Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Colm Toibin's Brooklyn: A Novel To Be Read Like a Short Story

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?


Lee said...

We view our Gypsy as a friend, perhaps family member, so I'm so sorry to hear of Shannon's death.

This is a very interesting post, because I tend to view the received distinction between novel and short story as one of several possible ways things could have developed - and still may.

Actually, I think Toibin is wrong (writers are not always good critics of their own work), that he can indeed write good short stories, and A Song happens to be my favourite from the collection. I read it again and again to see just how he manages to achieve its power, for yes indeed, I find it powerful in its expression of missed opportunity, childhood loss, ambivalence of love. And I think it's beautifully written!

(Sorry to delete my first comment - confusing punctuation!)

Ann Graham said...

Go to Dashboard, Settings, then Comment Moderation and you can set it so that all comments are reviewed by you before they are "live."

Charles E. May said...

Thanks,for the suggestion, Ann. I hate to do that, for it seems as though I am exercising some editorial decision to keep out negative remarks. I think I will just wait and watch--deleting comments that are links to porn and other commercial interests if I get them.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the condolences, Lee. A lost good friend is a sad loss, regardless of species.

And thanks for the comment on Toibin's "Song": Yeah, I liked that story, just didn't love it. My reservation about it mainly focused on the fact that Toibin cites a song performance that, because we as readers cannot have access to that performance, have no basis on which to judge the son's response to it. Overall, my objection to the collection is that too much of it seems "recovered" work, "doctored" work,and "manipulated" work to create a book out of pieces of uneven quality. I think Toibin himself recognized this in the interview comment I quoted. I like his work--especially The Master and Brooklyn. I met him in Dublin when I took a group of students there to study Joyce three years ago. He was at the National Library doing a little talk on Yeats. I ran into him once before when he was at the Annual Book Fair sponsored by the L.A. Times. That was when The Master won the L.A. Times award. I think he is the complete professional and a scrupulous artist--just not a great short story writer, except when his novels read like short stories.

Ann Graham said...


I'm so sorry about your loss of Shannon. It's sad and difficult to lose a family member. We still miss and talk about and laugh about our times with our little dog, Shiloh, who died in September.


Lee said...

Hm, I'll reread some of Toibin's shorts stories with your comments in mind, see what I think. I'm not sure what you mean, however, by 'recovered' work and hope you will elaborate. Please excuse my ignorance if this is a standard critical term.

With regard to A Song I don't believe it's necessary for us to judge the son's reaction to his mother's performance as if we were music critics - if I understand you correctly. It's his response which is central, whether accurate or not, and I feel it's written more than revealing enough to indicate the extent of his feelings and his deeply rooted inner conflict. Unless a writer refers to an actual performance, there wouldn't be much basis for a judgement, and surely you don't mean to suggest that fiction can't include fictional music or painting or dance etc.

Charles E. May said...

I like talking with you about this, Lee. I will reread "Song" and rethink my ideas. By "recovered," I simply mean that Toibin went back and dredged up some previous work he had done and patched them up to fit the Mothers/Sons theme of the book. Whether he did this because his publishes asked him to or because he saw it was a way to put out a "unified" collection, I don't know. The result is that some stories seem "wired" to fit the theme and others just seem not up to his best work. I will get back to you when I reread "song."

Lee said...

Yes, I see about 'recovered'. You did suggest that in your post, but I wasn't sure. It's also a bit hard to know where the line between revising and recovering lies. In other words, I don't really see a problem with revisiting earlier, even much earlier, work, and I know of writers who sometimes spend years completing a short story. That said, it still has to work, of course.

My impression is that Toibin can be quite ironic in interviews.

I do agree with you about some of the stories in the collection, notably 'Three Friends' and possibly 'A Famous Blue Raincoat'.

Now I'm more determined than ever to read Brooklyn, but I'll have to wait for a paperback copy.

Charles E. May said...

I guess we will have to agree to disagree about Toibin's "The Song," Lee. I reread it a couple more times and still think it is an undistinguished piece of little consequence, something that Toibin threw together rather carelessly to fit with his mother/son theme--just to get a book together. I went back and checked the interviews and reviews that came out after the book was published. In an interview, Toibin said he wanted to show mothers who were not religious and not in the kitchen all the time. The mother as well-known singer fits this easily. Toibin has said that after the sustained effort of The Master, he felt he had nothing, and then some stories came to him. I think perhaps he came up with one or two, saw the connection and then went searching about for other stuff he had lying around unfinished to see how they might fit. He said, “I looked at what I had and realised I could use the Mother and son theme as a way of giving those unfinished stories a second act. Thinking of the title facilitated the writing.” The Guardian reviewer, Patrick Ness, says that “The Song” begins to show some of Toibin’s weaknesses in the short story form. “It’s easy to see the effect Toibin is after, but the set-up bears little logical scrutiny.” The London Times reviewer, Sally Vickers, says she was unpersuaded by the young man’s decision to leave without introducing himself to his mother. The Irish Times reviewer, George O’Brien, called it Toibin’s gift to future anthologists of short stories. And yes, it is simple enough, short enough, and readable enough to fit in future anthologies. Sorry to disagree, Lee, but I think Toibin writes better in The Master and Brooklyn than he does in his short stories--which he does not seem to take very seriously. I resent it when novelists, thinking that the short story is a minor bit of finger exercise, toss short pieces off to make a buck. I think it is condescending and cynical and misinformed about the nature of the form.

Lee said...

Patrick Ness is not a reviewer I particularly trust with regard to short stories, because he tends to emphasise plot, and in fact that is the nature of his comment. And I absolutely disagree with Vickers - Noel's decision to leave without introducing himself to his mother is crucial to understanding how torn he feels. He's terrified of a second rejection. (Interestingly, Vickers is also a psychoanalyst.)

What I particularly like about this short story is how Toibin captures sentiment without sentimentality.

Is it a great short story? Probably not, but I don't feel able to make that sort of distinction confidently.

Thanks for going back to re-examine the story. I'm going to reread it again tonight in light of your comments.

I also understand your resentment concerning novelists who don't take the short story form seriously, but is this really true here? Why shouldn't Toibin - or anyone, for that matter - try or even try and fail? Again, taking up unfinished work is no crime in my eyes, and conceivably can lead to excellent work.

(I often say that writers shouldn't talk about their own work, at least in public!)

And I like thoughtful disagreement. It makes make me examine my own prejudices - and work harder to overcome my ignorance.

Lee said...

By the way, in case any of your other readers would like to have a look at A Song and perhaps add to the discussion, it's available online:

Charles E. May said...

We certainly do agree about the value of thoughtful disagreement, Lee. I have been studying the short story for half a century, but I learn something new every day and am happy for it. I am especially happy when readers of this blog talk with me. Thanks for posting the location of the story. I hope others read it and join our discussion.

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Paul Mitchell said...

Hmm, I'm afraid that I cannot comment on Toibin's writing, as well as many here have, but I can offer one insight
that I do not believe I've seen. In Brooklyn, The Blackwater Lightship and in A Song, Toibin does something which (IMHO) very few writers can accomplish; he puts you in the middle of a traditional music session. There's tons of bad, stereotypical descriptions of Irish traditional music (as there is bad stereotyped versions of Irish music promoted all over the place) but time and again, in his writing, I'm moved into perceptions of events I've seen, heard or participated in (been playing the fiddle way too long). He gets it, and he knows how to write it.

Again, I can't say whether the stories necessarily work as good writing or not, but I am transfixed by his ability to transmit the immmediacy of this experience.

John said...

I'm currently studying the short story under Colm Toibin at the University of Manchester, and I can assure you that he takes it very, very seriously as a form.

Due to his quiet style, there may be stories where the 'coming together' effect (ala how you felt about the end of Brooklyn) doesn't happen. He doesn't force it or use cheap tricks. You might feel cold at the end of such a story. But I think that's a natural pitfall of the style. Those times when he does get it right are simply wonderful.

And many condolences. A beloved dog is hard to lose; they are such gentle and kind creatures.

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This is a story of simple people - lives with no glamour or anything like that - the beauty of it resides in the simplicity of their lives. No characters wants to become the president of the world or anything as megalomaniacal as that. They want to live their simple lives with dignity, love and money to buy foods and some comfort. Tóibín finds in these unglamorous acts the sparkle of the everyday life.

Marlene Detierro said...

I have not read any of Toibin's books, but I surely will. He opened up a whole new vista of what it was like to emigrate. Not the world of the coffin ships and fleeing the famine but now, here, in modern time. You don't think such an adventure would occur in the middle of the 20th century, but there it is.

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