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Watermark

By Sean O’Reilly

Sean O’Reilly’s third novel, and fourth book, including his 2000 debut collection of short stories, Curfew, concerns a lady-in-waiting, one Veronica. She is waiting for Martin, a man she met at a dinner party and – bored with the man she had come with, who was turning out not to be the person she had thought he was – followed upstairs for what turned into an instant assignation. They subsequently embark on an intensely erotic affair, full of fantasy elements, doing everything they can imagine. ‘Don’t be afraid of this Veronica. This is what’s good.’, Martin tells her. However, as is gradually revealed, Veronica is not in need of this reassurance, since she has enjoyed gratifying her clamorously raging libido since her early teens. Indeed, O’Reilly chooses to portray her as the slapper of the estate where she grew up, naively uncomprehending of the negative attitudes to voracious female sexuality, engendered through guilt and enforced through repression, which made the older local boys eye her with a contemptuous, sullen, but desperately knowing longing. To be fair, perhaps it is Martin’s similar incomprehension of such viewpoints that attracts and relaxes her in the first place.
She is waiting in the house of Donal, Martin’s taciturn and difficult friend, while Martin is ‘away in the desert making a documentary, living in tents, eating around a fire with the tribes’. What precisely Donal’s role is is never made explicit. Is he there to keep an eye on Veronica? To provide her with some light, or rather heavy, relief? Both? Neither? Secondary characters include Moore, an older man with more recognisably traditional ideas about what a woman like Veronica really wants, which he is not afraid to give forceful expression to; and Anna, the 60-year-old proprietoress of the corner shop, where the neighbourhood ne’er-do-wells congregate, and who functions as a sympathetic confidant for the often fraught Veronica. Throughout her excruciatingly protracted anticipation, Veronica is repeatedly assailed by the recurring image of a black limousine, inviting her to get in. Martin never reappears, or maybe, as Donal tells her, he has come back and gone away again, perhaps because, as Anna speculates to Veronica, ‘Some men are frightened of what they want.’ So she eventually accepts the blandishments of the fancy car, the book ending with nightly backseat orgies, and a Ballard-like crash. However, we know Veronica survives, since an early scene in the narrative has her retrospectively being shown around the house she once shared with Donal. But this glimpse of the future fails to cast any light on how she then feels about what has happened in the past the novel delineates.
While virtually sui generis in the Irish context, which can only be admirable, and while there are passages of beautifully written, achingly lyrical prose in this book, there are several problems with O’Reilly’s artistic vision, as it stands. Like the writers he clearly likes and is obviously influenced by (the Georges Bataille of Story of the Eye, the Pauline Renge of Story of O) O’Reilly evidently regards the sexual impulse as a transgressive, anarchic force in the human psyche, and its invention, human society. Trouble is, with the mainstreaming of what Susan Sontag memorably termed ‘the pornographic imagination’, the goalposts have shifted since their day, and much of this post-Freudian, neo-Lawrentian, revolutionary vigour has been sidelined. From the mid-90’s ascent of The Spice Girls, followed through by the MTV dominance of Brittany Spears’ more fetishistic videos – and even in spite of the current obsession with paedophilia, especially when perpetrated by men of the priestly calling – early female sexualisation is now the norm. Hell, even 18-year-old Sicilian girls are now writing sexual memoirs (Melissa P’s One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed). One could even argue that the phenomenal commercial success of Dan Brown’s appallingly-written The Da Vinci Code is fuelled by nothing other than the general mass of respectable solid citizens cottoning on to the fact that Judeo-Christian strictures regarding sexuality, in particular that of equating female virtue with pre-marital virginity and, more often than not, post-marital chastity – were not everything they were cracked up to be in the first place. Stop press, hold the front page: everybody shags nowadays, even women, even all those breeders out in the ‘burbs. And, what’s more, they don’t seem to feel particularly guilty about it afterwards, whether or not it was their domestic partners with whom they were doing the foul deed. In fact, a lot of the time, shameless wretches that they are, they seem to be actually enjoying it. For most people, especially in Ireland, the ’90’s, not the ’60’s, was the decade of sexual revolution. And what a velvet revolution it was. For while it has undoubtedly been amusing to watch the Irish, more than most races, getting into sex, the lack a of taboo-breaking frisson, or the deep satisfaction of giving a two-fingered salute to guilt-making repression, has considerably lessened its subversive potential. All of which leaves O’Reilly looking like a vaguely anachronistic figure, purveying ’50’s French existentialist café culture angst shtick, long after the fact of its rebellious, anti-bourgeois posturing has bolted. The nexus wherein a writer is unable to make up his mind as to whether sex is down and dirty, or sacramental and identity-defining, or even so fundamental precisely because it is so outré, is no longer a fruitful avenue of exploration. As it is, O’Reilly faces accusations of the worst kind of male wish fulfilment this side of Norman Mailer’s An American Dream.

 

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A further technical problem with this text is that Veronica’s expectancy, however exotically remote Martin’s location, is conducted as though e mail or text messaging or, heaven help us, even ye olde worlde telephone land line, had never been invented.
Okay, so it’s supposed to be a fantasy, and the fantasy is suppose to usurp all reality in its path (which, seemingly, proved too much for the venerable firm of Faber & Faber, O’Reilly’s previous publishers, to entertain, thus providing new Dublin imprint The Stinging Fly Press with the opportunity to publish its first book-length production). But, while William James was undoubtedly right when he opined that morbid-mindedness encompassed more of the human condition than supposedly healthy-mindedness, and while Watermark is certainly more authentic than the predictably banal tales of the marriage market and its inevitably corollary, suburban adultery, that we have grown accustomed to in recent years, or even more authentic than O’Reilly’s more sociologically-conscious previous outing, The Swing of Things, it still leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to confronting the real life ramifications of the singular pursuit of sexual ecstasy for its own sake, as a good in itself, as an end in itself.

First published in the Irish Book Review


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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