[This is the nineteenth instalment in Ashley Thomson’s No Man’s Land Reading Project.]
Anne Enright has come a long way since this collection of short stories put her on the map in Ireland and in attentive literary circles a couple of decades ago. To wit, in 2007 her novel The Gathering won the Man Booker prize (soon thereafter becoming one of the most variedly received winners in recent memory; I will soon describe her writing as “obtuse,” and it seems it has not become less so with time). But I didn’t know that before I decided to read this book.
I ordered The Portable Virgin (turns out even Man Booker prize winner’s backlists go out of print) because I heard Enright read someone else’s short story, The Swimmer by John Cheever, on the New Yorker fiction podcast with Deborah Treisman. Her analysis of that especially well-trod short story (it’s one of the most famous ever written and was even adapted into a film starring Burt Lancaster) was so insightful, witty and crisp that I thought she must be a great writer herself. And from the very first page of this collection, you can feel her playfulness, insight and intelligence. It’s a much younger, much less certain voice than the one I heard on that podcast, but it’s still something.
I saw them landing on the moon, but my mother wasn’t bothered. She wanted to finish drying the dishes, so she said, ‘Sure I can see the moon, right here in the window.’
First things first, though, this year has revealed to me a new gripe, and that is with the concept of the short story collection. How is anyone supposed to digest a book full of fleeting self-contained works with any attention to their unique qualities and subtexts without spacing them out over a matter of weeks?
I tried to answer this demand in one of my first books of the year, The Compass Rose by Ursula le Guin, comparing it as I went (unfairly, I now think) to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck. And I faced the same problem then as I face now, which is some sort of fundamental disagreement with the notion that single authors’ short stories ought to be compiled and sold at all. It seems like something a publisher dreamt up because it was the only way to monetise that facet of their asset’s talent. And while there may be exceptions to the rule, just generally it seems antithetical to the form, which ought to be taken one at a time (which is exactly why the New Yorker fiction podcast works so well). I don’t know, maybe people would rightly disagree with me, but there’s something off about mashing all these things together like they share anything other than an author in common. And this is especially true of posthumous short story collections, the very essence of a bang for your buck, cash-in mentality.
Anyway, that said, The Portable Virgin is a good collection – a little sparse and evasive at times, but good. Enright plays to the term “vignette” well, and yet does not seem to belong there. Her stories teeter on the brink of having a clear narrative, yet never quite tip into one. And while the stories are meatier than “vignette” suggests, in none of the seventeen in this collection does Enright seem to have much interest in being genuinely direct. Which, frankly, can be just as much a bit of fun as it can be frustrating.
Enright, like many a great writer, artist, filmmaker and David Lynch before her, enjoys being obtuse. When she does give you a beginning, middle and end, she has often made them so totally nonsensical in their elements that you cannot take anything at face value. He was an occultist, you say? Came home in the middle of the night smelling of animal skins? And they got married? Hm.
Alcoholic projectionists. Real estate agents. Adulterous architects. Brides. Lonely lesbian handbag sellers. Occultists. Plain old pub-bound Irish folk. Themes are hard to find here, so instead you must make as much as you can of the precious lines and moments herein, embrace the fleeting, abstract style and dangle on a thread when a thread is presented.
This is the usual betrayal story, as you have already guessed – the word ‘sofa’ gave it away. The word ‘sofa’ opened up rooms full of sleeping children and old wedding photographs, ironic glances at crystal wineglasses, BBC mini-series where Judi Dench plays the deserted furniture and has a little sad fun.
If that paragraph tells you anything, it should be that what follows is anything but a usual betrayal story. Filtered through the twinkling, sensitive playground of Enright’s mind, it becomes something far less apparent. The flip side of this process is that some of the stories become so opaque as to alienate, but even in those you never lose sight of how poignant and intensely funny Enright can be. Her droll, absurd Irish humour is ever-present, delightful and sharp – you get the impression she’d be a marvellous dinner guest.
She was initially attracted by a sign in his window which read ‘Have a Boring Holiday Instead. Do Absolutely Nothing in Kinsale. Gourmet Food.’
It is inspiring to think that fifteen years’ work on her craft has made Anne Enright one of the most revered literary authors in the world, and I cannot wait to read more of her work. That said, if you want to discover her work as a short story writer, you could probably dig up a few of the best here and there on the internet and your bookshelf would be no worse off.