March 1 to March 31
I am happy to start Irish Short Story Week Year Three with a writer I first read last year during Irish Short Story Week Year Two, Ethel Rohan. I have been following her work ever since then and will continue to do so permanently. She is an immensely talented writer on whom I am honored to post.
Last year I read a story, "Beast and the Bear" by Ethel Rohan, a totally new to me at the time writer. I read it during Emerging Irish Women Writers Week. I never expected to read a story during this week that I would end up regarding as belonging with the greatest short stories of all time. I read it four times in a row I was so amazed. Since I read that story for the first time, I have read, I estimate, at least 1000 other short stories including most of the consensus best short stories in the world. After reading "Beast and the Bear" again yesterday and this morning I am completely convinced it should already be counted among the world's greatest short stories. I was in fact so shocked by the power of this story that I wanted to be sure I was not overreacting. I sent a fellow book blogger whose taste I know to be exquisite and educated through decades of reading short stories and she said only the very best short stories she had ever read, she is an authority on Virginia Woolf, could compare to it. I know this sounds hyperbolic but it is how I feel. I do not lightly say a short story written by an author I had never heard of the day before I read it belongs with the work of the greatest of short story writers but that is my opinion. In a way I felt a sense of satisfaction in that I was open enough in my perceptions and judgments to be able to make such an assertion.
Since then I have followed the work of Rohan. I have posted on a few of her short stories and on her very haunting collection Hard to Say. She also wrote a guest post on my blog last year about an emerging Irish writer she, and now I admire, Danielle McLaughlin.
For Irish Short Story Week Year Three I am posting on a another very exciting collection of short stories by Rohan, Cut Through the Bone.
To me posting on a collection of short stories by a single author presents a greater challenge than posting on a novel. I do not especially like posts on anthologies of short stories that just rave on about them in general. When I visit a forest I do not just like to see the trees, I like to see the moss that grows on them, the vines that climb them and listen to the birds that make them their home. I like to peel the bark from the trees to see the insects that bore into the trees, I like to study their roots. Sometimes I like to climb to the top of the trees and survey the environment, once in a rare while I build a tree house and stay a while. In the case of the stories of Rohan I have cleared some of the trees and built myself a log cabin bunker as I am staying here for a while. Maybe I will be alone here but that is how it should be as many of her stories are about deep loneliness and isolation but remember there are Bears in the woods of Rohan. Keep in mind that maybe you are the beast.
There are thirty stories in the collection. I will attempt some observations on enough of them to give you a feel for her stories and then I will also make my own generalizations and recommendations to potential readers. I will say for those who want the bottom line now, I totally endorse this collection for all lovers of the short story. There is much to marvel at in Cut Through the Bone.
"More than Gone"
"For a time after the war, while making love, he’d touch his ghost hand to her body and narrate how he was rubbing her nipples, squeezing and circling her breasts. She hadn’t liked that, and had gotten angry. Now, feeling another’s touch was such a seldom thing she had to be content with the memory of it."
As "More than Gone" opens an quite elderly woman is walking home her youngest granddaughters fifth birthday. Her husband of 56 years died not to long ago. In just a few lines Rohan does a wonderful job of letting us see into the dynamics of a very long marriage. "She and Albert were married for fifty-six years. He could be lazy and annoying and she was stubborn and pedantic, but they’d come out of the long union the best of friends". The party was lots of fun, all four of her children were their. There was cake, balloons and lots of festivity. Her children volunteered to drive her home but the walk was not that long and she wanted to go on her own. She needed, I think, some time to get over the party before returning home alone to her house. She carried a balloon with her. She begins to feel terribly alone. When she gets home she makes a pot of tea and draws a face on the balloon and begins to tell the balloon about the party. "She adds eyelashes, brows, and hair. The face comes alive and she compliments it on how handsome it looks." There is something terrible sad but also their is an underlying joy deep below the surface of this story that a love can sustain you through very dark seemingly empty times.
"Next to the Gutter"
"His father had walked-out on his mother when she was pregnant, hadn’t even waited to see what she’d give him."
One of the things I am finding more and more as I read Irish short stories is that Declan Kiberd is very right when he teaches us in Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation that one of the most important, perhaps the most powerful, themes of modern Irish literature is that of the absent or weak father. "Next to the Gutter" is about a boy, growing up without a father, his mother calls him "the man of the house" whose working mother directs by leaving leaving pop-up notes all over the house. On the TV she puts a note that says homework first, on the stove she puts a note that says "Do Not Use". He is home alone most of the time. The ending is heartbreaking and speaks of a future generation being thrown away.
"One early morning, when I was five, my mother disappeared. She walked out our front door and was never seen or heard from again. I believed she’d return one day soon, always soon, but Daddy didn’t like me to ever talk about that. She was gone, he said, and we needed to get on with things."
|Ethel, I am looking|
for a ghost writer-
Sometimes it is the mother that leaves and we see the very dark consequences of this in "Mirror", a story that reminded me of a great book I recently read for the third time, Keepsake by Kirsty Gunn. As the story opens the daughter, we do not know her exact age but I am guessing 11 to 14, is waking her father up on a Sunday morning, he seems hungover and he smells of cigarettes and perfume. She tells him it is important he gets up and she drags him down to the bedroom he used to sleep in with his wife, he sleeps in another room now. The girl's class mates have told her that he mother left with another man. The girl cannot accept that: "My mother would never leave Daddy, never leave me. And Daddy most certainly hadn't harmed her. He hated to kill even a mouse. Someone had taken her away, a bad man. Or she’d fallen into the river and drowned. But she would never have gone willingly, never have made that awful choice." The close of the story is horrifying in its dark beauty and power.
"When UPS delivered the first lifelike baby doll, Sandy clapped and shrieked. The newborn replica, dressed in a powder-blue onesie, came fitted with a heartbeat, glossed nails, ginger human hair, and mottled, veined skin. The doll so realistic Rob drew back, his scalp crawling."
Rohan's stories are often about horrible losses, things that cannot be borne without a deep transformation. Have you ever seen a loved one begin a descent into madness and you decided rather than lose them you would go along? This is sort of what this wonderful story is about. There are just two people in the story, a married couple. One day the woman gets the first of several very real seeming baby dolls. She becomes obsessed with them. When she gets a new arrival she calls work and tells them she needs a week off for a family emergency. Soon she quits her job so she can spend more time with "the babies". She will not go anywhere with her husband, not to the movies or dinner as she cannot leave them home alone. After a very disturbing hard to understand incident, the husband makes a decision to begin to act as if he also thinks the dolls are real. You really need to read this story. We do not learn what happened in the life of the woman to make her so vulnerable. We do not know if she lost a child, had an abortion (Rohan has a very compassionate story about a couples after an abortion conversation), or cannot have children or knows she would not be a fit mother for a real child.
"All There, Waiting"
"In the bedroom, inside the mural, there’s a boy, park, red truck, and blue fish that fly in and out between the branches and about the boy’s dark head. Also on the wall, the father can see faces where there are no faces: The boy his baby son would have become, the future man that will never be. Everywhere he looks—inside the wall, window, his palms and black leather toecaps—he sees his dead baby, just as he looked inside the tiny, but still too big, coffin."
Dead children are important in the work of Rohan. They represent the greatest lost of potential and they also live on a kind of tabula rosa on which any possibility could have been written. A living son may turn into a drain that never leaves home, a daughter may bring fatherless children home but a dead baby would have been president, cured cancer and never given into cynicism that comes with the compromises most of us make to survive.
Evan's wife thinks brooding over their dead child has turned him into a fool. "Every now and then his wife passes by the open door and looks in at him like he’s a fool. He is a fool. She is a fool. We are all fools."
One day the wife cannot take it anymore, she lost not just her son but her husband when the baby dies. She screams at him that the boy would have wanted them to get on with our lives. When he makes no response she throws her wedding ring in the fire. The ending will move you. It is hard to know if the man is going insane or if he has realized a great truth.
"I’d read The Xenophobes Guide on the flight, and learned that the Irish scoffed at Yanks who claimed they were Irish. If you weren't born and bred, forget it."
This is the story of a vacation to Ireland that never should have happened! If you have ever as an adult traveled with your parents this might make you either cringe or be glad for the sane parents you have. The daughter has some how got roped into going to Ireland with her father. She wonders why out of five children she has to go. Her mother was smart enough to claim her health did not allow her to make the trip. Both of the father's grandparents were born in Ireland so he figures that makes him Irish. He also has a fetish for the color green, a serious one! When they get to the airport he borrows his daughters mobile and is mad because the same buttons do not work on it as work on his home phone. The daughter tries to tell him we are in Ireland so you cannot just hit five and dial my brother. He wants to call home and see how his dogs are doing. The trip through the Irish countryside is just priceless with the father doing as much as he can, not on purpose of course, to embarrass his daughter when they stop of at a pub for a Guinness. I did not at all see the ending of this story coming but it was just so perfect, so hilarious. It somehow showed real bonds of father-daughter love combined with incredible humiliation and embarrassment. A fabulous five pages!
"Found and Lost"
"I was at the office, typing at my desk, when the baby materialized on my lap. She sat upright and was bald, naked, and drooling. Her dappled fist rammed into her pink mouth. The back of her head pushed against my breasts."
Lost babies as I mentioned before are big in the work of Rohan. This is a strange and a wonderful story whose "meaning" one could debate along time. A baby suddenly appears in the lap of a woman who is not pregnant. She already has all the kids she really needs. She calls the police and they tell her "you found it so you keep it". She takes it home and everybody is thrown into a state of consternation. Her oldest daughter says "Not again". Her husband has no idea what to say but he seems to be considering the suggestion of one of the kids to put him in the dog kennel until we figure out what to do with him. I just cannot spoil this story. You can try to decide the what it means if you like or you can just read it and enjoy it. Or maybe both.
"Home Economics proved to be my worst subject. My breads didn't rise, embroidery didn’t make pictures, and knit socks with holes didn’t pair. I didn’t have the patience for so much repetition and exactness, for instructions and patterns. And why bother? I didn’t ever want to be a wife or mother."
This story is about surviving in an environment that wants to push you into something you do not want to be and in your heart you know you might not be very good at it anyway. Olivia is in school. She hates the home economic class where the teachers wants to bold them to be good wives and mothers, worth of their keep. Her friend wants to get married as soon as she gets out of school and have five kids. I admit I hated the home economic teacher almost as much as Olivia did.
"I decided Mrs. Hazel was mentally ill. She wasn’t crazy-crazy like my mother. She didn’t see or hear things that weren’t there or think that everyone was trying to kill her. But crazy comes in lots of different sizes and forms. Mrs. Hazel was the “too caught-up with domesticity” kind of crazy. Every class, we suffered through a “show and tell” of her constant industry—the baby clothes she knitted for her friends’ and neighbors’ offspring, the dresses, tops, and pants she sewed for their older children. She paraded in front of us the fruit pies she baked and fancy dinners she cooked. She showed us hundreds of handkerchiefs, each embroidered with flowers of her own design. The way she held these items, and talked about them, touched them to her face, they seemed real to her, like children."
The ending is very haunting, a strange kind of confronting of your own and your enemies madness.
"Cut Through the Bone"
"Minutes later, he spoke again. “I know this sounds weird, but could you also massage where my leg used to be? It’s the phantom stuff, I can still feel it."
The title story takes us deeply into a space we probably hope we will never have to go. A man goes for a therapeutic massage. The therapist knows he has had an injury and he makes her think of her son Tom, about the same age. This is a great story with so much in just a few pages.
The stories in Cut Through the Bone are about dealing with loss. Sometimes it maybe a spouse, there are more than one lost baby in the collection. There are amputated body parts, loss sanity and lost connections. The stories are about people whose oddness makes them lonely. People who have seen through enough that they don't always care about what others think they should, people that know they will never be happy, never run down the aisle on a camp show screaming with delight because they won a blender.
If someone does an Irish Short Event Twenty Five years from now, and I certainly hope someone will, I would not at all be surprised to see Ethel Rohan featured without controversy as one of the world's great short story writers.