In the Irish writer Nicole Flattery’s disquieting debut collection of short stories, women are a problem whether they speak or stay silent, act or remain passive. On a blind date in a dingy basement restaurant, a man asks the protagonist of “Not The End Yet” – the title appears to refer to a slow apocalypse engulfing the world outside – for her ex-husband’s address, so that he can write and congratulate him for having survived her strangeness. The actor boyfriend in “Track” – which won the White Review Short Story Prize in 2017 – installs his girlfriend in his Manhattan apartment, but spends most of his time replaying the recording of a comic performance he gave his mother as a child. By way of retaliation, she joins an online forum dedicated to slating his work and posts under his mother’s name. “You’re an odd little ghost person,” he tells the girlfriend after a failed attempt at socialising with his peers; he’s not wrong, but neither is he in much of a position to criticise.
What ails these women, and what might help them? Flattery’s scenarios are so frequently fractured and quasi-dystopic that it’s hard to make a diagnosis; you might as well attempt to impose logic on a particularly lurid and melodramatic dream. And yet, as with the insistently recurrent patterns of the dream world, there is a logic, one that the reader can gradually discern as the warped narratives bloom and settle.
During that process, the author’s ear for a sharp one-liner and a snappy encapsulation is evident. The teacher of “Not The End Yet” professes little in-depth knowledge of her child charges on the grounds that, “They are short and move quickly in all sorts of directions”; a woman meeting her boss and lover in a cinema foyer notes that he is angrier and shorter than she remembers, “like a small town I might live in and die”; cars in such small towns are driven by young men and look like “they were designed to be in accidents – scraps of metal with a colony of screaming girlfriends trapped inside”.
At the centre of Show Them a Good Time is the long piece “Abortion, A Love Story”, an initially bewildering triptych that focuses on Natasha and Lucy, two young women at an elite university who become involved with the same professor and who subsequently make and perform a piece of theatre with the same title as the story. Natasha’s upbringing, we learn crabwise, was unpleasant and deprived; “I won’t put you through it,” she tells the audience at her play, “just picture death and you’re nearly there.” Lucy’s is even more mysterious, but has left her with a taste for high-end brands and excess.
A scene in which the two meet, over dinner with their shared academic, is a wonderfully achieved piece of grand guignol, in which Lucy out-weirds the weird Natasha by ordering three of everything and emptying “almost-champagne” down her neck. The professor compares her to Susan Sontag and hastily departs.
“She felt like she might have just attended a party? Her first-ever party,” reflects Natasha. “There was even a girl passed out beside her; a hopeless corpse.”
As its title suggests, the story is concerned with a termination; specifically one that is appropriated by a man in order to make art. Flattery is 29, and the themes that run through the work of many of the young Irish writers currently exhibiting such brilliant form – from Sally Rooney to Sinéad Gleeson – also flit through her collection: the contrast between the populous, striving city and the claustrophobia that can be felt in country backwaters; the often opaque difficulties, beyond legal stricture, that prevent women from asserting their rights over their own bodies; the endless and inadequate boxes into which men wish to put them.
In Flattery’s stories, those challenges of self-realisation present her characters with the possibility of mental disintegration; in more than one, women stop their ears in order to stem the chatter from outside. Her response is not one of realism, but of surrealism: of objects that won’t stay steady; of people who mutate into hunchbacks, prostitutes, pornographers.
Some of these pieces reminded me a lot of Deborah Levy, and particularly her earlier stories: brutal, disorientating, filled with appetite, anger and characters who seem to spring from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Their milieux are both provisional – an entropic world, halfway houses, temporary caravans – and intimately tied to political and social structures. It is a bold beginning, and one that you can only hope Flattery finds continuingly productive. l
Alex Clark is the artistic director of this spring’s Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, 5-7 April, cambridgeliteraryfestival.com
Show Them a Good Time
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 03 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers