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SOME SORT OF BEAUTY:
Sara Baume reviews Jamie O'Connell's début short story collection
Sara Baume is a Cork-based arts writer. Her reviews, interviews, essays and reportage on visual art and literature have been published online and in print: from Circa art magazine, the Visual Artists Ireland Newsheet and Paper Visual Art Journal to The Stinging Fly magazine, HTMLGiant and The Short Review.
Some Sort of Beauty
(Bradshaw Books, 2012)
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I often wonder how much attention authors pay to the ordering of stories within a collection. Do they design an ideal sequence and then lie awake at night in fear of the sort of person who reads a new book in the same way they listen to a new album: skipping tracks, overplaying the songs they like best, completely ignoring others?
I’m glad I began Some Sort of Beauty at the beginning and played to the end in order of arrangement. Whether O’Connell has designed it or not, there is a cadence to his debut: a rise and levelling and fall, melodies which recur, a satisfying tempo.
The first three stories form a set; the characters are all cast from a band of middle class twenty-somethings with Sebastian, a fledgling writer, on lead vocals. These are people who have little to offer in terms of integrity, who define themselves according to their clothes and friends and body weight, who constantly bemoan their advancing years, despite having yet to advance very far beyond the age of twenty-five. “I wondered why he’d invited guests who were not young, good-looking, talented or fun”, says Sebastian in Demain. I was continually disappointed by the fledgling writer’s grotesquely over-inflated sense of self importance. Later on in the story, he suddenly proclaims “I’d always been certain that I had something to say wherever I was, even when I was living in a remote village in North Cork.” Sebastian’s occasional instances of existential reflection give way to nothing more valiant than the discovery of false modesty. “I’ll joke about the little amount of work that I’m doing,” he says in Without Art, “selling myself short, as is the typically Irish thing to do.”
However, I don’t mean this as a condemnation of O’Connell’s writing; instead the very strength of my dislike is proof of how well-drawn his characters are. Although his twenty-somethings are frankly vain and fundamentally vapid, the author does a fine job of inhabiting them. There is a point in Silencio when a man called John remarks to himself that the world as he knows it is “a place where there were no big problems like war or disease, where the small problems had room to become big ones, like the straightness of one’s teeth or the newness of one’s jeans…” John doesn’t think it in disparagement but instead as a means of justifying the purchase of his new €120 T-shirt. It’s a chillingly skilful portrayal in rhythm with how petty people actually are.
The narrators of stories four, five and six are a generally more charming bunch. The bereaved Jehovah’s Witness, the mischievous little boy and the psychologically unstable mother comprise a kind of interlude. But it is Brush and Gut, told from the point of view of Ange, the wife of a famous painter, which stands out as the collection’s magnum opus. Ange is a woman smothered by her husband’s shadow, entirely dependent upon him for emotional survival: “it’s hard being married to an artist,” she says, “always having the smaller share of their attention.” Her deep-rooted insecurity is so convincing that the story’s crescendo smacks the reader like a brick, shifting the couple’s precarious balance of power firmly in her favour.
While the characters in Brush and Gut return for the last story, I felt The Believer would have been a more fitting finale. It’s a beautiful elegy about the humble distractions of childhood, the vast challenge of growing up and the ordinary tragedies which make adults of us. The narrator’s grandfather is a marvellous character; from the shabby comforts of his rural homestead to his simple acts of understated kindness. This is the story which best reveals the crevasse between young and old generations of Irish. Although the narrator is not the same as any of those in the opening set, it still feels like something of a reprise for their reckless behaviour, their shallow convictions.
The narrator of That Ample Past, the only story I have yet to mention, reflects to himself at a dinner party “I make a point of never criticising people who have finished a novel because it is an achievement in itself to have the discipline to get one hundred thousand words on paper.” Although Some Sort of Beauty is not a novel, I agree with his essential point. O’Connell is no virtuoso, but he is to be applauded for his swiftness in delivering a book so shortly in the wake of graduating from his Creative Writing Masters. There are times at which his stories stumble into dissonance: perhaps a little too much focus on writers writing and writers failing to write, perhaps one too many high-brow literary references. Nevertheless, it’s a broadly harmonious collection, and my admiration is wholehearted.
“You must write things down”, the narrator of That Ample Past says, “inspiration goes if you don’t look after it.” O’Connell has given us a debut of inspiration, but what readers can really look forward to is when his inspiration has given way to something of greater substance, to an encore of perfect pitch.
©2012 Sara Baume
Various reviews by Baume in the Short Review
Review by Baume in the Stinging Fly of There is No Year by Blake Butler
Sara Baume's blog