Tag Archives: The Portable Virgin

Anne Enright Sesh Part 6: ‘Taking Pictures’

Just below there, I talked about Anne Enright’s use of the short story forms as a means of affording space for thought and/or contemplation, signalled by Enright’s self-consciously retrospective focalising. I didn’t mean for this to sound too mindfulness-y, but that’s perhaps inevitable when talking about such things. The reason I think this is relevant to Enright, all the same, is for a particular reason.

When I was reading one of the stories, the salaciously entitled ‘In The Bed Department,’ Kitty, manages to find time between her two adolescent sons and her job to have a brief relationship with a man she meets in a local theatre group. Reading this story, I was reminded of what the poet Marianne Moore once said about unfair aspects of life to the poet Elizabeth Bishop: “One is always having to go to market or drive the children somewhere. There isn’t time to wonder, is this right or isn’t it?” Kitty is trying to work that out for herself, the escalators in the department store in which she works are a striking metaphor for how we order experience and how we categorise what happens to us as good or bad:

“Kitty was suspicious of the escalator, or more properly the escalators, as there were two of them, one falling and one rising…She disliked the push of the motor, and under that, the loose, light clacking sound of something she could not analyse. A chain perhaps, that ran freely deep in the machine.”

David Foster Wallace, speaking on surrealism in the David Lynch film Blue Velvet and in his own writing once said:

“being a surrealist, or being a weird writer, didn’t exempt you from certain responsibilities. But in fact it upped them…whatever the project of surrealism is works way better if 99.9 percent of it is absolutely real…most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It’s extra realism, it’s something on top of realism.”

In this schema, surrealism is a super-imposed topos, hovering just above the realness of the world, which bears most of the burden of proof.

In Enright’s fiction, it’s almost the other way around, as if Dali-esque archetypes, abstract interiors without individuation find themselves in relatively affluent South Dublin suburbs and “normal” family environments, or at least, in family environments where normality is expected.

As is her wont, Enright returns to the escalator metaphor:

“She could not bear the lopsided sight of the stalled steps, like someone endlessly limping at the other end of the shop floor…They packed around the central pivot like big slices of metal pie, then separated out on the way up, dangling their triangular bases into space.”

She then buttresses it further with boisterous working-class repair men who leave Kitty ambivalent. Such seemingly extraneous detail takes the rather straightforward escalator/categorising of experience metaphor from us and leaves us with a far more intricate and over determined vehicle, never mind all the interrelations of the organic/inorganic in the metal pie, or the radicalism of using such a pedestrian (literally, pedestrian) machine to characterise an inner state.

But Kitty is never stifled by all this. She becomes pregnant as a result of the aforementioned fling, but she doesn’t tell anyone. Most importantly, she deliberately doesn’t tell the man, who makes an awkward, unsuccessful attempt to follow up on their affair in a bungled phone call.

The final paragraph reverses the trajectory of Veronica at the end of The Gathering, who rather spectacularly concludes with: “I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.”

Kitty: “Her life was changing, that was for sure, though she seemed to be standing still. But, ‘Up or down?’ she wondered. ‘Up or down?’ The children threw the plane back in the air and circled again on the end of its wire. Kitty walked on. It had been a baby, she knew it. She had been visited. How could it be down, when she felt such joy.”

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Anne Enright Sesh Part 5: ‘Yesterday’s Weather’ and the shortness of the short story

Critical categorising, academic quibbling over short stories tends to discomfit me more often than not. Convincing sociological explanations for novels proliferate endlessly, but seem a little more paltry when it comes to the short story, which unfortunately seems to depend a bit too often on essentialism and even worse, on national essentialism. It is an obligation, it seems, for authors on the publicity trail of a new short story collection to have to answer some vague, abstract, mealy sort of question about why they think people like short stories, which prompts some vague, abstract mealy sort of response, which rarely defers to more obvious reasons, that people like short stories because they like stories, and perhaps their shortness has something to do with it also.

Descriptions of Irish short stories discomfit me in similar ways, all too often there are things like ‘the Bardic tradition,’ mentioned, seanchaí and, god help us all, Frank O’Connor’s ‘lonely voice in the wilderness,’ as if submerging population groups are less likely to write short stories than the population groups that they submerge. Such delineations were invented, I think, to fluff out the xiii or so required pages to not another anthology of Irish writing.

So, synecdoches of the short story form are essentialising constructs that serve the ends of marketeers, hack critics and writers. Fine. With that in mind, I’m going to try to encapsulate what it is that Enright does with her short stories, based on my reading of Yesterday’s Weather which collects stories from Taking Pictures, The Portable Virgin and one or two that appear in neither.

Enright arranges them in reverse chronological order, as a kind of overt piss-take: “I may be the only one who is laughing, but it is a great and private joke to see myself getting younger – shedding pounds and wrinkles, gaining in innocence and affectation – as the pages turn.” So there is already a kind of retrospective, reverse-lens quality to the collection, even without the title being what it is. As the writing continues, it’s fascinating to watch the style increasingly de-stabilised, as the Nabokovian subversion of artifice, usually kept on the margins of Enright’s overtones, come into conflict with her usual mode, before overwhelming it altogether in the final story, ‘Felix,’ a writing against Lolita: “Felix, my secret, my angel boy, my dark felicity. Felix: the sibilant hiss of the final x a teasing breath on the tip of the tongue…You can always count on a suicide for a clichéd prose style.” That final sentence is a nice touch also, considering The Gathering, written eighteen years later, is about a suicide and is anything but clichéd.

‘Yesterday’s Weather,’ the story this time, not the collection, describes a young couple, Hazel and John, with a newborn. “John. Divorce! Now,’ Hazel, not really joking, jokes at one point. Hazel’s tendency to anticipate the behaviour, thoughts and potential danger the baby (who I think stays unnamed) may end up in all serve as preludes to an argument which ultimately defines their blurry, anxious weekend in Clonmel with John’s parents.

The final paragraph has them making peace: “John drove as though the road could feel his tyres; the tyres could feel the road. The whole world seemed as tender as they were. At Monasterevin, he reached this hand to touch her cheek, and she held it there with the flat of her own hand while, in the back of the car, the baby still slept.” Peace of a sort. I say so because of the baby’s ominous presence, such moments of tranquillity and contemplation are evidently rare and arguments are likely to erupt again once that changes. Such is early parenthood. I think. Hazel and John will only be born ceaselessly forwards, and it in this case that the short story’s shortness serves an imperative function. At ten pages long, it is hyper-compressed to the kind of length that people as harried as Hazel and John are could feasibly assimilate, a moment of stock-taking and retrospection, within the context of the short story: “She tried to think of a number she could ring, or a site online, but there was nowhere she could find out what she needed to know. It was all about tomorrow: warm fronts, cold snaps, showers expected. No one ever stopped to describe yesterday’s weather.”

Anne Enright Sesh Part 1: The Portable Virgin

From the first line in The Portable Virgin, I was reminded of why Anne Enright is so much fun to read. If David Foster Wallace proceeds via disclaimer, Enright proceeds via negation. As successfully as any writer I’m aware of, she makes the reader conscious of what she is not saying, what is withheld. The first paragraph of the first page of the first short story, ‘(She Owns) Every Thing,’ is a time that many other authors would have seen a good opportunity to orientate the reader, set them down, let them know what they’re in for, like many of Enright’s contemporaries do in their own short story collections, like one I recently chucked that I won’t name. Enright, instead, is determined to keep the reader off-balance:

“Cathy was often wrong, she found it more interesting. She was wrong about the taste of bananas. She was wrong about the future of the bob. She was wrong about where her life ended up. She loved corners, surprises, changes of light.”

I think Cathy might have some kind of emblematic significance, as Enright frequently orientates her fiction relative to corners, surprises, changes of light and the hows and whys of people being wrong about them. In pursuit of this, much of what Enright does is based around immersing of the reader within a partial perspective in which words are rarely the words alone, while never being gratuitously fancy about it. In this case, one begins to wonder what corners, surprises and changes of light mean for Cathy, what her interest in rather mundane things in life tells us about her, if this interest relates to how wrong she often is, and, wrong according to who, is she wrong to like corners, surprises and changes of light, and if so, why, if they appeal to her as an individual, how can this preference be, of itself, incorrect, and then before you know where you’re at, corners, surprises and changes of light become invested with some half-metaphorical sheen.

Another example: “the bag of dicks escapes, rolls down a flight of steps, shuffles over to the beautiful young girl and starts to wine. She sets them free.

‘What a peculiar language you speak,’ she said mentally, with a half-smile and a nod, as if her own were normal. ‘Normal’ usually implied American. I am Canadian, she used to say, it may be a very boring country, but who needs history when we have so much weather?”

It might take me about half an hour to parse exactly what I think is happening in the above, and the many different directions in which it cuts, which is not, exclusively what I look for in what I read, but it definitely helps.

The Portable Virgin is riven with these sorts of sentences, fun, impossible, witty sentences. Enright is drawn to and elucidates with undeniable skill things like a ‘quiet disgrace’ (not the kind of volume one would expect to attach itself to disgrace), instances of not having sex with an architect (seventeen instances, by the by) and the zero men on a bus.