Stories that confront, not console

Room Little Darker by June Caldwell (New Island)

I HAVE, what some of the refined types who rely on the deluxe end of the social welfare system that is Áosdána, would consider a nasty confession to make: though June Caldwell is only now publishing her first book of stories, she has long been my one of my favourite Irish writers.

I first began reading Caldwell’s Facebook updates in 2008, and have always found them darkly hilarious. Here, I said to myself, is a real writer, an artist who works with words to paint pictures which may not be literally true, but certainly have truth in them. While the Irish literary world is currently awash with vaguely liberal snowflakes, each of them with his/her own dazzling way of saying very little, Caldwell writes like Francois Rabelais’s or Louis Ferdinand Celine’s seriously deranged sister.

One reads the novels of Anne Enright, the poetry of Eavan Boland, or thoughts of Fintan O’Toole at least partly in the vague hope they might somehow make the reader a better person; such activities are your average Irish literary moderate’s replacement for 11am Mass. However, delve into Caldwell’s new collection, Room Little Darker, published by New Island, and you re-emerge feeling your mind has somehow been disimproved. You may come out the other end a slightly worse person, but it’s great fun.

Take the few sentence fragments of her story ‘Dubstopia’: “Scrambled egg beside a steaming gee-pad Carol left on the mattress. Lidl brownie with ants. Two empty packs of Amber Leaf. Wet jeans. Sun tearing in the window through an A-line she stole from yellow teeth Bag-Face in Oxfam.” Great literature does not comfort or console but confronts the reader with things as they are; it puts you on the hook and leaves you hanging there a while. And there is something a little bit great about Caldwell’s absolute refusal to console. ‘The Man Who Lived In A Tree’ opens with the sentence: “Rashi waited for his tormentors by the pissy park gates.” Again and again her stories go off like incendiary bombs.

Caldwell eschews the ‘here come the good guys’ virtue signalling widespread in Irish fiction and poetry right now. She will never, we can I think rest assured, write a moving story about an upper middle class type who, through her work on behalf of dead indigenous people in Mexico, realised what life was really about and never saw Dun Laoghaire sea front in the quite same way again.

Instead, in the pitch dark story ‘The Implant’: "Morning of Implantation. This shouldn’t hurt. Outside the hipster with firefly beard sips an Iced Chai Almond Milk Latte, the twat, looking at YOU as if there’s pale grey crabs down there or you’re on the hunt for abortion advice."

It is unlikely Caldwell will ever end up being a regular contributor to Sunday Miscellany, unless the show’s producers concoct a scheme to slowly kill off most of their listeners by giving them heart attacks in their armchairs. What saves Caldwell’s grim material from itself is her relentless and beautifully applied savage wit.

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