Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a newsletter about things I’ve read

Ephemeral Woman in waterlogged landscape: Short stories by Caoilinn Hughes

In the last email, I said that this issue of the newsletter would be about Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. As it turns out, I have to postpone that for another two weeks. I spent Easter at my sister’s. It was lovely to see her but I didn’t manage to get all my reading done for the Ishiguro post, so today I’m writing about a different subject instead.

To date, Caoilinn Hughes has published one volume of poetry, Gathering Evidence (2014), and two novels, Orchid & the Wasp (2018) and The Wild Laughter (2020). All three books have won awards and been critically very well received. She hasn’t published a collection of stories, but her short fiction has been picking up prizes too. “Psychobabble” and “Standard deviation” came first and third respectively in The Moth International Short Story Prize for 2018. Partly because of the prizes, an unusually large selection of her stories can be read online. Just by Googling “Caoilinn Hughes short stories”, I was able to find eight of them, three in The Irish Times and four in Granta:

Comfort and Joy”, Irish Times, Dec 2021

Creep”, Granta 153, Nov 2020

A woman of no information”, Granta: the online edition, Jun 2020

I ate it all and I really thought I wouldn’t”, LitHub, Apr 2020

My biggest insecurity about the garden”, Granta: the online edition, Feb 2019

Psychobabble, Irish Times, Sep 2018

Standard deviation, Irish Times, Sep 2018

Prime”, Granta: the online edition, Mar 2018

Her contributor page at Granta has links to some nonfiction essays as well as to the four Granta stories listed above.

I don’t believe that there’s a common theme running through these stories — or a substantial subset of them. That may make it more difficult to write about them as a unit, but it seems to me that a short story should ideally be able to stand on its own — a whole and complete unit — without the need for connecting threads to the author’s other work.

In the prize-winning “Psychobabble”, the wife and three adult children of Norman Fury sit in the waiting-room of Dr Sharma while Norman Fury is being assessed according to norm referenced tests.

It gradually becomes clear that Norman Fury is almost impossible to live with, demanding that his wife account minutely for all the time and money she spends and controlling even how often she may have her hair done. When Sharma asks Mrs Fury whether she and her husband have any shared hobbies, she eventually suggests accounting. The family think he might have OCD or maybe borderline personality disorder, but the doctor concludes that Mr Fury’s problem is “behavioural”.

Emer the daughter whom Dr Sharma thinks of as “the sharp one” — who earlier decided halfway through putting on eye-shadow that this is not an occasion for dolling herself up, and has come along with one bare eye and one “green-shadowed”, and who has been attempting to read Finnegans Wake on her Kindle in the waiting room — translates the doctor’s terminology for her mother and siblings:

“He’s a dick! He’s a dick!” She smiles hysterically at them, lightly nodding. ”All these tests finally prove what’s wrong with our bedevilled father. Daddy. He is a state-of-the-art bastard.”

Sharma had left an issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology out in the waiting-room and is disappointed that Emer hasn’t looked at it. The reader doesn’t learn what he hoped her to see.

So, there is no prospect of an escape from the hellish conditions that Hughes evokes with such economy:

Compassion is intolerably strange. His stern world, she can inhabit. The confines of the immaculate house. The haircut she may have bimonthly. The equitable tally of an eighteen-hour day. Waking to an alarm clock kept downstairs to deliver them from temptation. There are ways to keep the hand from the throat. The car from the cliff’s edge. The poorly-hemmed trousers from the peat fire. The ruler from the jaw.

By far the longest of these stories is “A woman of no information”, which centres on Maud, an actor, and the oldest of nine young women between the ages of 17 and 20 who have answered an ad to make part of a film in Connemara. The director is Larry, who says that he has already shot sections of the film in Los Angeles and Hawaii.

There is no script and Larry’s approach is to shoot a lot of digital footage in the hope and expectation that something good and unexpected will emerge spontaneously — film would be too bulky, not to mention expensive, though he predicts that digital will not be trusted because it’s too easy to alter after the event. When there is fog the first morning, Larry wants to shoot Maud emerging (eventually) from it and then walking through it, but he won’t tell her who her character is or what she is doing:

I want you to feel the film before you understand it. And there’s this fog. So just go with it. It’s just walking. It should be doable.

Larry may not know what he wants but he has strong ideas about what he doesn’t want. Maud tells him she’s named after Maud Gonne, and tells him a story about her attempting to conceive a child in the mausoleum of her child who had died earlier:

It was to try and make the dead kid reincarnate on the spot … into a new egg. Thought the soul could transmigrate through the coffin, into her, like, if she conceived on top of it. Anyway, that was Yeats messing with her head. Maud Gonne was more of a revolutionary and she rejected him. So he found her weak spot … her grief … and dug in.

But Larry rejects this idea — “ghost osmosis porno” is “not my film” — and tells her a different story which she finds “long and unlikely” and nothing to do with her character.

At first, Maud tries to second-guess Larry, to work out what he wants — though he doesn’t seem to know this himself — and serve it up. She tries to prevent one of the other young women from getting out of the sea while they are being filmed swimming, because she thinks that this will spoil the scene, but this turns into an unscripted struggle which she is afraid is even worse, but which Larry likes. He expounds his theory while they eat:

Most stories get told the same way. It’s whatever you can pitch in an elevator. So I’m taking the fire escape. A different story needs a new way of telling it.

Unfortunately, “a new way of telling” is impossibly abstract. Maud isn’t sure that Larry is the opportunity that she has been looking for. She has searched for his name on Alta Vista — Google already existed at the time the story is set, but it wasn’t nearly as widely used as it would become within a very short time — and can’t find any trace of films he’s previously worked on.

In an argument with his wife, Larry says he takes his name off all his previous work.

You’re nothing — he tells his wife — except what you’re doing right now: what you’re right now in the process of making.

Helga, apparently taking this as a dig at her, leaves that night. Maud effectively takes over the making of the film, putting her own ideas, her own story, into her performance. It might be fatal to wait — to withhold commitment — till she’s sure that this is the right opportunity.

Birdsong filters in from outside: sparrows and wrens sheltering in the eaves. Birds can starve in Ireland from relentless rain. The trick is not to wait for it to stop; to take the battering, as a means to an end.

Louise, who has been her main rival among the actors, tries to persuade her she’s making a mistake, yelling at her:

It’s a CULT, Maud. …
And you’re POOR! Did you sign your FULL NAME on the CONTRACT? He won’t PAY you a PENNY! It’s not a GET RICH QUICK, Maud. Your da’s a BOOKIE, you said, and even if that’s a lie, you should KNOW a MUGGER when you SEE one.

She’s right about Maud being poor. When Maud goes to collect her passport, she fails to prevent the film crew from seeing that her family lives in a mobile home in Ballymun, with “ponies by the roadside”.

Both of Louise’s parents are gynaecologists. She can afford to pass up Larry’s offer (to put her in touch with “people in the improv world”) and wait for something more solid to come along. Maud is more in the position of the wrens and sparrows who must “take the battering” of the rain, if they’re going to be able to eat.

“I ate it all and I really thought I wouldn’t” likewise focuses on the interaction of two characters, only one of whom needs to pay attention to the economic consequences of her activities. Marjorie is a picture-framer who runs her business out of a shop where her ex-husband’s architecture practice used to be based. Her inheritance provided the seed fund for the practice. Their “twelve-year largely platonic marriage” came to an end when he came out and asked for a divorce, saying that she could have everything: shop, house and cars (plural).

Marjorie doesn’t need to make a success of her business but her recent hire, Bróna, a graduate in Art History from NUIG, wishes she would. Bróna can hardly believe that, given the state of the economy, she has found “this permanent, salaried job, with sick days and — for the love of god — retirement contributions”, and would like to be sure she will be able to keep it.

Bróna is aware, of course, that she is the object of “what libido is left in a forty-five-year-old woman”, and her way of dealing with this is very nicely judged — by author and character alike. While Marjorie is at lunch, eating fish and chips by the Corrib at the Spanish arch, Bróna sends her a long text:

“I really love this job btw. I’m grateful for it and I badly want to keep it. It’s impossible to find a job at all, much less one that doesn’t involve signing away your conscience. There’s just one problem I should flag. Sometimes there’s a mildly inappropriate tone sometimes that makes me uncomfortable. I really don’t want any awkwardness to develop in terms of sexual misconduct or anything like that and of course there’s been Nothing of the sort so far. And I understand it’s just your cracking sense of humor which I love. But I can’t tell you how much I want to keep this job, so it’s more I’m just thinking about long term sustainability and establishing really good frank relations between us. Can I draw the line on 5 innuendos a day Marjorie?!!! I hope this is all okay to lay out. I’ve just found that I get less anxiety if I air grievances or concerns early on before they become something I should never have let them become. It’s preventative. Because the job’s worth protecting.

Marjorie reflects on the self-possession on Bróna’s part that this shows, “how easy and urgent she found it to state her truth, in writing — to formalize the complaint.” Whether that will lead to the conclusion that the young woman will be able to survive just fine without the job, or that she deserves to keep it, I’m really not sure.

It will definitely be The Buried Giant next time.


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