take on Adam and Eve – Coughlan achieves in creating an unsettling experience that jolts and grips the reader. In these stories, there are echoes of writers such as Jan Carson and Diane Cook, both of whom use surreal humour to augment the absurdities of everyday life.
More frequently in Wattle and Daub, however, an intrusive and judgmental author-narrator takes over the stories and leaves little space for the reader to connect with characters. This results in a mixed bag of a collection with some interesting ideas that too often aren’t developed into the depth the author hopes to achieve.
Humour is key to the type of stories that Coughlan is writing, and too often it misses the mark. His collection is similar in tone to the comedian Karl MacDermott’s recent book, Juggling with Turnips, a mildly diverting read of meandering vignettes with an isn’t-that-gas appeal to them.
Some readers will no doubt enjoy the escapades within Coughlan’s myriad worlds. Notably funny is a nightmare predicament in Re-union, where old school friends turn up drunk at the narrator’s door in the middle of the night and impinge on family life. In Crusader, a young prince sets out on a mission to conquer foreign lands: “Because it was not pleasing to God he did not rape or pillage, at least early on.” The Accursed is a comic letter to a couple whose wedding the narrator has attended (and not yet recovered from) with numerous sharp lines: “[Wife Janet] really is a beauty and not nearly as anorexic-looking as the people at my table kept insinuating during the meal.” A clever idea in the book’s final story, Funfair, sees a couple who are desperately trying to conceive eventually give birth to an alarm clock.
The problem is the delivery of the humour, which is frequently couched in sourness and judgment against the characters. In Re-union, Lanko, as his drunk ex-friends call him, loses our sympathy when he snarls that his wife is a bitch. In Funfair, an omniscient narrator uses convoluted language to describe the pitiable sex life of the couple trying to conceive, even going as far as to disparage their dreams: “All the troubles and worries of the moments before sleep are dissolved in the aggressive acid produced by their utter nihilistic exhaustion … Their dreams are too dull to describe, which is funny when you consider how distorted and dysfunctional their married life purports to be.” The attempt to get across how joyless life can become in a household where infertility takes over ends up reading sarcastically on the page. Elsewhere the humour just doesn’t land, as with a satirical piece on Hollywood couples that looks to extend a one-note joke about celebrity identities.
Lack of care
There is a lack of care in description, with a tendency towards cliche – a little boy is “frightened out of his tiny little mind”, while his sister “had gone into her shell”. A woman’s “watchful eyelids assume the shape of a butterfly”. Syntax is an issue at times, even in the opening sentences of stories: “The bivouac of ripped tarpaulin, keeping the two pipes free from water, threatened to fall over; then did.” Coughlan tends to write in short, clipped sentences, or sometimes clauses masquerading as sentences, which halts the flow of his narratives. It is a shame as elsewhere there are lines that stand out for their imaginative care: “His handshake is brief, cold, and flabby: like squeezing a pack of sausages.”
The larger the collection, the larger the possibility of hits and misses. Twenty-one stories later, the closing line of Wattle and Daub seems sadly fitting of a debut lacking in restraint and purpose: “In the mean time I’ll keep blabbing away here for a while longer, if you don’t mind.”