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Landscapes of Displaced Desire

Tom Tracey

Dinosaurs on Other Planets, by Danielle McLaughlin, John Murray, 208 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1473613706

Coping seems to be a Cork preoccupation. In June, We Are Dublin’s twitter account posted a photo of a new piece of street art on Andrew’s Lane, showing the inimitable Roy Keane in a two-tone parody of the now infamous Obama HOPE poster. Instead of the red/blue hues of America’s most famous “Duine Gorm”, the street artist responsible for Roy’s regal portrayal, staring flintily into the future (and prospective European domination), has him in the proud Republic’s colours of green ’n’ orange. Roy, king and court scald both, has one hard-edged message: CAN’T COPE. This message is as loud and clear as the accompanying two-tone graphic. If you can’t cope with the heat, boy, get out of the proverbial kitchen. What might this statement, after its sporting topicality fades and the work settles back into its natural habitat – the political vernacular of the streets – have to do with modern Ireland and a new mentality? Can’t cope with what, exactly?

Dinosaurs on Other Planets explores infidelity, estrangement and abandonment, conducted across a terrain oversaturated with sexual desire. By and large, these are stories about middle-class Irish (chiefly Corkonians) coping – or not coping – with the financial and psychological fallout of a boom-to-bust society, Recession Ireland. Dinosaurs is Cork author Danielle McLaughlin’s debut and it is an impressive one. By her own admission, she began writing only in 2009 (after a curtailed career as a solicitor) and the first of these stories dates from 2011. For their technical achievement, though, publication in The New Yorker has been deserved. Dinosaurs is a powerful collection, fraught in mood, maintaining a composed tone alongside meticulous description: a crab’s shell is painted “a buttermilk colour with a sprinkling of green, like mildew, and a darker green along its scalloped rim”.

These stories are not, at first glance, what one could call commonplace to Irish fiction; yet their immersive experience of place – mainly around Cork, but also including Donegal and Ranelagh – ties them to a modern Irish tradition running from Joyce to Heaney. There are shades of McGahern in the quiet poise of the prose, the subterranean frustration, and the preoccupation with locale. Their actual settings range from well-appointed Victorian townhouses in Dublin 6 or student digs on the South Circular Road to lonely Midlands farmsteads, one-off houses and bungalows on the northwest coast. Some age-old Irish émigré guilt also lingers among these tales, never more apt in the wake of the latest wave of emigration. It’s harder to say where to place McLaughlin among her direct contemporaries, though, as her work seems to present itself formally within a straightforward tradition of the modern short story.

Occasionally this collection feels like a contemporary Dubliners penned for the People’s Republic of Cork. There are depictions of quiet desperation, of a dysfunctional social world set side-by-side a frustrated mix of anxieties surrounding sex and finances. Like the white-hot stars that populate the night sky in the final story, McLaughlin’s characters and the force of their erotic and other impulses seem “held together only by their own gravity” in a constellation of frustrated wishes. There are everywhere in these stories the material signs of recent recession and the last vestiges of the wealthy fallen from grace: one couple’s decline is epitomised by “two faux Queen Anne chairs”. Then there is the countryside, strewn with “derelict houses, boarded-up petrol stations” and squatted ghost estates. None of this will be entirely new or shocking to seasoned readers of contemporary Irish fiction; but it is effectively done nonetheless, and the pleasures of reading McLaughlin lie in what could be called her sheer “descriptive lust”.

The book’s arresting title points toward a dislocation in time and space that the collection itself reprieves. In the second story, reproductions of old photos from the time of the Great War are imported to modern-day “Victorian redbrick” Ranelagh, setting a bourgeois hobbyist’s complacency into relief beside the disruptions that Europe underwent a century ago. The story itself sounds distant echoes of Joyce’s “The Dead”, with its militaristic imagery and drawing-room ambience: children in white summer dresses are described as “a battalion of miniature brides”, one with “a parasol tucked under her arm like a bayonet”. But McLaughlin’s is also the Ireland we know now – or at least recognise, with its commemorative picture of Pope John Paul II hanging in a farmer’s homestead. Stylistically, though, there persists the dirty realism of Joyce (without the formal ambition): a plastic bag of men’s ties, “paisley patterned with the knots hardened into them” along with “a smell of sweat and tobacco”.

Fauna, chiefly birds, are conspicuous augurs among the stories – as though their species were fugitives from another realm. The quantity of dead or traumatised creatures signals a general environmental unease that speaks as much to the mood of anomie of Recession Ireland as it does to our growing concern with global climate change. But McLaughlin’s primary commitment is to portraiture: like the young boy Finn, who rigs a hammock of tennis netting with a view to catching the fallen birds of some impending and biblical plague, McLaughlin seeks to snatch her subjects in the act of falling, as though each were momentarily caught in freeze-frame. Her characters have a monstrous elegance, much like the ornate mythical creature that decorates the cover of an art history book owned by Finn’s father; or the “strange hybrid creatures, half-bird, half human” that inhabit Emer’s paintings in the final story; or like the quivering murmuration of starlings in arrow formation that “scatter like gunshot” at the close of the penultimate tale. Echoing this, a ball in mid-flight, on the height of its arc, evokes this sudden descent. McLaughlin’s ball stands for Ireland’s ballooning construction industry and housing market at “peak trajectory”, an over-inflated plaything about to burst the dreams of bourgeois paradise.

One of McLaughlin’s key theses comes in the form of Lily, the protagonist in “Not Oleanders”, pondering whether “desire was shaped, in part at least, by the vagaries of geography?” The (erotic) appeal of Italy for her is as much down to its otherness as to the natural beauty of the landscape and those who haunt it. Similarly, in “All about Alice”, the protagonist fantasises, telling a friend that she’d had outdoor sex with a sound engineer “from somewhere foreign”. Yet moments of claustrophobia arise out of the unfulfilled promise of carnal pleasure: “She felt the sun wane, felt evening and the kitchen closing in.” Over these stories looms an aching sense of the forever unreachable – evoked, for instance, by “the drone of low-flying aircraft” – added to which is a felt disillusionment at something lost and irretrievable that resolves into a gentle angst, filtered through “the buzz of strimmers, the shrill mating calls of teenagers”. Elsewhere, in the fourth story, the proverbial “far-off hills” are lent a supernatural aspect: “The river road was a portal between worlds, his home on one side, the city on the other, and in the middle a no-man’s-land of space and time when his wife and daughter were beyond his grasp, unreachable.”

In his poem “The Importance of Elsewhere”, Philip Larkin romanticised Ireland as a restorative alternative to his native England. The poem’s closing line consummates the sentiment: “Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.” Conversely, McLaughlin’s natives seek but cannot find respite amid the “elsewhereness” of an unfamiliar emotional (though familiar geographical) terrain; as a result, they often fantasise or daydream about being somewhere else (earlier in their life, as much as elsewhere in location) than where they find themselves at a given moment of emotional challenge: “In the distance, beyond the village, beyond the city, he saw fields and hills, green un-peopled expanses not yet spoiled.” Here dwells Larkin’s elsewhere, a far-off place that’s all the greener for not being despoiled by the taint of customs and establishments.

McLaughlin’s descriptive lust must be one of the true joys of the collection. She can capture with the lightest of touches “wisps of dandelion seed” caught in a young girl’s hair. In “Not Oleanders”, a Teutonic blonde’s exposed clavicle is “no thicker than a chicken bone and perilously close to the surface”. There is also a sureness of rhythm to some of McLaughlin’s lines: “A heron stood beside the small ornamental pond, stabbing the frozen surface with its beak.” Everywhere in these stories, latent tensions are close to the surface, always about to break it. And surfaces and screens also serve to keep out or exclude: Alice, imprisoned behind her own insecurities and indecisiveness, broods on the “buzz and ping and beat” of bluebottles’ “gauzy wings against the glass”.

Similarly, in “Silhouette”, while visiting her mother, Aileen hears “the muffled drone of the hand-dryer, a drowsy, muted buzzing, like a bee trapped in a curtain fold”. The imagery suggests that these are confined lives, mere silhouettes of lives: in “Night of the Silver Fox”, the movements of the caged mink correspond to the pent-up eroticism of a young woman, who, in order to cover her father’s debt, performs sexual favours behind the farmstead’s outbuildings. There is a mirroring of imagery across the stories too, lending them a graceful infrastructure: the puddle at the end of the first story returns as the spilled bucket of bleach that closes out the collection. Likewise, a mother strikes her daughter’s cheek in one, while the male protagonist of subsequent story illicitly strokes the cheek of his host’s teenage daughter in an act of clandestine seduction. The latter seduction is echoed in another man’s failed attempt with an elder acquaintance in the title story.

In these fictions, “want of imagination” is the cardinal sin. The opposite forces of commonsensical dullness and creative imagination reach their climax in the final story. Looking at a map of the galaxies, the narrator muses upon the “unimaginable expanses of space and time, the vast, spinning universe”. The young boy in the story asks his grandfather “could there be dinosaurs on other planets?” The question is met with a chorus of “No” and “Very likely”, issued from competing role-models. The responses highlight two opposed attitudes – not only to child-rearing, but to speculative thought and natural science more generally. Like Curly Kavanagh, a trucker in “Night of the Silver Fox”, McLaughlin exhibits a childlike “wonder for the new and the strange”. (Her portrayal of the coarse trucker is exemplary: “The light from the dashboard lent a vaguely sainted glow to his features.”) A tension sits at the heart of McLaughlin’s portrait of a world divided by, and into, the “real” world and the “imaginary” realm of human thought, desire and emotion. McLaughlin’s art insists that the latter informs the former in ways we would be unwise to ignore. These stories quietly sink beneath the skin and leave one for some time afterwards with a measure of uneasiness and awe at our social and natural worlds; worlds which, McLaughlin seems to caution, are inextricably linked. Whatever the future may bring, Dinosaurs on Other Planets seems apt to become a touchstone in the literature of post-Recession Rural Ireland.

1/7/2016

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