Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn was awarded the Costa Novel of the Year award a couple of weeks ago. Through no fault of Toibin, the novel will always evoke a sadness in me. It is the last novel that I listened to while walking my dog Shannon each morning in the neighborhood. As I have mentioned before, the only time I “read” novels is when I “listen” to them on my Ipod. Since I don’t think novels require the kind of close reading that fine short stories do, I usually get bored with them on the page, but enjoy listening to someone read them as Shannon and I stroll for a half hour each morning.
I am sad to say that Shannon died Saturday night, January 16, about 15 minutes before midnight—fifteen years to the day after we brought her home from the animal shelter and made her part of our family. My wife and I had been nursing her for the past couple of weeks while she grew weaker and weaker from kidney failure and a weak heart. She could not walk any more, and she refused to eat, except when I got some homemade chicken broth down her with a turkey baster. All we could do was make her comfortable, keep her hydrated, and watch over her. We were sitting with her when she died.
Different people have different attitudes toward their pets. I grew up on a farm where dogs were only as good as they were useful—for hunting, herding, and guarding the house. They were fed scraps, were not allowed indoors, and were not particularly mourned when they died. My wife, whose heart is so tender she would not step on a bug, has taught me different ways. Shannon, our second dog in our thirty years of marriage (Ollie, our first also died at age 15.) was indeed a member of the family and treated as such. I will miss my morning walks with her. I will continue walking, for the sake of my heart, and listening to novels, for the sake of my education, but it is just not the same on the treadmill or walking alone.
I have been thinking about my experience listening to Brooklyn. It is a relatively short novel, at 250 pages, but, as usual with novels, I got very impatient with it, damning it for the endless details and verisimilitude that I could have done without. It is a simple and formulaic story of Irish immigration—Ireland’s favorite story since the Potato Famine. The central character is Eilis, a young woman who lives in Enniscorthy, a fair sized town in county Wexford, south of Dublin. It is the 1950’s and Eilis lives with her mother and older sister. She has a poor-paying job in a store, but has goals of becoming an accountant. However, she cannot find a decent job and the young men of the town are not very interested in her. A priest who now lives in New York, but is visiting his hometown in Ireland, helps her immigrate to America and finds her a job and a place to live.
With the financial help of her sister, this is accomplished with a lot of detail about her preparations, her journey, her job, her housemates, her landlady. She meets a young man, Tony, of Italian descent, begins dating him, attends night school to study accounting, and generally begins to settle in. Then she gets word of her sister’s sudden death, but before she leaves for Ireland, Tony convinces her to secretly marry him in a civil ceremony. As with most things in Eilis’s life, she agrees to this more out of passivity than out of passion. When she returns to Enniscorthy, she slowly begins to settle in at home again. A young man who ignored her before now pays her much attention. An employer that turned her down before now offers her a better paying job as an accountant. Her mother seems to assume that she will settle down in Enniscorthy. She puts off her return to New York again and again, in spite of Tony’s letters urging her to come back.
This all seemed quite pedestrian and predictable to me as I listened to the plot details and character concerns. The major attractions of the novel as a form—a sympathetic character with which the reader can identify, a fully realized geographical and social world the reader can recognize and live in, a plot with enough unpredictability to keep one turning the page—all seemed to be lacking in this novel. Quite frankly, it bored me. Just another immigration story.
But then, suddenly, as the story concludes, everything seems to tighten and pull together—not like a novel, but like a short story—and I was thrown back to the whole of the story and made to see everything in a new light. I began to realize that I had been listening to Brooklyn like a novel, while I should have been reading it like a short story. What I had missed in the listening, I would have caught in the reading—the precise, poetic style of the work, the careful creation of a literary world with a rhythm of reality all its own. The story is not a realistic novel about a particular woman in a particular time and particular place, but rather a lyrical tale about the universal dilemma of anyone who is displaced, tries to go home again but cannot, returns to the displacement, and finds out that neither the old home nor the new home feels like “home.” Brooklyn is a classic story of homesickness, a story that does not simply give a particular example of homesickness, but rather explores and defines the complexity of what that kind of sickness. As such, it is in the tradition of one of the most famous Irish stories, George Moore’s “Home Sickness.”
Frank O. Connor, in his great little book The Lonely Vlice, singles out "Home Sickness" as representative of the direction that the Irish short story would take in the twentieth century, arguing that it has the "absolute purity of the short story as opposed to the tale.” Although O'Connor says that as a piece of artistic organization, "Home Sickness" is perfect, one's first impression of the story is of its structural simplicity. James Bryden, an Irish immigrant who works in a bar in the Bowery, goes back to Ireland "in search of health," and for a short time considers marrying a peasant girl and remaining there. What unifies the story beyond its simple narrative structure is the understated but sustained tone throughout of Bryden's detachment from the reality of Irish life and his preference to live within a sort of reverie of nostalgia that he is disappointed to find unrealized in reality. He takes no interest in the life of the people and does not so much decide to marry Margaret Dirken as he passively allows the impending marriage to be announced.
Although Bryden finds himself longing for the Bowery as he contrasts the "weakness and incompetence of the people around him with the modern restlessness and cold energy of the people he left behind him," and although he blames the ignorance and primitive nature of the folk who cling to religious authority as his reason to return to America; the conclusion of the story suggests a more subtle and universal theme by unifying the detached dream-like mood of reverie that has been counterpointed throughout against Irish village reality. For the story is truly about the unbridgeable gap between restless reality and dream-like memory.
The style of the story shifts in the penultimate paragraph from what at first seems like a straightforward realistic presentation of Bryden's detached disappointment with Irish life to a compressed summary account of his ordinary and uneventful life in America. After his wife has died and his children are married, he sits in front of the fire, an old man, and "a vague, tender reverie" of Margaret floats up to his consciousness. "His wife and children passed out of mind, and it seemed to him that a memory was the only real thing he possessed, and the desire to see Margaret again grew intense."
The final lyrical paragraph of the story seems in sharp contrast to the realistic style of what has preceded it, in a way that is very similar to the contrast between realism and concluding lyricism that characterizes Joyce's "The Dead": "There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself, and his unchanging, silent life was his memory of Margaret Dirken. The bar-room was forgotten and all that concerned it, and the things he saw most clearly were the green hillside, and the bog lake and the rushes around it, and the greater lake in the distance, and behind it the blue line of wandering hills."
However, as in "The Dead," the concluding lyrical style is not so much in contrast to the former style of the story as it first appears, for what Moore has accomplished is what characterizes the so-called "modern" style of Chekhov, Anderson, and Joyce. What seems to be mere verisimilitude in the story actually is a subtle development of a unified tone of reverie and memory that dominates the description of everyday reality. Although the story on the surface seems to focus on external reality, the real emphasis, as is so often the case with Chekhov and Joyce, is on inner life, for which the details of external reality are significant either only by contrast or as images of subjective reality. Although the concluding revelation of the "unchanging, silent life" of Bryden at first seems unprepared for, much as the lyrical evocation of Gabriel's life does in "The Dead," a closer look at the story reveals that the entire story is dominated by images that suggest the predominance of the subjective life of reverie and imagination over the ordinary life of the everyday.
Moore’s story is a classic of the short story as a genre, tightly wrought around a complex universal theme in which character and plot are in service of something larger than just “stuff that happens.” It is a talent that Colm Tóibín’s short stories seem to lack. His novel The Master won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and almost won the Booker in 2004, but his one collection of short stories, Mothers and Sons (2007) is comparatively flat and flaccid. He suggested in a London interview that it may be his last collection of stories, confessing, “I can’t write short stories.” Tóibín is not only a good novelist; he is also a good critic.
Although I was charmed by his restrained treatment of five challenging years in the life of Henry James, I was disappointed that Tóibín has not learned the “lesson of the master,” to wit, that the short story demands succinctness, that “it should be a little gem of bright, quick, vivid form.” With the exception of the final story, “A Long Winter,” a fine example of what James called his ideal, “the beautiful and blest nouvelle,” most of these stories suffer either from Tóibín’s underestimation or misunderstanding of the short story form. One problem may be the casual and calculated way the book originated. Tóibín has said that after the fluency of The Master he felt for a time that he had nothing; then some stories came to him: “A Song,” about a young man who hears his mother, who abandoned him as a child, sing, and “A Priest in the Family,” about an elderly mother whose son, a priest, is accused of abusing a young man.
Recovering a story he wrote in 1979, “A Journey,” about a mother driving her depressed son home from the hospital, he realized that the common theme of mother-son relationships might very well hold a book together. He then added the mother angle to two unfinished sketches--“The Name of the Game” and “The Use of Reason” to provide them with a conflict. All he needed now were a couple of new pieces: “Famous Blue Raincoat,” about a woman recalling her youthful experience singing in a band when her son discovers some of her old records, and “Three Friends,” about a young man who, after the death of his mother, attends a beach rave and has a homosexual experience with a friend.
In spite of the book’s overall intention, the individual stories fall short as individual stories. “The Song” focuses on a potentially powerful encounter, but since the reader cannot hear the song the mother sings and Tóibín’s prose here is too ordinary to capture the magic of that moment, the story lacks emotional impact. “The Name of the Game,” about a woman who has a gender and generational conflict with her son after salvaging a failing business left her by her husband, simply has no emotional core to sustain it. The issues at stake—the social pressures of a small Irish town—are too general and novelistic, and the story simply goes on too long about the specific steps the woman takes to make an economic success of the venture.
“Famous Blue Raincoat” tries to suggest the difference between old Ireland and the new economic Celtic Tiger—but lacks any compelling thematic or emotional connection between the past, which dominates most of the story, and the present, which serves as merely a convenient hook. “Three Friends,” another story about modern Ireland, also fails because it creates no compelling connection between the grief of the young man who has lost his mother and the sexual encounter he has with his friend. “A Priest in the Family is too obviously “ripped from the headlines,” featuring a thoroughly modern mother, age 80, who has learned to handled a VCR and email, but must find a way to face those who know that her son the priest is a pedophile.
“The Long Winter,” occupying one third of the book, is the best story here, and not just because of its length. Taking place in a rural village in the Pyrenees in Spain, it focuses on a young man whose mother has disappeared in a snowstorm. Based on a true story told to Tóibín by a man who sold him a house in Spain, the story has the formal control of folktale, ballad, myth. Tóibín, his own best critic, has called this his most powerful piece, recognizing that its purity of line and clarity of emotion places it in a different realm than the other stories. Tonally flawless and emotionally compelling, “The Long Winter,” a perfect example of James’s “beautiful and blest nouvelle,” alone is worth the price of Mothers and Sons.
If you have read Brooklyn, please let me know what you think.
A FOOTNOTE: Perhaps this is what bloggers with open blogs have to expect: I have received three or four "comments" that were links to porn sites and other such nonsense on some of my blogs. Consequently, you will see: "Comment deleted by moderator" on some of my recent blogs. Anyone have any advice on what else I can do to prevent this?