Keith Ridgway’s most recent novel, Hawthorn & Child had a fragmented, unnerving quality which made it feel as much like a collection of linked short stories as a novel. It was, the Guardian review noted, ‘a story about stories in a novel that isn’t a novel’. You can see the hints of this same atmosphere in Standard Time, the collection of short stories which marked his debut and was published in 2001.
The stories in Standard Time are all set in Dublin, Ridgway’s native city. Based at different historical points, they contain shadowy characters who show up in more than one story, recurring themes about the nature of reality, faith and co-dependent relationships and imagery of mangy dogs, dubious angels, Dublin’s Custom House, elbows, lost boys and above all, water.
At the heart of all the stories is the city of Dublin and the body of water that flows through it. It is the foundation for everything that happens and in all the stories – most of which take place in, or near, to water – characters are submerged, literally and figuratively, with the threat of drowning always close.
He knew how to drown. He knew what it was about, what it felt like, how the water took you in and you could decide whether or not to let it. He knew that when you were drowning, there was no time, that there was only yourself and the water, and that nothing else really mattered even if you cared about it or loved it and would miss it badly, even people like your mother or your family. He knew that you drown by yourself, alone and that it was alright when it was happening, but could be scary afterwards…He thought that he would like to be always drowning, but never drown.How to Drown
The stories here focus on characters who are trying to keep their heads above water and are struggling to maintain the veneer of normality which masks their inner agitation. They are all trying to keep it together and play the roles that life has assigned them. They are not all succeeding.
In The Dreams of Mary Cleary, Mary’s life as an historical botanist, is thrown into disarray by regular visions from a vengeful Virgin Mary, who dangles her over a submerged and drowning city.
In the striking Headwound, a seemingly loving father takes his son to the park where he muses on his wife’s infidelity and feels humiliated when a neighbouring couple see him struggle to control the behaviour of his child. An accident happens and the boy is hit on the head and is almost drowned in the lake – but just how much of an accident was it, and should we have trusted this narrator to tell us the truth?
In Sick as a Dog, Sad as an Angel Pip finds himself unable to do what is expected of him when his partner Lill is taken into hospital with a protrusion sticking out from her belly. Feeling that he may in some ways be responsible for what has happened, and feeling usurped in her affections by the arrival of Lill’s parents, Pip responds to the good news of a successful surgery in the most bizarre way and twists the story to suit his own drama.
The nature of truth is at the heart of another park-set story Off Vico, where a famous elderly writer sitting on a bench, is approached by another elderly man who tells him that they had an unforgettable sexual encounter near the sea, fifty years previously. The writer cannot remember it, then possibly can, then thinks he is just remembering what this other man is telling him. The encounter feels both incredibly real and incredibly false all at the same time. Did it ever happen? Does it matter if it didn’t? Memory, it seems, is pliable and elastic, and above all, open to persuasion.
This co-dependency between men is a theme running through many of the stories. In the stand-out story Ross and Kinnder, Kinnder commits murders for his boss, Ross, the details of which are written on Kinnder’s hands, then washed off after the deed is done. Hearing details of his own crimes repeated back to him as gossip, he notes that reality is not exciting enough for people, they always need to obfuscate and embellish.
What’s done is done, and what was never done is words only. I did not want to smile, but I was seeing what I always see – that whatever horror takes place in the world, it is never enough. It will be puffed up until it shocks, and so the audience writes the plot, demanding teethmarksRoss and Kinnder
Most of the stories in Standard Time are told from within the narrator’s mind and explore how they perceive the world and try to make sense of it. The collection opens and closes with stories about a partner disappearing from a relationship and Ridgway pulls of a wonderfully sly sleight of hand whereby the final story suggests that there may be more connecting everything in between than you initially think.
In that final story Angelo Ridgway seems to be exploring the very nature of story-telling itself. What details do we include when we try to explain something that happened? Are the details that we omit the ones that are the most important? This story of a man, trying to work out what has happened to his on-off boyfriend who has disappeared is a wonderful treatise on the nature of truth and how it is perceived differently by different people.
But you know that there is a limit on the words you can hear in your life, a ration, and you can’t take them all at one go. You know this is true, you just haven’t heard it put like that before.Angelo
Ridgway’s characters all create narratives and rituals to protect themselves from the fear of loss and death. Be it through faith, relationships, work and even murder, they aim to control what can, ultimately, never be controlled. Ridgway is a fan of Beckett and it shows – the unknowable terrain, the search for meaning, all most importantly shot through with some very dark humour.
These are stories where, when you read them, you know that something has happened – you just might not be able to pinpoint what that something is – and it is this unpredictability and lack of resolve that make them so interesting.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 319
NUMBER REMAINING: 427
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