The Empty Family, Colm Tóibín
It is not often that I like an author’s novels better than his or her short stories. Usually, the writing is better in short stories than in novels, not only because it is difficult to sustain careful, precise, evocative writing over the long haul, but also because of the short’s story’s dependence on thematic significance communicated by careful poetic patterning of language.
I liked Colm Tóibín’s The Master, as a stylistic tour de force and loved Brooklyn because its universal theme, communicated by such carefully written language, suggested the technique of a short story than that of a novel (See my earlier blog entry on Brooklyn, January 20, 2010). However, I did not like Tóibín’s first collection of short stories, Mothers and Sons, and I am no big fan of his recent collection, Empty Family, in spite of its being short listed for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.
Of the six collections on that list, Tóibín’s book has received the most attention by reviewers, albeit, not so much by American reviewers, who, with the exception of positive reviews in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, pretty much ignored it. However, reviewers in Canada, Australia, England, and Ireland were mostly unanimous in their praise for the collection, which I thought lackluster, ordinary, and even sometimes carelessly written, as if Tóibín had so little respect for the short story form he used it only for “occasional” writing. In my opinion, he has not given it the care and careful attention that he did in The Master and Brooklyn.
In the opening story of The Empty Family, “The Silence,” Tóibín returns to his mentor of The Master, Henry James, taking an anecdote from James’s Notebooks to put together a fictional recreation of Lady Gregory’s account of her short-lived but heated affair with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. As a result of the affair, Gregory wrote a group of sonnets, which Blunt, at her request, published under his name. In my opinion, a competently done, but hardly Jamesian, literary jeu d' esprit, in which Tóibín attempts to write the story that James did not get around to writing.
The title story, “The Empty Family,” begins with a signature thematic sentence for this collection of stories, as well as a classic Irish theme ever since George Moore’s 1903 The Untilled Field: “I have come back here.” The story is a sort of meditation addressed to a former lover by a man who, while living in California, drives out to the ocean every Saturday so he can stand there and “miss home.” He returns to County Wexford where “home was some graves where my dead lay outside the town of Enniscorthy, just off the Dublin Road.” In a central passage that echoes Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the narrator looks out over the sea and focuses on a single wave to discover that although the wave comes toward us as if to save us, it does nothing, withdrawing in a “shrugging irony, as if to suggest this is what the world is, and our time in it, all lifted possibility, all complexity and rushing fervour, to end in nothing but a small strand, and go back out to rejoin the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave unknowing energy.” A bit too facile and self-indulgently ruminative, it seems to me.
“One Minus One,” also addressed to a former lover, is mainly a meditation about a man’s return to Ireland to attend the dying of his mother. For everyone who has made this melancholy journey back home for the deathwatch and funeral service of a mother or father, this will seem a familiar experience, which Tóibín handles in a quite ordinary personal essayistic way.
“Two Women” is about Frances, a movie set designer, living in California, who returns to Dublin to work on a film. She recalls her broken relationship years before with her dead lover, an Irish actor. The woman is a brittle, crusty old lady, scornful of her home country and just about everyone with whom she comes in contact, although we are not sure if this attitude has anything to do with that old lover affair. When she meets the widow of her ex-lover in a most convenient, unlikely encounter, they have a sit-down, heart-to-heart that seems inconsequential. Although the woman is “careful to use detail sparingly but make it stand for a lot,” I am not so sure that Tóibín does the same in this story.
“The New Spain” is about Carme Giralt, who, exiled as a communist under Franco, returns to Barcelona to claim an inheritance from her grandmother—an inheritance that has excluded her parents. In its focus on family conflicts, the story is much like the loose pieces in Tóibín’s earlier collection, Mothers and Sons.
“The Colour of Shadows” is about a Dublin businessman who goes to Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s homeplace) to care for his aunt, suffering from dementia. She becomes paranoid that he has been seeing his mother, who has been cut off from the family for deserting the narrator (who is gay) when he was a boy--something his family cannot accept.
“The Pearl Fishers” is about a man who writes thrillers having dinner with a married couple of friends. The wife, who is writing a book about being sexually abused as a young woman by a priest, does not know that her husband and the narrator were lovers in high school. He is on the verge of telling her about his past love with her husband, but is prevented by the disclosure of her own secret. In her New York Times Review, Francine Prose names “Pearl Fishers” the best story in the collection, suggesting that, “multiple ironies, some obvious and others quite subtle, are allowed to shimmer lightly in the atmosphere surrounding the former friends. Resonating throughout the story, the contrasts between action and intention, expectation and outcome alter our perception of the characters: of who they were as teenagers and how they became the adults on whom we are eavesdropping.” As much as I respect Prose’s book Reading Like A Writer, I cannot agree that this story has that much Jamesian stylistic subtlety.
“Pearl Fishers” introduces the reader to something previously missing from Tóibín’s fiction, explicit descriptions of male sexual encounters. The narrator recalls sex with the husband, remembering “I had fed his sweet, thick, pungent, lemony sperm into my mouth with my fingers as if it were jam, desperately trying to make sure that none was wasted.” The sexual descriptions, describing painful anal intercourse, continue in “Barcelona, 1975,” which is about a young Irish man who leaves Dublin at age 20 for Barcelona (as did Tóibín) and takes a lover The emphasis in these sexual scenes is merely on the physical event, not the significance of the event. The prose is routine and ordinary, for example: “I don’t know when I first let my new friend fuck me. I had been fucked for a few seconds the year before, but it was so painful I had made the guy take his dick out forthwith and keep it out. Another guy, summer before I left Ireland, had tried more successfully, but it was better when I fucked him. So when my new friend asked me if I liked fucking or being fucked, I said I like fucking. He said he did too, and in fact he hated being fucked and couldn’t do it.” That, it seems to me, is just tedious, purposeless, writing, regardless of what act it describes.
When asked by one interviewer if he was trying to shock readers with the sex scenes, Tóibín replies, ”with a gale of giggles,” “Yes, that’s thrown in for mischief.” But then more defensively, he adds, “It’s actually an important part of me, and it’s an important part of the world and here it is, and I’m not ashamed of it and I’m certainly not going to hide it, and it’s going in my next book and if you can’t deal with that I can’t…I’m certainly not going to do anything about it such as not put stories into the book or not write things that occur to me. You just have to go wherever things take you. I’m not sure you can take everyone with you, but you should be prepared to try.”
Although one can certainly agree that Tóibín has the right to describe that which is important to him, that which, to some extent defines him as a person, at the same time, a reader has a right to question whether these flatly described explicit sex scenes are anything more meaningful than examples of the author’s right to disclose. Hermione Lee of the Guardian says, “Every so often he allows himself some lavish, graphic sexual writing, as though challenging us to read these descriptions any differently from his scenes of longing for lost family homes or missed landscapes.”
The reviewer in The Toronto Star, Alex Good, suggests the sex passages give one the feeling that “Tóibín is determined to overcompensate for James’s reticence” about male sex. Good argues, “It’s not being prudish to feel that descriptions of analingus or remarks on the taste and consistency of spunk are out of place in stories that otherwise eschew physicality for the inner life. Tóibín’s characters get defined by their sexual urges and behavior, which is a trap that James took some pains to avoid.”
Reviewers are more accepting of the sex scenes in the longest story in the collection, “The Street,” about a young Muslim immigrant, Malik, who has come to Barcelona and must work out the cost of his passage by selling phone cards. Reviewers call it a “daring story,” a “dangerous, dramatic story.” Because it deals with issues of immigration, marginalization Muslim strictures about moral behavior, and because Malik is a young man struggling with his sexuality, reviewers seem ready to ignore the sexuality in favor of the multicultural social issues. However, I think an Australian reviewer best understands the success of this story, suggesting that “The Street” is one of the best stories because “ultimately Tobin is a novelist rather than a short-story writer; his preference for stories of sweeping emotion sits better in extended narratives that allow for character growth and development rather than the sculpted precision shorter narratives demand.”
For me the central issue of Tóibín’s stories is whether they are tightly written, precisely structured short stories, or merely occasional authorial pastimes and recollections to while away the time in between what her perhaps thinks is the more important work of writing novels. Tóibín’s short fiction certainly embodies some of the obsessions of the Irish short story—the theme of exile and return, the notion of the lonely voice--but I am not sure that Tóibín takes the form as seriously as he does his novels.
Heather Ingman, who has written a book on the Irish short story, says in The Irish Times, “For the reader prepared to read slowly and savour the silences between the words, there are rich rewards in this collection.” In my opinion, although Tóibín's novels encourage us to read slowly, his short stories do not.
Francine Prose opens her review in The New York Times by asking: Why does the short story lend itself so naturally to the muted but still shattering sentiments of yearning, nostalgia, and regret?… In its search for the surprising yet inevitable chain of events that will illuminate a character’s---and the reader’s—life, a short story has the power to summon, like a genie from a bottle, the ghost of lost happiness and missed chances.” I agree. I just do not get a glimpse of the genie in the stories of Colm Tóibín.
I will discuss the fifth book in the 2011 Frank O’Connor Award shortlist, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, by Yiyun Li (who won the inaugral Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2005 for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers) in a few days.