Consciousness and Control
Room Little Darker by June Caldwell
Apollo (11 Jan. 2018)
When Room Little Darker was published last year it immediately grabbed public attention because of the dark subject matter of some of the stories. Some reviews hailed it as a book which pushed the boundaries of the form, seeing it as setting a benchmark for the short story of the future. In a recent interview in The Irish Times, Ashley Stokes, founding editor of Unthanks Books, told short story writer Aiden O’Reilly that his experience is that the short story is becoming darker, weird, twisted-out-of-shape, dripping with fear of the end and apocalypse.
Caldwell’s collection, at first glance, appears to be an exemplar. We have gothic stories that feature ghosts, a talking tree, a foetus with a consciousness and voice, sex fetishists, sex robots designed as therapy for paedophiles, abusive relationships and drug abuse. But at the same time each story is firmly grounded in place and time: Dublin in boom or bust, Belfast, London, Jersey. The situations as evidenced by the above examples are extreme, but it is in the quality of the characterisation that the stories move beyond the mere gothic and offer up to the reader layers of narrative meaning and emotional punch.
In the first of the eleven stories which make up the collection, Upcycle: an account of some strange happenings on Botanic Road, the female narrator downplays the story she proposes to tell. It is hardly worth telling, this story of mine. But, of course, it is worth telling; an uncomfortable story of an abusive father who continues to haunt the family home after he is sent to a nursing home against his will. Even after the narrator’s mother dies and the house is redecorated, she still cannot exorcise his ghost. He continues to haunt her, and she ends up feeling an affinity she didn’t expect, feeling strangely sorry for him. To think we were so petrified of him all those years ago when he was the one who was clearly so terrified of us.
In the story the father’s ghost takes on different animal forms. This deterioration into feral states appears in other stories also, such as Leitrim Flip and Imp of the Perverse. In these two stories the degeneration into animal nature is firmly linked to sexual appetite and desire. In Leitrim Flip the female narrator enters willingly into a subservient relationship with a man she does not even like. She is seeking ultimate control through sexual abasement and becomes irritated with her Master who really does not measure up. I’d already explained I was an ‘alpha submissive’, a different hybrid to the pain sluts and gormless kneelers. When things take a turn for the stranger and they are caged in a kitchen in Leitrim for weeks, Master (despite his military background) falls apart while it is left to Slave to take control.
In Imp of the Perverse Caldwell uses Poe’s story of the same name as the jumping off point for a study of the narrator’s self-destructive tendencies. A student pursues her professor even though she knows he can’t stand her. But when they kiss she is amazed to find that There was love in it. She becomes obsessed, mooning over him during the Christmas holiday, finding out all she can about him. He wants to control her, but even as she acquiesces she maintains her own limits, which infuriates him.
‘Get down on the floor, crawl around,’ he said.
‘I won’t,’ I told him. ‘I’d feel like a total plum doing something like that.’
Their sexual relationship also becomes animalistic; they nuzzle, they yip and yap. They size each other up; they bite each other’s muzzles, nibble at each other’s coats.
But he has made a complaint to the University about her. Her flatmate warns her, but she will not be told, and she is forced off the MA and embraces the feral state she has been gravitating towards. Loneliness stirs, shy and submissive, among the branches. Anger rises.
But it’s not all female protagonists struggling to take control of their lives in extremis. There are four stories where the male voice is central: Dubstopia, The Man Who Lived In A Tree, Natterbean and BoyBotTM each feature a man who tries, with varying degrees of success, to keep hold of a life that is on the point of spiralling out of control. Dubstopia, appropriately enough, achieves Joycean flights of language as Gonzo makes his way around the city on a doomed mission.
Brenner in De Joy on the left, IRA prick, dying for Mother Ireland in a 15×20 exercise yard. The Mater Hospital with its wheelchair morgue; militia of swollen ankles.
In The Man Who Lived In A Tree Rashi is an Indian immigrant and alcoholic who, in an attempt to find some peace, makes a bed for himself in a willow tree, but the plank bed was hard as destiny, and inevitably official society finds its way to him in the form of police and social workers.
The taxi driver in Natterbean seems to be in a much better position than most of the characters he encounters; he has a wife and child and a steady job. Driving a junkie around the city all day he vacillates between self pity and resentment towards his passenger. By the end he is touched by a shared humanity – surprised by the simple tenderness he witnesses between two friends: The way Breezer hugged yer man as if he was a warm marshmallow. Never seen anything like it.
Of all the stories in the collection perhaps it is BoyBotTM that attracts the most lurid attention. Michael is wrongly convicted of paedophilia while his ex-lover John is the actual guilty party. The story commences on Michael’s release, which is dependent on him undertaking a new type of treatment:
a dynamic new domestic-environment therapy with 100 per cent effectiveness demonstrated in trials across twelve countries on three continents.
The story is cleverly structured around the Five Stages of Grief and utilises an impressive array of literary devices including letters, dialogue and dynamic prose, including a particularly violent dream sequence.
SOMAT was first published in the anthology ‘The Long Gaze Back’, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, and is perhaps the most direct of all the stories in its intention. In an online interview with the author in May 2017, novelist Catherine Dunne described the story as: a howl of outrage against the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which can reduce pregnant women in Ireland to the status of incubators’. Through the voice of the foetus Caldwell also manages to convey the anger and distress of the family concerned: “It’s about dignity”, Grandpa Brian informs the table. But there is very little dignity left for anyone as the weeks pass:
No visitors allowed in to see Mama now under any circumstances, because she is, let’s be very clear about this, not in decent fettle. Stew meat that’s been on too long,.
In The Glens of Antrim we are in similar territory to Leitrim Flip. Emails are exchanged between the protagonist and her former lover and a picture of a onetime sexually adventurous relationship emerges. The mundane tone of the emails is at odds with the excesses of the past. And yet again, there is that tension between desire and need, between control and submission. As with so many of these stories, despite the excesses and the psychological hurt, a dark sense of humour is never far off: I’ve read Freud. Got a better longer lingering understanding of the human condition (through yet another dead man).
The Implant is unusual as it’s the only story told in the second person. The timeline of the story runs from the installation to the final removal of the implant, describing in visceral terms the physical and mental suffering of the woman. The second half of the story is a transcript of information gleaned from the contraceptive implant’s video sensor, where the protagonist is designated as SUBJECT and her boyfriend as MAN, giving the story the feel and immediacy of a drama. A dark humour pervades, throwing up many memorable exchanges between the parties. “Isn’t it great how suffocating you are while always managing to be utterly neglectful,” SUBJECT remarks.
In the final story of the collection Cadaverous Moves the story unfolds in reverse chronology from the death of the narrator’s older brother and proceeds back through time spent together in London, Jersey, a teenage holiday in Blackpool and back to their childhood in Dublin. The tone here is markedly different; there is a real sense of familial love throughout. It is telling and touching that the author chooses to end the story (and the collection), not at the point of death, but at the very outset of their lives together, closing with the voice of her six-year-old brother speaking: “I am your brother, I am your brother, I am your brother.”
There is no doubting Caldwell’s gift as a writer, particularly the way she can inhabit the mind of her characters and bring them to life with such vibrant immediacy. In what is known as literary fiction sometimes the story or plot can be sacrificed on the altar of language and style; and there is no doubting here that Caldwell’s facility with words and stylistic brio is impressive, but her preoccupation and engagement with story is equally important as can be seen in these eleven impressive stories.