No 594 The Miracle Shed by Philip MacCann

Whatever happened to Philip MacCann?’ is a phrase that crops up if you do even a cursory internet search of this elusive author. I’m not even sure if I am right to include MacCann in Reading Ireland Month as he is possibly not Irish.

Some sites say he was born in Belfast, more that he was born in Manchester. That he studied at Trinity College Dublin is fact though, along with the indisputable evidence that he was hailed as a new literary talent when his short story collection The Miracle Shed was published in 1995. Time Out called him ‘a totally original, new literary writer of intellectual power’ while the Observer mused ‘if I had to choose just one voice it would be Philip MacCann’s’. He won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and MacCann was named in The Observer newspaper’s list of ’21 Writers for the Twenty-First Century’ in 1999.

Despite this high praise, MacCann has never published another book. Some of his literary reviews can be found online, along with an article deriding much contemporary Irish fiction at the time and his thoughts on a writing class he took with Malcolm Bradbury, but aside from that, The Miracle Shed is all that we have.

Last year I wrote a piece on The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor’s seminal work on the nature of the short story. While discussing the differences between the novel and the short story, O’Connor notes that the e best short stories focus on ‘submerged groups’ – marginalised people who live at the fringes of society and have no effective voice.

That submerged population changes from writer to writer, from generation to generation … it does not mean mere material squalor, though this is often a characteristic of the submerged population groups. Ultimately it seems to mean defeat inflicted by a society that has no sign posts, a society that offers no goals and no answers

O’Connor could have written this specifically about The Miracle Shed which is filled with protagonists who are powerless and dispossessed, living on the fringes of society. The glue sniffers and drug addicts, the poor and the perverted. These are people who have internalised their pain, or who have numbed themselves from it. They are almost abstract characters who are presented with no external context, no back story. It is as if MacCann is opening doors just a chink for the reader to peer through, creating a strange voyeuristic experience when reading.

Each new tale drops the reader straight into the characters heads, which means all the narrators are unreliable most are also unlikeable as MacCann explores human degradation in all its forms, but he always maintain a sympathy for even the worst of the characters found here.

Although set principally in Dublin and Belfast, the geography of these stories is not the important thing. In Stories at El Hajibands, the action moves to Africa, while Love Marks in set in London. No matter what the location, the skies are heavy, the clouds ominous and the problems are the same. Although set in and around the Troubles, they don’t feature in these stories – for MacCann, the poor and the dispossessed could be living anywhere and doing anything to distract from the poverty and boredom of their lives.

Even something like love was a pigment on the world’s canvas like everything else, not at all transcendental or anything. It looked nice – like those hackneyed heavens – but it was basically grubby, and simply mass-produced. Some love was grubbier than others of course.

In Tender a man and boy sniff glue on the outskirts of Belfast, while in Street Magic, a young couple try to find work and get by in Dublin. At Freeform Joe’s, a group of young people try to find answers through a Ouija Board, while in the title story The Miracle Shed some fairground workers live in a hut and pass the time aimlessly working on a car and planning pipe dreams for a future that even they seem to know will never come. In the dreamlike , almost Beckettian Harvestman, we are inside the head of an old man as he takes out his rubbish from his flat. His stream of consciousness belies his own mental illness mingled with his fantasies about a young girl.

There is a strong sexual element to these stories, sometimes discomfiting, particularly in Dark Hour where a young boy is pimped out by his older brother for cash. The propriety of relationships is blurred, particularly in Naturally Strange, a wonderfully odd story where a teenage boy has to share a bed in a squalid flat with his pregnant mother. MacCann seems drawn to relationships that are taboo and if there is one way in which the book feels slightly dated is in it’s depiction of homosexuality, attitudes to which have changed drastically in the last 20 years.

Take beings. Beings need happiness. True? Take me. I am a being. I want salt. I want air. I want happiness. These are essentials for each and every day. Picture life without them. Life would be not as it should.

The bleakness of this collection, featuring so many lives being ‘not as they should’, is punctuated with some dry humour. In Grey Area, school boys enter into an ill-conceived plan to have their Latin teacher shot by paramilitaries in revenge for his teaching them a subject they hate. Their plot is merely a way to fill their time and alleviate their boredom and the lack of insight for the consequences of their actions belies the improbability of what they have tried to do.

A momentum developed , we goaded each other on, producing ever finer points, choosing the best day to strike; we even dreamed about the scheme and came in the next morning with divinely ministered details. And finally, and at last, when we held under our gaze a strategy, perfect and monstrous and unwanted, a baffled and ugly thing independent now, with its own life and unlovable demands, there was one moment of embarrassment when we each agreed silently, without saying a word more, to ignore it.

The writing in this collection is also incredibly beautiful, in comparison to the subject matter. The prose is vibrant, unexpected and lyrical and the style is elusive. A part of town is ‘freckled with oil stains and smelled of closing time‘ while a bad smell ‘was getting in the flat from the street, like the brightness gone bad‘. These stories are hard to pin down, there is always a subtext, an underlying atmosphere that is suggestive of impressionism rather than realism. The stories are meandering and dreamlike and ultimately hard to pin down.

His work reminds me of that of Carson McCullers or Denis Johnston, in so far as he, like them is giving voice to outsiders. The Miracle Shed is also reminiscent of Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy. Not that MacCann, I feel, would appreciate any comparisons.

Philip MacCann Irish Literature The Miracle Shed

Philip MacCann…possibly

These stories will not be to everyone’s taste. Tonally, all veer towards pessimism and deviance which can be draining if the collection is read as a single piece of work. However, the writing and the use of language is dazzling and totally unlike anything I have ever read and it is that ambition and uniqueness that is to be admired, even if it is hard to love.

A silent author is always a fascinating one – Harper Lee being a prime example, and it is interesting to note the theories that surround MacCann’s subsequent publishing silence. On one online message board, a contributor theorises that,

MacCann was a young member of a secret society related to the Knights Templar. He was ordered to desist from writing by his Grand Master.

Whatever the reasons for his retreat from publishing life, it now seems like a new work from Philip MacCann is as vague a dream as those of the characters in The Miracle Shed. He may prove me wrong. I would love  it if he did.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 153

Number Remaining: 593

Frank O’Connor and The Lonely Voice

A great story is not necessarily short at all, and the conception of the short story as a miniature art is inherently false. Basically the difference between the short story and the novel is not one of length. It is a difference between pure and applied storytelling.

Frank O’Connor

Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer and critic died on this day fifty years ago. Born Michael O’Donovan in Cork in 1903, he went on to wrote plays, biographies and essays and has become known as one of the twentieth century’s greatest short story writers. His book The Lonely Voice, based on lectures he gave at Stanford University in the 1960s is now considered to be one of the first in depth and most influential examinations of the short story form.

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Raised in relative poverty by his mother in Cork, O’Connor had little in the way of formal education. He joined the Irish Republican Army in 1918 and was briefly imprisoned in the 1920s. He ended up working as a librarian in Dublin and became a member of the Irish literary scene, working with WB Yeats at the newly founded Abbey Theatre and eventually serving as Director of the theatre in the 1930s. During World War II he worked as a broadcaster for the British Ministry in London while publishing his essays and short stories.

Many of his stories appeared in The New Yorker in from 1945 – 1960 and his popularity in the United States led to work as a visiting professor at several American Universities, Stanford included, where his students included Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey.

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He published numerous volumes of short stories throughout his life and his Collected Stories, which includes his most famous works – Guests of the Nation, My Oedipus Complex and Crab Apple Jelly – was published in 1981 fifteen years after his untimely death following a stroke and heart attack.

The short story remains by its very nature remote from community – romantic, individualistic, and intransigent

The Lonely Voice – his study of the short story – is often considered the seminal critical work on the art form. He discusses the short story – a form where ‘a whole lifetime must be crowded into a few minutes’ and looks at the work of his favourite short story writers including Turgenev, de Maupassant, Chekhov, Joyce and Katherine Mansfield.

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His main theory is that the best short stories focus on ‘submerged groups’ – marginalised people who live at the fringes of society and have no effective voice.

That submerged population changes its character from writer to writer, from generation to generation. It may be Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape.

I recently heard Donal Ryan speak about his new collection of short stories, A Slanting of the Sun (which I shall review later in the week) and he said that it was nearly impossible to name a happy short story. O’Connor too believes that the best short stories are focused on the loneliness of an individual rather than the individual as part of the community of a novel.

…there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in a novel – an intense awareness of human loneliness. Indeed, it might be truer to say that while we often read a familiar novel again from companionship, we approach the short story in a very different mood. It is more akin to the mood of Pascal’s saying: Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie

The Cork International Short Story Festival was set up in 2000 to celebrate O’Connor’s work and passion and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award is awarded yearly to the best short story collection published in English anywhere in the world in the preceding year. Previous winners include Miranda July, Haruki Murakami, Edna O’Brien and Jhumpa Lahiri

You can read My Oedipus Complex, one of Frank O’Connor’s most famous short stories here.

 If one wanted an alternative description of what the short story means, one could hardly find better than that single half-sentence, “and from that day forth everything was as it were changed and appeared in a different light to him”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20 Books of Summer 2015!

20 books of summer - master image

It’s hard to believe a year has passed, but there are hints of a change in the weather here in Ireland and I’ve decided to challenge myself again this year to read my 20 Books of Summer!

Last year I managed a mere 16 ½ books, so hopefully I can beat that record this time round.

When I started trying to decide on my 20 Books, I had an idea. At the start of 746 Books, the aim was to read what I had, save some money by not buying books and clear some space by reading what was in the house. And I have managed to read what I have and save some money but over the last 18 months though, I’ve come to realise that I mostly read on my iPad, so the piles in the house are still there, mocking me.

So, this summer, I will only read physical books. It’s a bit daunting, because it removes the opportunity to read on my phone, but it will be nice to spend some time reconnecting with some real, actual books for a change! Plus, I might have a clear shelf by September!

So, starting from 1 June and running until 4 September, I’m hoping to read 20 actual books. 7 a month, I can do that, right? Like last year I’ve gone for as broad a range of genres and books as I can and like last year I have included a rock star memoir, a trashy 70s classic, and some sneaky short plays, poetry collections and short stories!

Photo: drbimages

Photo: drbimages

I won’t be reading in any particular order and be warned, reviews may be shorter than usual – I’ve still a job and a couple of twins to look after you know!

So, here are my 20 Books of Summer, click on the titles for a link to their Goodreads description:

I’m going to keep a Master post at the start of the blog so you can follow my progress as books get crossed off the list and if anyone feels their reading needs a bit of oomph then why not join me? Just take the Books of Summer image, pick your own 10 or 20 books you’d like to read and link below.  I’d love your support and I’ve provided a 10 Books image in case 20 seems too daunting! I’ll be tweeting my way through the challenge as well using the hastag #20booksofsummer.

10 books

So, any thoughts on my choices? Have you read any of my 20? Any I should start with straight away, or save for later? Any I’m going to regret putting on the list? I’d love to hear what you think.

No 700 The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates

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The full title of this collection is The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares: Novellas and Stories of Unspeakable Dread. Joyce Carol Oates might not seem like the first port of call if you are in the mood for some unspeakable dread, but novels such as Zombie, My Sister, My Love and We Were the Mulvaneys all explore the darkness at the heart of humanity. Hers is the horror of real life, the horror of what one human can do to another, the horror of jealousy, loss, hubris and greed.

The titular novella is a wonderfully crafted tale of girls gone bad, in which Oates tells of the kidnapping of an 11-year-old by older girls at her school. The story flits between the viewpoints of the young kidnapper, a sympathetically drawn grotesque, the kidnapped girl’s mother and a male teacher who is being set up as the potential abductor. The terror and tensions Oates creates, comes not just from the concern that the girl makes it home alive, but also by showing us the trauma inflicted on other characters because of Jude, the abductor’s delusional actions. The implied guilt of the girl’s mother and the complicity of the teacher make them more than the cliched roles we are all aware of from abduction stories in the media and the true dread comes as much from hoping the girl will not be killed as it does from wondering how reputations and lives, once publicly soiled, can ever be put back together.

Oates’s skill at characterisation means that we can see our own complicity in how we conspire with the media to create recogniable characters – the single mother, the unmarried male teacher – yet she induces empathy for her characters, which builds the sense of dread to a nerve-shredding climax with incredible skill and control.

Nicolas Guerin/Contour/Getty Images

Nicolas Guerin/Contour/Getty Images

 
The rest of the stories in the collection might not quite live up to The Corn Maiden, but all give chills in their own way. In ‘Nobody Knows my Name’, the only story that may, or may not have a supernatural twist, a nine-year old girl feels forgotten following the birth of her baby sister, and her growing isolation and resentment has catastrophic consequences for the entire family. In ‘Helping Hands’ a 40 something widow meets a war veteran whilst donating her husbands clothes to his charity shop. She feels beyond widowed,

She felt like an amputee, uncertain which of her limbs had been severed.

Like the girl from the previous story, she has also been forgotten not because she has been usurped, but because she has been diminished and her need for companionship and self-worth cloud her judgement with horrifying results.

In the centre of the book are a grotesque siamese coupling of tales about dysfunctional twins who despise each other which were for me, the least successful of the collection. ‘Fossil Figures’ is a dreamlike, eerie tale and is the perfect example of the erosion of self that can come from need and dependance. The story opens in a terrifying fashion, told from the point of view of a baby in the womb

…the demon brother was the larger of the two, but with a single wish to suck suck suck into his being the life of the other, the smaller brother all of the nourishment of the liquidy-dark womb, to suck into himself the smaller brother about whom he was hunched as if embracing him, belly to curving spine, and the forehead of the demon brother pressed against the soft bone of the back of the head of the smaller brother

You just know that relationship is not going to turn out well. ‘Death Cup’, the twin tale of twin brothers, suffers in comparison, being a slightly melodramatic tale of filial jealousy taken too far, less horror and more soap opera.

‘Beersheba’ throws the standard revenge story on it’s head, as a young woman takes her revenge on the step father she blames for the death of her mother. The horror comes not from the violence, but from the fact that her step father is innocent and her anger and his suffering are ultimately for nothing.

In my mind, Oates saves the best to last. ‘A Hole in the Head’ is told from the delusional and fevered point of view of a plastic surgeon catering to the rich women of the New York suburbs. A failed neurosurgeon, we watch his life and mental stability fall apart as he agrees to carry out the unorthodox and ancienct procedure of trepanning, with disastrous results.

 
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This is by far the most physically gruesome of the tales in the collection, with it’s vivd, all too real descriptions of botched surgery, yet it is to Joyce Carol Oates credit that the real horror we feel is for the perpetrator himself as she allows the humanity of her character to come through despite the surreal and grotesque situation he finds himself in.

That, I think, is the main success of this collection. For a story to be truely horrifying, the reader has to care and this is where Oates really delivers. Even with a character like Jude, the unstable kidnapper from The Corn Maiden, Oates allows us glimpses of the humanity amid the madness and random violence.

All of the violence in this collection is random. There are no rules here, no morals. Just like the horror in nightmares. There is a sense that all these characters are being borne along to their fate by some unseen force, as if they have lost control.  As one of her characters says,

As a young man he’d never considered time as anything other than a current to bear him aloft, propel him into his future, nowche understood that time was a rising tide, implacable, inexorable, unstoppable rising tide, now at the ankles, now the knees, rising to the thighs, to the groin and the torso and to the chin, ever rising, a dark water of utter mystery propelling us ever forward, not into the future but into infinity which is oblivion.

And like all nightmares, Oates ends her stories on moments of ambiguity, as if we have been awoken from them, with no explanation. And like nightmares, she leaves us with a lingering sense of unease that is almost impossible to shake.

This is my second book for the RIP IX Challenge and my next spooky read will be Joyland by Stephen King.

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