Author’s first published story wins prestigious prize, 2017
In 2017, Louise Nealon’s first published short story won the Seán Ó Faoláin prize, which was judged by Paul McVeigh. It’s titled “What feminism is” and is the first-person narrative of a young woman, a writer, who finds herself competing with other young women to have sex with the male coeditor of a college literary magazine, whom at one point she describes as having “the composure of a priest”. A story of hers is “still sitting in his inbox, lonely and unread.” One of the women she’s competing with had been flirting with the editor earlier on the night — the solitary night — he chose to go home with the narrator.
She has been published in the magazine. She has been published in every literary journal on campus, despite parading her mental illness around on social media. I think it is unfair that she is able to be both sick and successful at the same time. I want to hold them out to her like a mother in a shop and ask her to choose between them.
The narrator feels guilty about her anger and envy and wants to apologize to the young woman at whom they’re directed but is advised instead just to be nice to her the next time she sees her. She wonders if that’s what feminism is.
That’s a question that arises when she sees her therapist at the end of the story. The therapist, “a soft-spoken, older lady who looks like she shops in Marks and Spencer and smells of talcum powder and scented candles”, questions the relevance of feminism to the young woman’s situation:
Feminism has always struck me as a very strident position to take.
The narrator has chosen to read to her therapist the short story she wrote about her one night stand with the editor, though leaving out the sex because “I don’t want her to think that I’m a slut”. (Her description of the therapist suggests that this fear might be well founded, though it’s also possible that the narrator is giving too much weight to her own preconceptions about what the older woman thinks.)
Earlier, the narrator has submitted the same story to the editor’s journal. He comes back to her three days later, professing himself mystified as to what would possess her to send that story to him, and protesting that she has “skipped over the sheer amount of sex we had”. She remembers it differently:
I don’t remember having that much sex. I’ve blocked out the other attempts he made to knock the numbness out of me, the one time it worked and I felt the hot pain of nothing rising up in my throat, surfing on a wave of relief.
At the time, though, sex hadn’t seemed to be the point.
I pretend to enjoy myself until it’s over and I get what I really want: a chance to fall asleep listening to the waves of somebody else’s breathing, his arms wrapped around me like a bouncer guarding my dreams.
But this objective is frustrated when, instead of going to sleep, the young man fidgets and asks if she has any beer.
On first reading, I thought this story was primarily about the competition — the lack of solidarity, if you like — between the young women writers, and secondarily about the narrator ending up having sex when her real objectives were something else — publication of her stories, the “guarding” of her dreams. (“Dreams” in the literal sense, as we’ll see when discussing Snowflake.) But that just shows the danger of coming to a premature judgment while still reading. The ending of the story suggests that something (even) more serious is at stake.
My mind and body have a silent understanding that if I ever get pregnant, I will kill myself. The process will be long and drawn out. I think I will have the abortion first …
It has been two months since my last period. (Ellipsis added)
This seems like more than suicidal ideation. As she presents it, the decision has been made, tacitly, without argument, long before, and now the condition it depends on has been fulfilled.
“The possibility of snow” (2020)
The only other short story by Nealon that I’ve been able to find online is “The possibility of snow” which (like “What feminism is”) can be read on The Irish Times website. It is at least in part a story about embarrassment. Miriam, who has inherited a dairy farm from her father and seems to live a fairly isolated life, is developing a friendship with Julie, the postwoman who delivers her mail (of which she seems to get a surprising amount).
Julie is fond of talking about travel to places like “Cambodia, Japan, Turkey, Iran”, while Miriam is embarrassed by the fact that she has never been outside Ireland, although
… it wouldn’t be an option with the farm anyway. She could never leave the cows with anyone else. She was afraid if she left them, even for a day, they’d be taken away from her.
So, she invents a fondness for, and a habit of, visiting European cities, saying that she plans to go to Prague in January. Of course, she doesn’t go anywhere, just hides when Julie comes with the post during the time she’s supposed to be away. On her supposed return, Julie invites Miriam to her birthday party. At the party, Julie introduces Miriam to her wife, Martha, and young daughter, Ellie. Both of them have heard of Miriam, though Julie has never mentioned a family to her.
Miriam unobtrusively leaves the party very early, reflecting on her way home that Julie doesn’t wear her wedding ring, “a plain gold band, the type a man would wear”, while she’s at work.
So, embarrassment is a major theme of this story, certainly, but so also is concealment: the embarrassing thing is kept hidden from view. What is this secret? Might it be homophobia?
Miriam’s inheritance of the farm had been remarked on in the locality:
Most people thought he would have given it to the son, although even Miriam would admit she was more of a man than Martin ever was.
After their mother died Martin had unexpectedly come out as gay. Miriam thinks that this was “his way of coping with her death”. We’re told (and this is clearly Miriam’s point of view):
It wasn’t the homosexuality that came as a surprise but the exhibitionism that went with it.
Martin had campaigned for the Yes campaign in the 2015 referendum on marriage equality. That apparently led to a rift between father and son which in turn resulted in the son’s disinheritance. There’s a gnomic passage, again clearly from Miriam’s point of view, which is obviously not telling the whole story and which I’ll quote at length:
The Yes people came around to the house to interrogate his father. They sat him down at his own kitchen table with a camera-phone propped up by the bible. Frank was too uncomfortable to ask them to leave so he answered their questions, serving them tea from a pot wearing one of Martin’s rainbow tea-cosies. After the video was posted online, Martin moved out. He stayed with friends until the referendum was passed. Then he left for England with a suitcase of notions.
I haven’t been able to work out why the Yes campaign — those in favour of marriage equality — should have wanted to “interrogate” the father of one of their supporters, but it seems a reasonable inference that the father told them at least that he considered Martin’s lifestyle and sexuality to be sinful. Given the theme of embarrassment, it seems possible that he also told them something damaging about his son’s early life.
What Miriam thinks of as Martin’s “exhibitionism” seems to irritate her, and we’re told in terms that she regards his relatively late emergence from the closet as a coping mechanism. As the beneficiary of her father’s will, and being afraid to leave her cows in case they should be “taken away from her”, she may feel irrationally that it would be ungrateful or hypocritical not to identify, to some degree, with his homophobia. Maybe that’s what stops her from staying at Julie’s birthday party after learning that her is married to another woman and has a child with her.
But it might be something else entirely. Maybe she had been starting to believe that her friendship with the postwoman might develop into a deeper relationship, only to find that possibility closed off by the marriage, which she hadn’t known about? At any rate, it’s clear that she is attracted to the idea of female solidarity:
“Female elephants stick together,” David Attenborough whispered, sending a tingle from the back of her ear down to her shoulder. “The males are loners, but the women have a strong bond. The group they form together is called a memory.” Miriam ate her baked potato dinner and tried to imagine what it must feel like to be part of a memory.
I don’t think the story suffers from its inconclusiveness — about Miriam’s feelings and desires, or about the nature of, and reasons for, the “interrogation” of her father. Certainly there is something of substance there, some secret that because of embarrassment is not alluded to. As readers, we can happily speculate as to what it is, without needing to dig it up.
When I read that Nealon’s success in the Seán Ó Faoláin competition had been followed by a very lucrative publishing deal, I assumed that an alert agent or editor, noticing the competition win, had descended on Nealon at her writing desk, and firmly told her: “That’s enough with the short stories: we need to get you working on a novel.” The fact that I could find just one other story online by her seemed to offer some support to that assumption. But, as it turns out, I was being unfair.
Her first novel, Snowflake, turns out not to be something urged on her by the inflexible requirements of the publishing industry, but rather a story she had been working on for years, based on an experience she’d had more than 10 years earlier. It’s a book that features depression and other mental illness, isolation and loneliness, sudden and brutal death by farm machinery, attempted suicide, guilt, grief and out-of-control drinking. These are far from being unusual themes in Irish fiction but Nealon writes about them in a lighthearted and almost whimsical tone that makes these familiar motifs seem fresh and surprising. I’m not normally very keen on whimsy but where it’s used as here to leaven a story that might otherwise be unbearably bleak, it’s easier to put up with.
I’m already a day late with this post. My first draft goes on for another 1,200 words on the subject of Snowflake, and I’m still not satisfied with it, nor do I feel that I’m getting near the end! The novel turns out to be more complex and substantial than I noticed at first. So, I’m going to cut this off here and post it in its present state, and think and write a bit more about Snowflake.
When I’ve finished that, I may post it on my personal site or alternatively send it out in two weeks’ time as part 2 of this issue. Either way, I’ll let you know next time where you can read it. Update, 18-Sep-2022 You can now find my post about Snowflake on my personal site.
If you know of somebody you think might like this post, don’t hesitate to forward it to her/him. If you haven’t already signed up, but would like to be sure of receiving these posts every two weeks, the sign-up page is here. And, finally, this is where you can get the RSS feed.
Thanks for reading.