by James O’Sullivan
This collection of short stories is very appropriately named, for each of the book’s 23 stories dwells, to a greater or lesser extent, on the dark side of the human condition in their searching examinations of human nature. O’Sullivan is at his best in observing and chronicling the motivations and deeds of the human animal, and only rarely are these of a benevolent, or even a positive, nature.
That said, however, the quality of his perception is well-attested by the number of times the thought “Hey, I know someone just like that” pops into the reader’s head, for O’Sullivan is a keenly accurate observer and scribe of the human condition and this offers a rock-solid platform for his stories.
Henry Thoreau assures us that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and this is certainly present in O’Sullivan’s book, for every social vignette sampled has that desperation in full measure, sometimes as a central and sometimes as an underlying feature. The only exception to this comes, paradoxically, in the attitude to life of the characters in ‘Experience’ who, with fewer expectations than any of the rest of society due to their position on the totem-pole of life, yet remain upbeat and looking forward to the discoveries that the following day will bring. In fact, this point is well made in the consideration of the three-story ‘pod’ formed by ‘Experience’; ‘Urbane’ and ‘Everything is Good’, set together in the middle of the book.
Beyond that, O’Sullivan puts the microscope on marital relationships in ‘Porn’; ‘Romance’ and ‘A History Lesson’ as well as mocking the pretensions of the arty-farty in ‘A Bad Review’; ‘An End-of-Year Report . . .’ ‘Don’t Name the Animals’ and ‘Naked’. He also devotes a somewhat larger amount of space and no small amount of repetition to the insecurities of young people and their relationships.
There are proof-reading inconsistencies in the book, such as ‘passed’ for ‘past’, ‘meters’ for ‘metres’ (Word’s US orientation in predictive text has a lot to answer for) and the switch of narrative tense from past to present in ‘Get a Job’ grates, even if intended.
Of the two dozen stories, ‘Turangawaewae’ came best-heralded as runner-up in the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story competition, and it is easy to see why. This story of a turangawaewae that is nothing of the kind in holding nothing but uneasiness and duress for the gay protagonist, is deeply evocative and it is no surprise that he finds most in common with another social outcast.
For this reviewer, though, ‘Experience’ and ‘Get a Job’ hit hard in their delineation of society’s expectations in the present and as they used to be; while ‘Something Good’ and ‘Fair Game’ take pride of place in being classic short stories in that they go beyond depiction and description to develop point, purpose and progression. ‘Fair Game’, in particular, is utterly chilling in its subject matter and its fascination with the reality of death, to the point where it was pre-eminent in the collection as a whole.
It is always good to recognise an artist’s canvas, and James O’Sullivan offers us familiarity in good measure with his. All hail and more power to him in that.