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Not All There

Dan A O’Brien

Levitation, by Sean O’Reilly, Stinging Fly Press, 228 pp, €12.95, ISBN 978-1906539641

Many of the short stories in Sean O’Reilly’s Levitation are set in the 2000s, making one wonder why they have not appeared as a collection before now. Perhaps, like those of James Joyce’s Dubliners more than a century ago, they were too innovative and unsettling to immediately attract a publisher. Joyce famously wrote Dubliners in a style of “scrupulous meanness”, stripping from the stories anything extraneous, so that many early reviewers found them incomplete, bewildering, and perverse. In the opening tale, a little boy struggles to understand the adult world around him—“I puzzled my head to extract meaning from his unfinished sentences”—and so reflects the plight of the reader, never quite sure of the unsaid depths which lie beneath the spoken surface. A similar sleight of hand is at work in Levitation, as seen in the eponymous story where an unnamed narrator watches his silent protagonists on CCTV: “It is as though a layer of meaning has been removed, and what is exposed is another world where there is infinite distance between what is about to happen … and what has always happened”. These brutally bare stories derive their ruthless intimacy by delving into the dark sexual and violent crevices of society and the mind. As such, the collection can be described as poignant … if, as one of O’Reilly’s characters thinks, poignant means “something seedy and illegal”.

Like Joyce’s Dubliners, O’Reilly’s men and women, whether in Derry (where the author was born), London (where he has lived), or Dublin (where he now lives), are paralysed, trapped in squalid environments and sordid power struggles: “a man could be seen staring straight ahead, his hands gripping the frightened wheel, incapable of any progress”. Yet the great refrain that runs through these stories is that things can be different, as set out in “Downstream”: “Infinite are the ways we might not be ourselves.” Here O’Reilly is closer to Shakespeare than Joyce, and indeed in a later story, “Critical Mass II (Abandoned Work)”, which is unfinished in the most overt sense, a notes section contains a direct allusion to Othello’s Iago: “I am not what I am.” In many ways, these misshapen stories are a radical leave-taking from the Irish literary tradition ‑ more Flannery than Frank O’Connor ‑ while in other ways they could not be anything other than Irish, sharing much with the stranger work of Donal Ryan and Rob Doyle.

The first story, “Hellion #1”, is set in 1980s Northern Ireland and lies somewhere in the borderlands between prose and poetry—Allen Ginsberg springs to mind, and indeed his 1993 visit to Belfast is referred to in a later story. The tone is set by the narrator, a petty criminal more worried about Republican retribution than British oppression, who recalls “my own da bit the head off [a rat] and threw it into the middle of us wains on the bed / he did / last one out gets to stay off school”. Throughout the story (and collection as a whole) violence is bound up with sex, with the narrator escaping a kneecapping because the IRA enforcer thinks his legs are too beautiful to mutilate. Further, the narrator only becomes attractive to women after his “da bit the face off that RUC man”, a nod perhaps to JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, where the villagers are entranced by stories of savagery and disfigurement, such as the man who “knocked the eye from a peeler”, and the one that “bit the yellow lady’s nostril on the northern shore”.

The third story, “Rescue”, set in the present-day South, continues this theme. A middle class barbeque goes wrong when a dog tears off a piece of a child’s face. The owner, fearing the dog will be destroyed, flees to the isolated home of her one-handed father. His dismemberment reflects the truncated nature of O’Reilly’s stories, which on reflection appear not so much unfinished as somehow severed. “Rescue” closes with a mesmerising scene in which the dog owner and her estranged lover watch a motorbike acrobatic display at a local circus, in a moment that seems to offer unity and transcendence: 

The black orb, carrying the four riders and their bikes inside, ascended high over the ring and the audience . Off the first one went, north to south, and one by one, like an instrument picking up a tune, the others went. As their speed quickened again, the globe began to open and separate into halves. The crowd fell silent. Eventually, there was a clear gap between the two hemispheres, the four bikes still doing their laps, and then the globe began to spin like a disco ball.

Yet, these synchronised riders, more like machines in their dehumanising suits and helmets, in the end merely mock the ideas of personal harmony and human connection.

“The Cavalcade” opens with the incongruous and masterful line “Tuesday afternoon became Bernard’s time to call on his slaves in Blessington Row”, and tracks the shifting positions of subservience and supremacy in a three-person sexual affair. Set in contemporary Dublin, this is an uncanny anti-love story, full of gothic tropes, with drug-muddled characters disappearing or appearing in the wrong place, struck by crippling déjà vu, and confronted with doubles. One moment, a character is throwing her “greedy” novel into the Liffey, and the next she appears to dissipate herself: “The window was open as if she had flown away.” There are instances of tenderness and beauty too, but, as in “Rescue”, it is inanimate objects rather than human beings that “experience” such contact: “a slow spoon stroking a cup”. The protagonist of the next story, “Downstream”, has escaped a debilitating Dublin for London, only to find himself immobilised by his obsession for an old lover, symbolised by his pursuit of her into the nether regions of the Underground: “The escalator was out of order. So was the next one. We seemed to have the tiled rabbit holes to ourselves. Deeper and deeper ahead of me she sank.”

“Scissors” returns to the pre-Good Friday Agreement North, and centres on the disappearance of a boy who has come upon his father in sexual embrace with another man in the back room of a barbershop. Many of O’Reilly’s stories take place in or make reference to barbershops, places full of concealment, ritual, and self-invention, and thus particularly suited to fiction. “It must be my brain is wrecked too after listening to the opinions and bizarre lies of the men of Dublin,” says a barber in the following story, “Ceremony”. The tale hovers in the space between hallucination and reality, and from this clash gleans its tenor of poetic prophecy: “Sometimes you are given the chance to save the world, to carry the message to the king, to kill the monster. Then you wake up and try to go to work, and you realise the dream isn’t over yet; it is spreading out across the city from the bell ringing in your soul.” A prosaic car journey is transfigured by a birds-eye view that seems like a line from Edgar Allen Poe by way of Stanley Kubrick: “Far below, propelled by some mysterious urge, a single drop of blood moves silently along the crust of an endless, winding black scar.”

The book reaches its apex in “Levitation”, which draws together many of the themes ‑ desire, dismemberment, deception ‑ and motifs ‑ barbers, drowned books, references to Brendan Behan ‑ that crop up throughout the collection. The story follows Valentine Rice, who is ostracised by the people of Dublin for cutting the hair of a serial killer. There is a price to be paid for deviation from the norm, as his driving instructor farcically hints: “Study the traffic … Notice how they stay in line. See the order in it. We humans love order. We love systems. Order has liberated us from the prison of nature. The key. The key to the future. Study the traffic.” However, life is built not on order, the story suggests, but on the possibility of contingency and freak chance:

As every native knows, the charm of Dublin is all about who you might meet when you’re out and about on its miserly handful of streets . Some days there is so much avoiding to be done, so and so over there who made you take an unexpected turn down one street, only to be forced to veer off again to escape the approach of that other so and so, which leads you into the path of someone else, endlessly, inescapably.

These lines might best serve as O’Reilly’s credo as a writer, non-linear plots that double back on themselves, readers left to stumble through avoiding their own reflection in the characters they meet, and, for all the labyrinthine structure, a sense always of moving towards some dark, inevitable conclusion. Joyce said Dubliners would give the Irish a good look at themselves in his “nicely polished looking-glass”. In Levitation O’Reilly is the circus master and we are caught in a world of shifting floors and funhouse mirrors.

1/1/2018

Dan A O'Brien is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin, where he is currently completing his first book on the intertwining fiction of Philip Roth and Edna O'Brien. He is co-editor of two other books, Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture (forthcoming Syracuse University Press, 2018), and New Voices: Contemporary Jewish American Literature (Open Library of the Humanities, 2018). 

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