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

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Waiting for the Bullet - Short Fiction by Madeleine D'Arcy (2014)

Short Listed for The Edge Hill 2015 Prize for Short Fiction

"A story is an apocalypse, served in a small cup".  Hortense Calisher

Waiting for the Bullet, the marvelous debut collection of Madeleine D'Arcy, is a beautifully written highly perceptive set of stories about relationships in times of transition, in periods darked by social and economic stresses and personal crisis.  The stories are set mostly in Ireland but they allow us to see the universal in the particular.  D'Arcy has a keen eye for small nuances in relationships.  She helps us understand the built in paradoxes in relationships that often bring them to an end, the tension between the craving for a partner that excites you, gives you a sense of the edge and one that provided stability and affection.  You can see this strongly in the amazing story "The Fox and the Placenta".  In writing on Irish fiction over the last few years I have been guided by the ideas of Declan Kiberd in terms of a post-colonial reading of Irish literature and I see repeated manifestations of the theme of they weak or missing father in these profound stories.   D'Arcy helps us see the humanity in others, one of the greatest benefits of deep stories.  I think another great story teller from Cork, Frank O'Connor, would have been an admiring reader of Waiting for the Bullet.  

I find reviewing short story collections very challenging.  Often the stories were written not for the collection but simply placed there.  When we read the stories as a group, one impacts the other, stories bleed into each other.  Most reviewers of short stories simply use a few metaphorical terms to apply to the collection and then write a line or two on a few stories.  To me this is not really a much service to potential readers or fully respectful of the artist.  I try to give enough coverage of at least half of the stories in a collection to convey a sense of the work.

I endorse without reservations of any kind Waiting for the Bullet to all lovers of a suberbly crafted short story.  The stories are beautifully written, at times nearly heartbreakingly sad, funny and not without some interesting sexual scenarios.  There is Irish slang in the stories and I enjoyed that a lot.

"Clocking Out"

"Then I see it trailing along behind me, slithering along the foot path like a big slug"

"Clocking Out", the lead story in Waiting for the Bullet, does superbly what first rate fiction at it's best does.  It forces us to see the humanity in people we try not to notice as we make our way around the city.  In just a few masterful pages Arcy takes us deeply into the life of a still young woman, not very smart, not too pretty.  She had a job nobody would take if they could get anything else, working in a factory as an assembler.   She overhears her mother tell someone she is lucky to have the job.  I really don't want to tell more of the plot of the story.  Their is a very visual scene where we are on the tube 
(the subway or city train) with the woman.  She looks at a smartly dressed couple and her thoughts brought me a great feeling of sadness when you feel the inferiority society has forced her to internalize.  
There is a starkly brutal event at the heart of this story, one that made perfect sense.  "Clocking Out" is a wonderful story fully in the tradition, as my limited knowledge sees it, of the Irish short story.

"Hole in the Bucket"

"It's 5.32 PM and I'm going home on the rattaling oxygen starved Piccadily Tube Line"

"Hole in the Bucket" makes an interesting pairing with "Clocking Out".  A good bit of both stories takes place on a London Tube ride, for starters.  "Hole in the Bucket" is about a woman mentally and financially secure people try not to notice on the tube.  "Hole in the Bucket" tells us what happens when Leanne, an office worker who recently ended a long relationship, see a woman she has has not seen for eight years or so.  They were teenagers together.  The other woman is now begging for money in the tube, singing horribly.  Leanne wonders if she should speak to her on slip off the train.  She makes the mistake of speaking and we see how different they now are when her old acquaintance turns on her.

We also sense an emptiness in Leanne's life, both women have their involvements with unreliable men.  Drink is a big factor in the story.  In just a few pages D'Arcy takes us into two very different lives.  


"Salvage", like the prior two stories, focuses on someone recently out of a relationship and on how the breakup impacts them.   Only in this case our subject is a man.  Vincent's wife was a doctor.  She was not just successful she was beautiful.   At the start of the relationship Vincent made great money as a fire hazard inspector.  He was riding high on the rise in the Irish economy, the Celtic Tiger.  When the construction trade dropped way down, his income collapsed.  His wife basically got tired of paying all the bills and told him to leave. After some looking he finds a place in a  house with a room to rent.  This story is really a slice of a few days of life, not a problem solving life changing story.  Vincent adjusts to life in the house and becomes friends slowly with the land lady.  A cat plays a part in the story and that is a plus.  Alcohol, ever present in Irish literature, plays a part.  "Salvage" is an excellantly done story and the ending is moving.  I liked it a lot.

"Waiting for the Bullet" 

"I told myself that relationships were like economies, that they were cyclical things, with peaks and troughs".  

"Waiting for the Bullet", the title story of the collection, centers on a married couple aged about forty, going through a bit of a recession in their relationship.  You can see reflected in the literature of this century the impact of the decline of the Irish economy on relationships.  The couple are comfortable financially, the husband, the wife narrates the story, is in the building trade.  One day he brings home a very real looking toy gun.  His wife is shocked until she finds it is not real.  It makes a sound like a real gun when fired.   Compressing a bit, one evening they have couple over for dinner, the husband's clients, and the gun becomes the center of focus.   I don't want to tell too much more of the plot but the close  is very powerful.  D'Arcy does a suberb job of letting us see the dynamics of the marriage and gets us inside the mind of the wife.  Like the other stories, alcohol plays a big part in "Waiting for the Bullet".   

"Wolf Note"

"Wolf Note" is a very well done story about a married man cheating  on his wife for the first time.  Eddie is forty and owns his own company.  Christmas is approaching and his wife sends him a text message saying he needs to play Santa at the party for their children.  He and his wife exchange some texts as he doesn't feel like doing it but he agrees to do it to avoid an argument.  In the mean time his bachelor man about  town friend with a reputation as a ladies' man  invites him for a night out with the guys.  He wants to go but of course his wife does not like the idea.  The plot action is very interesting, a bit erotic, and I certainly learned something about cellos I did not know.  The story was a lot of fun to read and it is a good portrait of a marriage that still endures but might have seen better days.  Alcohol helps fuel the action.  

"Housewife of the Year"

"Housewife of the Year" is a fascinating rather frightening story that totally drew me into the world of the narrator, an Irish woman we first meet when she is in high school and with whom we part ways with at twenty nine.  Every year there is an Ireland wide contest for the title of "Housewife of the Year".  Her mother, a widow who runs the family hardware store, pretty much hates her five kids but she puts on a good act on the TV show finals and wins.  As soon as the children can, the narrator is the youngest, they leave home and move either to America or Australia.  The mother tells the narrator she cannot leave but she gets a civil service job, finds a man, and moves to Dublin.  I jus rio not want to spoil this story for first time readers but it takes two and I see a third shocking turn coming.  The very real power in this story comes from the brief undercurrents from which we must try to understand the narrator's actions.  This can be seen as another story about the missing Irish father.  This is a disturbing look at the dark side of family life.  We wonder what terrible memories destroyed so much.

"The Fox and the Placenta"

"The Fox and the Placenta" had me at the title.  There are two main onstage characters, a woman nine months pregnant and due right now and her boyfriend, who may or may not be the father of her baby.  I learned something I did not know from this story, that London has a lot of wild foxes.  The foxes are a nuisance as they knock over garbage bins.  

Marilyn's current boyfriend Brendan is solidly reliable, considerate and decent.  Her old boyfriend Sam was a "bad boy" sort.  We can see Marilyn kind of wishes for a fusion of the two characters.  In a very cinematic scene, Marilyn goes into labor.  I just cannot spoil this story but Brendan kind of becomes a bit of the wilder man Marilyn craves in a conflict with the foxes of maybe Marilyn just sees more into him.

Author Bio

Madeleine D’Arcy was born in Ireland and later spent thirteen years in the UK. She worked as a criminal legal aid solicitor and as a legal editor in London before returning to Cork City in 1999 with her husband and son. She began to write short stories in 2005.

In 2010 she received a Hennessy X.O Literary Award for First Fiction as well as the overall Hennessy X.O Literary Award for New Irish Writer.

One of her stories came joint-second in the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen Short Story Competition 2011. Her work has been short-listed and commended in many other competitions, including the Fish Short Story Prize, the Bridport Prize (UK), and the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition.

Publications in which her work has appeared include: Sunday TribuneMade in Heaven and Other Short StoriesSharp Sticks, Driven Nails (Stinging Fly Press, Ireland); Irish Examiner;Necessary FictionIrish IndependentIrish TimesThe Penny DreadfulLong Story ShortLakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts;Short Story (University of Texas, Brownsville); and Unbraiding the Short Story (Ed. Maurice A Lee, University of Arkansas). Other stories are scheduled for publication in Surge: New Writing From Ireland (O’Brien Press, November 2014) and in The Quarryman (Bradshaw Books, April 2015).

A short film of Madeleine’s story ‘Dog Pound’, featuring the distinguished Irish actor Frank Kelly, was premièred at the Hennessy Literary Awards in April 2014 and will be screened at Waterfordand  Film Festival 2014.

She has been awarded bursaries by the Arts Council of Ireland and by Cork City Council, and was the scholarship student on the inaugural Masters Degree in Creative Writing at University College Cork.

I loved Waiting for the Bullet and look forward to reading much more of the work of Madeleine D'Arcy.

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