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Shenanigans

Edited by Donal Scannell and Sarah Champion

Shenanigans, an anthology of what its cover hails as ‘fresh Irish fiction’, was published by Sceptre last January amid much fanfare and flimflam. The aggressive marketing campaign included the obligatory controversial Late Late Show appearance by one of the editors, Donal Scannell - a predictable ploy which met with just as predictable, and probably desired, near universal ridicule and derision - and the bizarre spectacle of one of the contributors, journalist Olaf Tyaransen, penning a manifestly self-congratulatory piece about the book’s New York launch, for The Sunday Independent. (His short biography at the back of Shenanigans informs us: ‘In 1997 Tyaransen ran in the general election on a cannabis legalisation ticket. Nobody can understand why he’s never been arrested.’ If self-promotion were considered a more grievous offence than cannabis possession, he would be.) The sales drive has manifestly borne fruit though, since the book has been in the best-seller lists for a number of weeks, rare for a bunch of short stories, many by first time authors. Obviously, it pays to advertise, as they say. But is there really no such thing as bad publicity? Or is that just something publicists tell us? And in spite of the glad-handing and razzmatazz, rather than because of it, might there actually be anything here worth reading?

With nineteen stories featured, there’s bound to be something for everybody in the audience. As Scannell rightly states in the introduction, ‘If everybody liked every story we’d have completed our task poorly.’ But aside from the obvious quality of the contributions by a couple of the more established writers, for example ‘The Stained Glass Violations’ by Mike McCormack (already available in his collection Getting It In The Head), or the previously unpublished ‘As if there were Trees’ by Colum McCann, the standard varies widely and wildly among the rest of the posse. The anthology is very loosely unified around ‘club culture’, but this has engendered an uncomfortable ‘writing by numbers’ aspect to many of the stories, as though they were commissioned, with specifications to include at least one reference a piece to 1) information technology, 2) recreational drug-taking, and 3) ‘kinky’ sex. The other common thread is that the stories are supposed to be the work of ‘young’ writers, although at least a couple are in their mid to late thirties, while Joe Ambrose was old when I was young.

Within this rubric, aimed at an identifiable niche market, the contributions can be divided, with ruthless duality, into those by people who can write and have a fictive imagination, and those who, on this showing, can produce nothing more noteworthy than perfectly adequate, or in some cases fairly shoddy, journalism. In other words, those who have some talent, and those who would be well advised never to try their hand at fiction again. Into the former category can be placed ‘The Best Tipperary has to Offer’ by Julian Gough, ‘The Pooka at Five Happiness’ by Emer Martin, ‘Digging a Hole’ by Colin Carberry and ‘Surabaya Johnny’ by Helena Mulkerns; into the latter, most of the rest. There is a grey area wherein float ‘I Hate You and I Hate Your Jesus’ by Joe Ambrose, which is diaryish and reporterish, but at least imbued with a dollop of world weary, sardonic self-knowledge; ‘Canal Bank Walk’ by Dex.357 and ‘Hanratty’s Time Capsule’ by Gavin Patrick Carville, both interesting sociologically, even if the writing is nothing special; and ‘The Mile High Club’ by Robert Cremins. This guy can write and knows how to structure things well, as this story and his novel A Sort of Homecoming, published last year by (who else?) Sceptre ably demonstrate, but they also show that he seems content to confine his scope to the narrow world of the smart-assed and smarmy Dublin haute bourgeoisie, the kind of people who go to Trinity, play rugby, used to drink Furstenberg, and think people who smoke dope are degenerate weirdoes. This is a thoroughly uninteresting segment of society in this reviewer’s opinion, whose utter lack of self-awareness or self-deprecation unintentionally extends to Cremin’s treatment of them. Indeed, the biggest worry the central character in A Sort of Homecoming has is that he might wind up working in the Financial Services Centre. Poor him.

Of the good stuff, McCormack’s ‘The Stained Glass Violations’ is wonderfully subversive of Christian imagery, and demonstrates the contemporary west of Ireland Gothic he seems to have patented, and which was such a refreshing discovery in Getting It In The Head, and was extended in his novel, Crowe’s Requiem. McCann’s ‘As if there were Trees’ manages in a few short pages to combine social concern - here the problems of assimilation experienced by asylum seekers in working class communities - with aesthetic considerations, and is nothing less than what would be expected from the author of This Side of Brightness, which confirmed his reputation as the most lyrically gifted of the younger generation of Irish novelists now establishing themselves, and once again shows his highly honed sensitivity to injustice. The bright wit of Gough’s ‘The Best Tipperary has to Offer’, and the laconic observation of Carberry’s ‘Digging a Hole’, mark them out as ones to watch. Emer Martin’s ‘The Pooka at Five Happiness’ inhabits the same world of deracinated migrants as her remarkable debut novel, Breakfast in Babylon (which, incidentally, should be read by anyone who hasn’t already done so without delay), except that here the setting is Ireland, rather than London, Paris or the Middle East, and exclusion is explored from Chinese, black and traveller perspectives at home, rather than the experience of an Irish person abroad. But the real find of the anthology is Helena Mulkerns, who although nominated for a Hennessy award over a decade ago, has yet to produce a full length book, but whose ‘Surabaya Johnny’ augers well for the future. She has a wonderfully delicate and sensuous, exhilarating yet exact use of language, by turns lyrical and yearning, sassy and streetwise, and deftly mixes the rural and urban, the parochial and the international.

Of the bad, it is probably wiser, or at least less invidious, to pass over the worst offenders in diplomatic silence. However, Olaf Tyaransen could be singled out for opprobrium with impunity, delivering as he does the most unconvincing tale of drug paranoia I’ve ever read. There are few things more boring than listening to other people recounting their drug-induced hallucinations, an experience akin to having someone of little or no interest to you set in with grim intent on telling you their dreams, ‘With no attempts to shovel the glimpse/Into the ditch of what each one means’, as Bob Dylan has it in ‘Gates of Eden’. His story does have the virtue of auto-criticism, when towards the end we are told: ‘This was all a bit too much like a bad Leaving Cert English essay for me. And then I woke up? Nah!’ Then there’s ‘Red Isuzu’ by Colin Murphy, whose bio tells us is a stand-up comedian. What is this thing with comedians feeling compelled to write stories and novels? (Sean Hughes, Ardal O’Hanlon, and now Pauline McGlynn.) Does anyone read them, aside from die-hard fans? If so, isn’t it about time that McCann and McCormack, for example, or Jennifer Johnson and Dermot Bolger, or Anne Enright and Colm Toibin, or John Banville and John McGahern, were encouraged to do a spot of stand-up, to boost sales? Either way, one doubts that any of these funsters’ efforts will have the incendiary impact of Lenny Bruce’s autobiographical How To Talk Dirty And Influence People.

One of the more remarkable things about this anthology is the fact that while so much of the content of so many of the stories features recreational drug-taking or hedonistic sex (is there any other kind?), there is bugger all formal or linguistic experimentation going on to match them. In fact, with the exception of a couple of those singled out for praise above, in general the prose styles on display are notably straightforward and traditional, and appear quite tedious and tired, not up to the subject matter in hand. We’re not talking William Burrough’s Naked Lunch here, or Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School either. Few of the contributions have the sheer manic wit, energy and inventiveness, not to mention social commentary, of many of the stories in the collection of shorter fiction by the undisputed king of chemical generation writers, The Acid House by Irving Welsh, for example ‘Eurotrash’, ‘A Soft Touch’, ‘The Two Philosophers’ or ‘Disnae Matter’. This is the kind of biting satire, weird juxapositioning, and blatant yet apposite incongruity we expect from drug-heads, not the clear, simple, linear ‘then this happened, then that happened’ narratives we mostly get in Shenanigans. The work of other Rebel Inc. writers, like Gordon Legge’s ongoing ‘Life on a Scottish Council Estate’, some of which appeared in Near Neighbours, and Laura Hird’s ‘Tillicoultry/Anywhere’ from Nail and Other Stories, might also be usefully mentioned in this regard. If one includes Janice Galloway and Alan Warner, the Scottish New Wave would seem to be doing this kind of stuff so much better at the moment, if we were only to judge by the examples showcased here. Nor can the material in Shenanigans touch some of the more outré alternative universes and states of mind to be encountered in some of Will Self’s work. (By the by, isn’t it a very sad reflection on the staid Oxbridge sherry party/Hampstead dinner party milieu of so much English fiction - that is, fiction produced in England - that Self is considered strange and startling, the token wild man of English letters?)

The publicity which accompanies the book tells us that these are tales by young Irish writers who ‘...shun Ireland’s traditional literary topics in favour of the surreal and the deviant’, who ‘don’t wallow in slums or moan about emigration’, and have ‘...learnt more from the bizarre, sometimes sadistic, humour of Joyce and Beckett than the intervening doom merchants who built careers on painting Ireland as a land of woe.’ If only this were true! There is actually very little evidence here of Swiftian savage indignation, as exemplified in ‘A Modest Proposal’; of Joyce’s excremental imagination, as employed in the creation of Shem the Penman in Finnegans Wake, who scatologically using his own excrement as ink, ‘...wrote over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body’; of the excruciating wit, by turns learned and bawdy, of Beckett’s Trilogy; or of the macabre contrivances of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. And isn’t it telling that the publishers of Shenanigans view the experimental tradition in Anglo-Irish literature as the anomalous aberration, at the expense of the more realist and sentimental one which they regard as the dominant model. There was I thinking that most of the more important Irish writers in the canon were surreal and deviant. Surely the work of the great experimentalists is more central in Irish literary history, our more significant and lasting contribution to world literature, rather than that of our thematically and formally more conservative and insular storytellers? But then again, as Will Self observed in the kind of soundbyte imposed by TV, as part of the Channel 4 panel the night of last year’s Booker Prize giving: "If Ulysses was published this year it certainly wouldn’t be on the shortlist." In fact, it quite probably wouldn’t even get published at all, or taken on by an agent. Nor would the work of Beckett or O’Brien. They had difficult enough publishing histories in their own time, never mind in this more market-driven age. And Shenanigans is a commercial venture, at the end of the day, put together to capitalise on the success of previous Champion-edited tomes, Disco Biscuits and Disco 2000, so it can’t take that many chances. ‘There are alien abductions, lunatic politicians, gay clubs and gangsters rather than famine, drunken priests and vengeful farmers.’ we are told. Fair enough. I’m as sick as the next person of ’50s poor mouth, didn’t-we-have-it-tough memoirs myself, especially since everyone started jumping on that particular bandwagon. But isn’t how one writes as important, if not more so, than what one writes about? And besides, just how transgressive is much of the behaviour described in these stories anyway, in the context of a late ’90s Ireland which, due to increasing globalisation and the presence of multi-nationals, is pretty much like most of the rest of the industrialised Western world? Living in the party capital of Europe, the hippest country in the EU, which would ultimately be more subversive: getting e-d off your face at the weekend and dancing to The Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, or joining Youth Defence and listening to Dana’s ‘All Kinds of Everything’? Think about it. Sure, I know what I’d rather do, but if everything is available and permitted, nothing has the scary attraction of the forbidden anymore. The element of elitism, to say nothing of the comfort of belonging, that is satisfied by being part of a subculture, rapidly begins to fade when everyone else is doing it, doing it, too. What’s the point of preaching to the converted, or the perverted? What’s the difference between having one’s sexuality controlled by priests and politicians, or by magazine publishers and film producers? Perhaps we need some new suggestions as to how to be decadent, or different. Because it is going to take a bit more imagination to rattle the bourgeois cages now, because it is big business, after all, which stands to gain most out of the current boom. But the less successful sections of Shenanigans often seem to be merely straining hard to replace one set of orthodoxies with another, or worse, give the old orthodoxies a make-over and dress them up in new clothes.

Despite depicting a clichéd scene of the kind of drunken literary schmoozing more redolent of Behanesque ’50s Dublin than Joycean ’20s Paris (what’s so new about that?), Tyaransen’s Sindo piece did contain some sobering snippets of horse sense, courtesy of Colum McCann:

I think it’s dangerously sexy to be an Irish writer right now, particularly

one living abroad. And if we think that being Irish has a sort of cachet,

then it’s very dangerous to the literature of Ireland. Because there is a

certain element of this hipness that is dangerous. I mean, the more kinds

that are published the better. But what really matters is the language, the

way the words bump up against one another. And if we suddenly feel

that we are on another plateau because of where we’re born, then that’s

a real problem.

This is exactly right. Indeed, the idea of it being hip to be Irish is only marginally less unsettling than having Irishness instantly associated with backwardness, poverty and ignorance. Does any decent Irish writer want to be identified solely in terms of their nationality? McCann again:

I think this idea of hippness is terminal. You know, all fashion is sort of

terminal eventually. Sometimes to hide away is a good thing. To become

part of some kind of established or supposedly recognised scene is

dangerous.

However, one suspects that J D Salinger or Thomas Pynchon would also get short shrift these days, if looking for a start, their renowned reclusivity and anonymity - itself a kind of inverted fame - not going down too well with publishers keen to organise promotional author reading tours. But then again, if you’re a fan of these people, do you really want to meet them in the flesh? Isn’t part of the fun wondering if they actually exist?

Of course, it might be easy to construe these questioning criticisms as motivated by nothing more than personal pique, to detect a strong whiff of sour grapes hovering over these suspicious strictures. We live in an age of instant celebrity, with everyone famous for fifteen minutes, a legend in their own lunch-time. It’s better to be in than out, if you’re trying to make or consolidate a reputation, no matter who you’re keeping company with, or how you’re being sold. But I can think of a number of writers in the same age range, on their first or second book, Eamonn Sweeney or Katy Hayes for example, who might usefully have been included, plus a plethora of people whose work has appeared in the few anthologies, newspapers and journals that still provide an outlet for short stories in this country, but who have not as yet had a first short story collection or novel published. One does wonder about how thorough or arbitrary was the selection process. Was hanging around The Kitchen on Saturday nights the main criterion for inclusion, if you’re unlucky enough not to have acquired an agent in London yet?

But the line of least resistance, and the most generous attitude, is to conclude benignly, if a little ruefully, that this venture won’t do anyone any harm (it will certainly make money for its publishers and editors), and might do someone some good (hopefully its more able contributors). But if it hadn’t been hyped so much in the first place, it wouldn’t have failed to live up to its own hype.

Desmond Traynor is fiction writer and freelance critic, whose short stories have appeared in Phoenix: Irish Short Stories 1998, The Sunday Tribune and Books Ireland.

First published in Graph magazine, Issue 3.3, Summer 1999

 

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