Rating: 3 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Challenge.
My husband bought me this book, before I became his wife. He had read it and liked it, and wanted to share it with me. I didn’t get around to reading it at the time. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because there are always other books making their way to the crest of my book pile, pushing short story collections further down.
MacCann was apparently one to watch when this, his debut work, came out. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t published any other books. He’s been more focused on journalism. I read an article he wrote about being an alumnus of Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing course at UEA. MacCann doesn’t seem to be a satisfied customer.
This collection of stories is filled with outsiders, people who internalise their dissatisfaction with life, or who try to numb it in some way. They are almost abstract as characters. MacCann plunges you straight into the heart of a story, without context or exposition. I felt like a voyeur, given a glimpse of these characters’ lives through a crack in a door, or a moment’s eavesdropping on a conversation.
There is nobody likeable between the pages of this book. There is nobody I could find sympathy for. The closest I came was with the title story. I almost cared about the dropouts and dreamers in that one. MacCann’s aim seems to be to alienate the reader. There is much that is squalid in these stories. I suppose you could say gritty.
When the book first came out, it was celebrated as ground breaking. Perhaps it was, back in 1995. Perhaps MacCann’s was a novel voice. There are lots of squalid, gritty writers around today, though.
I liked MacCann’s oblique style. This is skewed and evasive writing. Meaning shifts, or rather it never settles. The opening story, Tender, is set in an inner city where two friends seek oblivion through substance abuse. There’s something slippery about it, though, with its bumping around the taboo of child abuse. There’s an undeclared subtext that left me unsettled as a reader.
That unsettling, undeclared subtext pops up in a few of the stories. MacCann has a fascination with relationships that some might see as taboo. I had to remind myself that these stories were written twenty years ago and things have moved on in terms of LGBT acceptance, so while MacCann’s treatment of gay and lesbian relationships as needing to be hidden doesn’t stand up as a theme now, it was a different case in the mid-90s. I found MacCann’s fascination with inappropriately sexualised adult-child relationships far more discomfiting, especially because there is no judgement of it from the author. Dark Hour addresses the issue head on, told from the perspective of a teenager who, pimped out by his brother, sells himself to an older man for money he then spends in an amusement arcade. That sums up the boredom and despair of everyone in this book. Doing things for distraction because life holds no hope.
Grey Area was interesting for the things around the edges of the main story. It was an insight into what life in Northern Ireland was like during The Troubles, where British soldiers patrolled the borders between Catholic and Protestant areas in cities like Belfast, and bored teenagers had to be careful where they walked. Gang culture writ large.
Street Magic was my favourite of the stories. Not for the body of the tale, which is about being unemployed in Dublin, drifting through the days, hoping for a break. I liked it for the descriptions and the images they planted in my mind. This passage in particular made sunlight dance on water in my mind’s eye:
… a few weeks later when she was in town one day she had another squint across the river. The buildings were shimmering and fawn. Dazzle moved on the quay like spirits, maybe disappointed to find out what their relatives were at.
I don’t know that I enjoyed the stories in this collection. I found them interesting in the way MacCann uses language to establish an atmosphere and place the reader as an observer, sometimes as an unwitting confidante, of the characters. Mostly I found the stories depressing because there was little in the way of hope or colour. Perhaps if the characters had been more likeable I would have been more engaged with the greyness of their lives and cared more about what happened to them.