Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Psychotic Episodes - A Collection of Short Stories by Alan McMonagle

Psychotic Episodes  - A Collection of Short Stories by Alan McMonagle (2013, 192 pages)

March 1 to March 31

Alan McMonagle

I if you are interested in participating in ISSM3, please contact me.

How I cannot I not be interested in a collection of short stories entitled Psychotic Episodes?  One of my biggest hopes  as I planned  ISSM3 was to learn more about the Irish short story and in to discover new to me writers.   If I do not move beyond the writers I have so far read for the month, I will be totally happy with the results.

Psychotic Episodes by Alan McMonagle, Galway, is a marvelously surrealistic collection of short stories with a wicked sense of humor which lives well up to its name.  The prose style is amazing and the people in them are real.

Posting on a collection of short stories presents more of a challenge, to me at least, than posting on a novel.    For me I find the best way to post on a collection of short stories, both in terms of benefiting possible readers or buyers of the collection and respecting the writer, is by  posting in some detail on a representative number of the stories and then make some general observations on the collection and offer my thoughts to prospective readers.  To those who want the bottom line first, I completely endorse this collection of short stories to any lovers of the form.  

"Looking After Little Patrick"

"We drive to the beach, find a parking space along the
promenade in front of the water, and turn to Little Patrick
to make sure he is still excited. As we assist him out of his
seat, we close the car door on his thumb. At once, I re-open
the car door, release the trapped thumb and pretend no
harm has been done. Gemma fusses over Little Patrick’s
wonderful coat, points to the waves caressing the strand
below us and, for a moment, we think we will get away
with it. However, he starts to cry. As he cries and cries, the
thumb starts to turn black.
‘It will fall off if you keep crying’, I say to him, pointing
at his scary thumb."

Gemma, and her boyfriend, the narrator of "Looking After Little Patrick" have been trying to have a child for sometime but now the doctors have told them that this not in their future. Based on how they take care of Little Patrick, the five year old son of Gemma's brother, I think we can safely say this is a good thing.   The style is totally as if nothing is wrong as we read of the nephew being given several Long Island Ice Teas (a strong cocktail), being lost at the beach and almost falling off a thirty foot sea wall. The narrator things all this is perfectly normal and we get a small glimpse of his past that that helps us understand him a bit better.   A lot of funny and interesting things go on during Little Patrick's visit.  I could not help but thing of some movies and TV shows I have seen where the little kid is the psychotic terrorizing the adults but here it is the other way around.  There is also an interestingr story line revolving around Gemma's adoration for the American president Barrack Obama and the narrator's jealousy of him.  "Looking After Little Patrick" gets the collection of to a start with a truly psychotic episode.  

"Psychotic Episode"

"A doctor once listened to my story and concluded I didn’t
like myself very much. The following week the same
doctor was found in his bedroom, dangling from a rope.
The world is a hospital someone told me he had put down in
his goodbye note – among other things."

This story, set in a mental ward or hospital is kind of a mini One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with madcaps high jinks of the end mates combined with an even crazier staff.  One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is a TV pilot two of the patients are putting together.   One of the patients fancies he knows what TV shows American presidents were watching during the initiation of various military actions.  "Psychotic Episodes" is a very entertaining story and a worthy title work for the collection.

"The Day My Sister Almost Fixed Me Up With a Porn Star"

"Jennifer is always trying to fix me up. ‘Hello there’, she
says to many a bemused beauty. ‘This is my only brother.
He has poor coping skills but will make a considerate

Jennifer is the one sane sibling in an otherwise problematic family.  One sister moved to Uganda to fight poverty, without telling anyone in advance.  The other has been in a series of bad relationships and her brother, the narrator of this story, seemingly cannot get a date.  When or of you are now single have you ever had a well meaning relative always trying to find someone for you.  This is what Jennifer is constantly doing for her brother, he really wishes she would not bother.  Then one day Jennifer hits the fantasy date jackpot, she introduced him to a woman who is a porn star only she does not know that.  What happens next is a brilliant account of a very confused brother-sister he said she said set in which everyone comes out unhappy.

"Bloomsday Bus Driver"

"When I was a young lad the sun used to shine all day on
the sixteenth of June. Up it came at ten to five in the
morning and didn’t disappear until twenty past ten that
night. We lived five miles from the sea and one Bloomsday
morning my mother gave me a pound and said, ‘Off with
you now, go get a tan and figure out your life’. So I made
my way to the station, gave the pound to the bus driver,
sat in behind him and stared out at the clear blue sky"

Bloomsday is the day of the year on which Ulysses is set.  This story is nothing like what I figured it would be but as I thought about it it could have been an incident from that real day. I do not want to give away much of this plot other than to say it took four hours for the bus to make two miles.  The bus driver took a unique kind of break.  This was a very enjoyable story about psychotic bus ride.


"From the first moment she was the one. Her black shaggy
hair. Her death-is-nigh complexion. Her lost eyes and
faraway voice. She glided over ground.
He saw her every day on the bus. ‘I’ve fallen for you’, he
whispered, sinking into the seat behind her.
His world was full of order, neat arrays, reconciled. She
didn’t know her age; forgot days of the week; paid no
attention to the time of day."

Good flash fiction is hard to write and "Untouchable" at one page is an excellent role mode for other writers.  McMonagle introduces all of the elements of a classical short story in this one page. We meet two characters at a point of drama in their lives, we get to know them a bit and we feel their loneliness, we see the issues in their lives resolve and we even get a miniature sense of epiphany.     


"‘OK. Any sign of the whores?’ Duffy asked him, handing
over the first tenner.
‘I saw one standing right where you are now’, the drunk
replied, stuffing the money note inside his tattered coat.
‘How did you know she was a whore?’ Duffy asked,
brandishing a second tenner.
‘Because when I offered her the money the last pair of
clowns gave me she hitched her skirt and hooked her legs
behind my ears’.

‘How long ago was this?’ Duffy asked, passing over a
third tenner.
‘About fifty years ago’."

Some lads out on the town in search of whores, not the worse reason to leave the house, I guess and I like their method of verification but it seems their data is a bit old..  The story actually centers on two mates, one of them seems to spend a lot of time looking for whores but he never finds any.  The other just goes along for something to do.   One of the lads is leaving town the next day.  I found these lines totally hilarious:

"‘Tomorrow! That’s short notice. How is your mother
about all of this?’
‘The mother is delighted. She’s had enough of my aimless
ways. She’s ordered me to spend some time with a relation
somewhere in arctic Canada. Some madman who shoots
geese and dances with bears. She’s even gone and bought
me a flight ticket. But I think I’ll go to Italy’.avy 
‘Italy! I’ve always wanted to go there. Which part?’
‘I know a girl from Bologna. She has fantastic hands’.
‘Do they come with fingernails?’"

Things start to get a bit weird, did I forget to mention they are on some heavy psychotropic drugs?  I do not want to tell to much as this is a really original story.    This really is a rich very deep story which is also very entertaining.  Just remember the next time you go out looking for whores you might find more than  you bargained for.  

"Thai Food"

"She approached the two men and
without warning she kick-boxed her father to the ground
and subsequently straddled her prone victim and
proceeded to steadily pummel his chest with her little fists.
Chef egged her on. My father raised his beer in her
direction and smiled. What had Ken done to this girl to
warrant such ferocity, I wondered? What dark secrets did
those pounding little fists contain?"

"Thai Food", the last story I will talk about, very much exemplifies the common threads I have found in Irish Short Stories this month as well as the themes of McMonagle.  I will tell the outlines of the plot and then explain what I mean by this remark.  I man returns to Ireland after a very long rambling trips of several years around the world.  He visits his father, his parents are divorced.  The father tells him he wants to take him to a new Thai restaurant that the father goes to all the time.   They show up and the owner, in a suit greets them.  The father calls the man "Ken" saying he cannot say his real name and orders two daily specials and two beers.  He and his father, he  smelled the whiskey on him back at his house, begin to talk of events of the last few years but the father seems preoccupied with getting more beers for them and talking about the food.   Soon we hear a screaming from the kitchen and the chef and Ken run into the serving room with the chef in hot pursuit of Ken with a chef's knife.   The father does not even seem to notice this just observes the sauce is thin today.  He asks his son if the food seems thin to him even though he has  never been there before.  Then the scene I quote above occurs.  The father never seems to notice any of this.

Starting with common areas to the stories in this collection we have a psychotic episode happen but no body takes note of it as they are too preoccupied with banalities.  We have two people talking totally at cross purposes with no communication at all.  We have the sense that random violence can destroy our ordered world at any time and that much of the things that go on around us are lost to us.  We have the heavy use of alcohol.  We have one person in the story who seems sort of sane and one disconnected.  We have the son who tried to escape Ireland.  We have a fragmented family.  

One of the common themes in the short stories I have read this month is that of the weak or missing Irish father.  Declan Kiberd traces this in part to the legacy of the church which usurped the spiritual authority of the father and colonialism which in effect under cut the masculinity of the country and forced the Irish into finding ways to survive from a position of weakness and subservience.  In all of the Q and A Sessions with writers I have done this month I have asked if Declan Kiberd is right when he says this is the dominant theme of modern Irish literature.  No one has said flat out yes but most say there is something to this.  From this weakness flows the heavy drinking in the stories, wives as something you go to the pubs to avoid, mothers to be worshiped and for sex you look to whores.  These are all in "Thai Food".  It is also a story of exile and return, about the changes in Ireland in recent years, about the repudiation of Irish culture in the preference for Thai food, about the inability to communicate without drinking.  Is the father in this story weak, hard to tell but he was missing in his son's life for years due to divorce and then the son's travels.  A missing father can come from the strength to work off shore for years alone not just from drunken weakness.  In part missing fathers are a consequence of colonialism also and in the last few years we can see this  in the collapse of the Irish economy.  Broadly speaking this was, it seems, brought on my acts of failure and greed by high level Irish men, often in the pay or directed by outsiders, who made terrible decisions which enriched them but impoverished the country.  When it is time to pay the price, the fathers of the country suggest all must share the pain.  To the people who caused this it may mean selling one of your hunting lodges in the south of France, to others it means cutting your medication back to every other day.  

There are thirteen other wonderful stories in Psychotic Episodes, each one very different in plot from the others.  The stories are very entertaining, very funny as long as you are a bit off yourself and who is not now days, they build worlds in just a few pages.  You can see the marvelous prose style of Alan McMonagle in the passages I have quoted.   

I endorse this story to any an all lovers of the form and I look forward to reading more work by the author.

Author Bio (from his webpage)

Alan McMonagle is a poet, playwright and short fiction writer living in Galway, IrelandHe holds an MA in Writing from National University of Ireland, Galway. He has received awards for his work from the Professional Artists’ Retreat in Yaddo (New York), the Fundación Valparaiso (Spain), the Banff Centre for Creativity (Canada) and the Arts Council of Ireland.

He has contributed stories to many journals in Ireland and North America including The Adirondack Review, The Valparaiso Fiction Review, Natural Bridge, Grain, Prairie Fire, Southword and The Stinging Fly. 

Liar Liar, his first collection of stories published by
Wordsonthestreet appeared in 2008 and was longlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The title story from his second collection, Psychotic Episodes, (due from Arlen House in April 2013) was nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize.

You can learn more about his work on his webpage.

He has kindly agreed to do a Q and A session so look for that soon.

Mel u

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