Daniel Davis Wood reviews Cathy Sweeney’s Modern Times
Note: Several years ago, Cathy Sweeney was one of the first authors I contacted with regard to publishing a collection of short stories through Splice. Our interactions were very minimal — one email containing a polite request, one email responding to politely decline — and Splice began its small press operations about six months later. I mention this up-front partly in order to declare my interest in Modern Times, but also to specify that those interactions have in no way coloured this review of the book. I was then, and I remain, a fan of Cathy Sweeney. I approached her as an admirer, first and foremost, in the hope that Splice might help her work to reach a wider readership, and so to do justice to her considerable talents. I approached Modern Times in the same way, very much eager to see if it would now do greater justice to a body of work that richly deserves it.
In a recent interview with Declan Meade, publisher of The Stinging Fly, Cathy Sweeney admitted that, when reading short stories, she prefers work that isn’t “explicable”. Not for Sweeney the presumption of extracting extra-literary significance from fiction, nor the neutering of artistic mystery by convenient appraisals of what a narrative might “mean”. In principle, I stand with her. But of course there’s something self-serving at play that interview: Sweeney’s own début collection of stories, Modern Times, has just been published by the Stinging Fly Press and contains little, if anything, that could be called “explicable”. Indeed, on an early episode of the Stinging Fly podcast, Kevin Barry praised Sweeney’s stories as “strange and elusive” things in which “it’s very hard to say what’s going on… and you could use all sorts of words [to describe] them, that wouldn’t really do them justice”. In principle, I’m with him as well. I’m a longtime admirer of Cathy Sweeney and I agree that she’s capable of contorting language in stimulating ways which seem not to occur to many of her contemporaries. But I do wish that Modern Times had put on display her full range of talents, much more so than it finally does.
The collection opens with great promise, with a pair of stories that show Sweeney at her best. ‘A Love Story’ is a piece of flash fiction, reminiscent of Helen McClory and Camilla Grudova, about “a woman who loved her husband’s cock so much that she began taking it to work in her lunchbox”. Sweeney’s artistry is one of discordance and ‘A Love Story’ resounds with it: the sexual explicitness, virtually pornographic in its dearth of sensuality, becomes even more striking when it crashes into an ill-fitting narrative scenario and words belonging to other, more mannered contexts. What wholesome person dutifully takes a lunchbox to work each day, complete with “bratwurst sandwich, portion of fruit, and chocolate biscuit”, and then, without any qualms, regards a penis wrapped in cling film as a “little peccadillo”? Only, perhaps, the sort of person who exists in black and white, knowingly as ink on a page — a person whose raison d’être is not to dwell in some pretence of “the world”, not to participate in consequential events, but solely to stir inexplicable responses in readers. Credit to Sweeney for staking out an aesthetic position and committing to it here: in just a page and a half of spirited prose, all the way up to its lopsided conclusion, ‘A Love Story’ obliterates any notion that Modern Times will yield or defer to the received wisdom that a short story should have a point and cut to it. Those who choose to read on have been warned: Sweeney’s stance towards expectations of neatness, order, direction, explicability, is that of the kangaroo towards the ailing boxer.
Sweeney’s greatest achievement, ‘The Woman With Too Many Mouths’, follows on directly from ‘A Love Story’ to leave Modern Times wholly unmoored from meaning by page ten. There’s no way for summary to do justice to a story like this, but a sentence-by-sentence reading of its early lines can give a sense of its strangeness. Here’s how it begins: “I met the woman with too many mouths in the plaza at the start of summer.” This opening sentence raises certain questions — the woman with too many what? what is her relationship to the narrator? — and the conventions of literary fiction raise the expectation of answers in due course. But the second sentence takes a swerve, offering more details on an element of the first while avoiding the very element that stirs intrigue: “It was a warm night and smelled of melted grass.” Now new questions are raised: why are the details of “the start of summer” more important than the woman? what is “melted” grass and what exactly does it smell like? But the third sentence swerves again, arcing back to the start, while also taking on a sidewinding movement as it gives more details on another element of the first sentence, at a tangent to the lacuna still at the centre of things. Here the subject is the narrator’s noticing of the woman with too many mouths, so the woman herself both draws near and continues to elude us: “I would not normally have noticed such a woman, but I was in a mood where each step took me further into the realm where even the drift of a stranger’s cigarette smoke suggested life both as it is and as it should be; and it was in this mood that the woman caught my attention.” Only in the fourth sentence does the narrator offer a description of the woman, though even then he takes another swerve, avoiding her most distinctive characteristic (too many mouths!) in favour of other features, one of which is, of course, inexplicable: “She was not my type: a crooked nose, legs marbled with muscle, gulag eyes.” And yet, the narrator says, because he happened to meet her on a night that put him in an unusual mood, he found this woman alluring despite her imperfections. Then he ends his first paragraph with this disclaimer: “Only subsequently did I discover that the woman had too many mouths.” More new questions. What? Only after assessing her face? How?
Every time I read ‘The Woman With Too Many Mouths’, I try to keep track of all the discordant elements that make it so involving. Every time, I lose count. There’s much more than just the narrator’s erratic train of thought. There’s the way his swerves inflict ever greater whiplash as he commits to clarification: he sets out to explain himself, to justify his behaviour in his dalliance with the woman, but his reasoning less often conjoins cause and effect than it terminates in a non sequitur. Then there is his habit of peppering his narration with aphorisms that seem, rhetorically, to represent hard-won lessons drawn from his affair, though they’re only statements of the obvious: “The experience of loss is not a sloped gradient; it is random black dots on an endless linear.” There’s his equally odd habit of assuming that the reader takes for granted the most bizarre aspects of his testimony: when the woman asks him to abuse her, for instance, he addresses the reader in an aside: “Nothing original in that, you say, and you are right.” There’s also the abstractly Mitteleuropean setting — the narrator, Dmitri, is a typesetter with an ambition to write “the great novel”; he drinks schnapps with “a young man from the Balkans” and has a “dear friend” who marries “a countess” — so that, as the story wends its way through the years, it comes to read like Chekhov’s ‘Lady With a Little Dog’ rewritten by David Lynch. Then, too, there’s the awful imagery of those mouths, their indeterminate number, and the things they disgorge. Although the narrator never permits the woman to speak for herself, he does poeticise the things her mouths release in lieu of words: “rain, soft and seasonless”, “fresh hay, reeking faintly of cattle and fertiliser”, and, later, “moths — not two but twenty, [as big as] butterflies… blue and timbularis, magenta and persimmon.” And what of the supposedly acceptable standards of mouths, as implicit in the title? By any measure, just two mouths would be “too many”, but the woman seems to have more than that. How many mouths does she have? The most fitting answer would simply be “many”. But the narrator pointedly doesn’t think of her as “the woman with many mouths”. Instead, he holds a perverse sort of propriety which suggests that if only she had one mouth less than her plenitude, her glaring disfiguration might not be worth remarking on. All of these elements intermingle in Sweeney’s story to produce something of ineffable power: baffling, bewildering, sinister, perturbing, and all the more engrossing for it.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Sweeney is capable of exerting these effects on her readers — generating them, controlling them, and mastering the segues between them. Some years ago, she made it plain that her craft is one she has learned from writers who traffic in estrangement, in tinkering with the logic of estrangement more than simply favouring odd subjects. “I don’t have time for narrative arcs… or epiphany, or characters who work things out and find closure”, she wrote in an essay on the Soviet fabulist Yuri Buida. “I have a stronger appetite. A saccharine aftertaste is no good to me; like someone suffering from pica, I crave the taste of dirt or petrol or metal.” A character with similar cravings, but in a more literal way, wouldn’t be out of place in Sweeney’s stories. And indeed, to put a finger on what makes her stories so distinctly hers, I’m inclined to say that her method involves circling around characters bent out of shape by depravities of this sort — some exceptional squalor, some abhorrent inclination — and then probing the gap between their affliction and their ho-hum daily concerns. Although Sweeney’s grotesques invariably have some startling quality that seizes the reader’s attention, this quality is not the same as whatever quality makes them remarkable for Sweeney’s narrators. By playing up the difference between these two positions — these irreconcilable views on what makes someone’s story worth telling and what makes it worth reading about — Sweeney throws the gravity of her fictional world off-balance. The reader’s eyes are drawn towards something that is for the narrator only a peripheral concern, functionally inconsequential, so that the interests of the two parties never align and the work is pulled apart by antipodal priorities. If there’s something identifiably Kafkaesque about the logic of this situation — think of Gregor Samsa crippled less by his metamorphosis than by his drive to maintain appearances — that’s because Kafka, too, is a star in Sweeney’s constellation of influences. No surprise there, either. In an earlier form, Modern Times was compiled as Stories From the Entrance to Hell — a title drawn from one of Kafka’s letters.
If ‘The Woman With Too Many Mouths’ reaches for the heights of a Kafka story, Modern Times contains a pair of others with similar ambitions. ‘The Birthday Present’ follows a woman’s unlikely relationship with the lifelike sex doll she buys for her husband. Her narration becomes somehow both unsettling and quietly touching as she discusses, matter-of-factly, the decline of a marriage alongside an inarticulable reawakening of the heart. ‘The Chair’ takes a tonally similar approach to an inverse situation. Here, a husband and wife keep a wretched marriage on life support by using an electric chair to torture each other, to find somewhere for “the anger [to] go”. But, as in ‘The Birthday Present’, all is droll and quotidian: “Other couples have their own way of doing things”, the woman says, “but this is what suits us. … In the days leading up to [administering shocks on my husband], I am filled with intense feelings of tenderness for him. … He becomes alive to me in a way that usually only happens when a person has died.”
Elsewhere, there are glimmers of potential in stories that end too soon, before they can gorge themselves on the bizarre until bursting with glorious incongruities. It’s in these stories that Modern Times falters a little, suggesting a want of creative concentration. In ‘The Cheerleader’, a cheerleader brings cheer to places that have no desire for it — “nursing homes and funeral parlours and empty football stadiums” — and then begins literally to decompose without anyone noticing. But the story is only one paragraph long and effectively ends with this rhetorical question: “What matter a stump for a leg or a wire hanger where an arm should be?” A question of this nature seems rather to beg for a writer of Sweeney’s calibre not to withdraw but to bear down, apply pressure, extrude from it the elaborations of something like ‘The Woman With Too Many Mouths’. There are similar instances of forfeited promise in a story about a totalitarian show trial whose spectators treat it like a sitcom, and in another about a palace that contracts a degenerative disease. These stories feel as if Sweeney has shrunk from the task of writing a distinctively Sweeneyesque story, and has written instead what a reader of Sweeney might write if asked to produce an abstract example of her work.
In the remaining stories, however, Modern Times truly takes a tumble. What’s surprising about this is not just that it happens. Every short story collection is, by nature, susceptible to inconsistency. What’s surprising is that the causes of it are so clear, so stark — and the remedy is as well. Modern Times need not have been as disappointing as it is.
The first problem is that most of the remaining stories respond in some way to another narrative, usually folkloric, mythical, or historical. In ‘A new story told out of an old story’, Sweeney rewrites the fate of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, with added complications. In ‘The Death of Actaeon’, a painting of the tale from Ovid’s Metamorphosis has effects that bleed out into the lives of the characters who see it. In ‘The Love Child’, Sweeney’s sounding board is Seneca; in ‘Alexander the Great’, it’s the undefeated conqueror. In ‘The Woman Whose Child Was a Very Old Man’, it’s something closer to the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, with a feminist twist. The problem isn’t that these other narratives do not in themselves warrant a response from Sweeney. It’s that their prior existence imposes limitations on her work — obligations to speak back to their terms — which arrest her ability to make the most of her talents. Look again at the sentence-by-sentence swerves of ‘The Woman With Too Many Mouths’. Sweeney is at her best when unbounded, when the associative logic that emerges from the white space between a full stop and a capital letter can be endlessly, incrementally distorted into dissociative logic clothed in associative rhetoric. When beholden to prior work, however, its terms keep her hemmed in, yoked to the meaning of an existing figure or concept, unable to run wild.
The second problem is that Sweeney’s longer stories create a necessity for dramatic action which she almost always renders vaguely, in an expository montage, and then wraps up in haste, with a perfunctory attitude that feels dismissive of the material. Here, for example, is the beginning of ‘Flowers in Water’:
There was once a man who made films without a camera. He was not a mad man, just an unsuccessful one. Like most people, he’d started out in life hopeful and hardworking, but one misstep leads to another — you know how it is — and now, at the age of thirty-seven, he was back living in the provincial town he’d left all those years ago, making films without a camera.
The potential for something unusual is there in the premise, and in the offhand address to the reader, but the story plods along in this dun fashion, largely without scenery, in summary form, all the way up to the man’s death in old age. ‘Blue’ and ‘Oranges’ move in a similar fashion, gliding over protracted narrative action as if taking a bird’s eye view of events. Cumulatively, then, the plodding effect that might have distinguished one or two stories spills out to flood much of the collection.
The real difficulty with Modern Times, though, is that these problems shouldn’t have overshadowed the book at all. Despite the claim, in Sweeney’s interview with Declan Meade, that this collection represents a decade’s worth of work, a number of Sweeney’s best stories aren’t actually included here. Their omission is as baffling as the events they depict, though considerably less satisfying. There’s no discernible reason why ‘The Long Lost Father’ warrants exclusion from Modern Times. Like ‘The Woman With Too Many Mouths’, it was originally published in The Stinging Fly, and, as Kevin Barry’s reading demonstrates, it’s almost the equal of that story. Unless Sweeney has repurposed her contributions to the Dublin Review, some appear here while some fall by the wayside. Other stories, such as the loosely connected episodes she published in Icarus, would add new aspects of oddity to the faux-Mitteleuropeanism of ‘The Woman With Too Many Mouths’, as would her stellar work in Dave Lordan’s Young Irelanders anthology (2015): “I was drinking schnapps in a bar on Pushkin Street with a woman who used iodine instead of lipstick to redden her mouth.” But these, too, are absent from Modern Times, despite the latter being singled out for praise by a roll call of reviewers — Sarah Gilmartin, Irenosen Okojie, Alan McMonagle, Sinéad Sturgeon — and the collection as a whole is poorer for their disappearance. Simply put, Modern Times doesn’t feel like a collection of stories by the same Cathy Sweeney whose piecemeal publications have entranced me for years. It doesn’t feel true to the voice with which she has spoken so distinctively in many other venues beyond these pages.
By my count, there are at least five and perhaps as many as eight or nine stories that didn’t make the cut for Modern Times. Altogether, their inclusion would have tilted the contents of the book in favour of the unboundedness in which Sweeney thrives. Somewhere, perhaps, in another realm of literature, there is another collection of Cathy Sweeney’s stories, a shadow-collection to this one, which plays along the full spectrum of her distinctive strangeness. As things stand in this world, dedicated readers of Sweeney will still have to take it upon themselves to go off in search of her other work and gather it up independently. It’s an odd thing to see a writer so plainly accomplished, so dignified by her words, being so poorly served by a book that excludes a chunk of her body of writing as if it isn’t something to be prized and relished. But here we are — inexplicably. In principle, on the grounds of aesthetics, I still stand with Cathy Sweeney. Stories that thwart explication are to me as precious as gold dust. I just long for story collections in which the inexplicable arises within the stories themselves, by way of the conditions they impose on language, and not from their absence among other stories that cry out for their company.