Friday, April 22, 2016

Colin Barrett's "Anhedonia, Here I Come"

Colin Barrett's first book, the collection of short stories, Young Skins, won  the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.  I commented on my favorite story in the collection on this blog when the book first came out in America, but I did not really care for the other stories. Barrett's characters--mostly men—are uneducated, drink, shoot pool, screw around, and do drugs.  I have no objections to any of those aspects of life as the subject of fiction, but they do tend to get flat and tedious after a time.
What bothers me most about Barrett's most recent story, "Anhedonia, Here I come" in The New Yorker, April 18, is the language—not the language of the dialogue, but the language of the narrator, whosever he is.

The action of the story recounts the journey of a man named Bobby to buy some marijuana from his young female supplier. Bobby is a poet, so he says, although we don't have any evidence of the nature or quality of his poetry. At a pub he discovers that a man he has been trying to get to publish his first book of poetry has already published a collection by someone else.  Bobby goes home depressed and tries to light a joint with a cigarette lighter in his apartment building which is filled with gas from a leak.  What happens then is anyone's guess, if anyone cares.

Barrett obviously thinks language is important. In his March 3, 2015 Paris Review Interview with Jonathan Lee, Barrett says:

"If you get the language, the story follows, and in Young Skins the language flowed out of the concept of the town, somehow. What’s a vernacular, a dialect? It is language, weathered and textured and defined by time and geography, the same way a wind-eroded mountainside or a listing, flaking fence post is. I follow the language back to the mouth out of which it is being spoken.
What I look for in sentences is a gnarl, a knuckliness. It’s textural, like a striae or a burr, some embedded trace within the sentence where the register changes or shifts. It’s hard to explain, of course, because it sounds like damage of a kind, but it has to be the right kind of damage, and it may be visual or mental as much as it is aural. Sound in prose is important, but it is not everything. I like a sentence that does exactly what it needs to, just not in the way one would have thought it needed to do it. I like a sentence that booby traps its cadence if required. I like sentences that go on, and ones that end before you think. 
The kind of writing I don’t like is the stuff I call lethally competent. Language that takes no chances, that seeks to efface itself as language, as a material, and offer the clear windowpane on reality, et cetera. The kind of prose a review might call pellucid, or limpid. Pellucid, limpid is the biggest insult there is, to me. In every genus of art, the stuff that has lasted has made a demand."
The following is a definition of Anhedonia from

"Anhedonia: Loss of the capacity to experience pleasure. The inability to gain pleasure from normally pleasurable experiences. Anhedonia is a core clinical feature of depression, schizophrenia, and some other mental illnesses. An anhedonic mother finds no joy from playing with her baby. An anhedonic football fan is not excited when his team wins. An anhedonic teenager feels no pleasure from passing the driving test. "Anhedonia" is derived from the Greek "a-" (without) "hedone" (pleasure, delight). Other words derived from "hedone" include hedonism (a philosophy that emphasizes pleasure as the main aim of life), hedonist (a pleasure-seeker), and hedonophobia (an excessive and persistent fear of pleasure).

In the New Yorker "This Week in Fiction" blog, Barrett says this about anhedonia.

"If Bobby is to some degree self-aware, he is still dunderingly oblivious in many respects. He thinks he’s sincere but deep down worries he’s a fake. Even though he’s a malign grotesque, there is, I think, that poignant core to him. How do you know you really love the things you think you do? That your concept of self is sincere? The question, despite his own virulent assertions otherwise, is whether Bobby had, or is, succumbing to a state of anhedonia."
 If you look up "Anhedonia," you might want to look up some of the words in the following sentences from Barrett's story:

"one hand broodingly ensconced within a pocket"
"no noise but the late-night dysphagic groans of the elevator's recurringly jammed doors"
"Bobby's peregrinations tended to bring him, as now, into intermittent contact with this body of water"
"He noted the tarry density of its bilious murk"
"[He] took a spumous dump in a toilet cubicle"
"he felt that every other poetic topic of concern was an obfuscation, an eschewal, or a bald retreat from this theme"
"Bobby's psychic sturdiness was, he feared, a manifestation of a submerged but profound and pullating narcissism."
"Becky's caman-wielding cohort lounged on a nearby wall, observing with studied wrath."
"He picked his nose, unseated a gratifyingly intact clump of dried matter, palpated it between his fingers, and flicked it away."
"Then he realized he was abandoning an infant to a vehicle under the operation of a man kneading tinctures of a patently illicit substance into his face.."
"Bobby could feel himself, in her spectral, incipiently canonical gaze, being transubtaniated, molecule by molecule, into obscurity."

I have not found many talking about this story online, but one reader, a man named Dan on GoodReads says:

This is, potentially, the worst short story ever written. It’s bad, it’s dreadful, it’s poorly written, it has no point, it’s not clever. This story is so bad it is an insult to the man who chopped down the tree that was turned into the paper the story was printed on. This story is so terrible the woman who drives the truck that delivers the printing ink to the New Yorker is considering holding the next shipment hostage until the editors apologize personally to her and her family for their incompetence. She works too hard, puts up with too much traffic and back pain to waste her time allowing the staff at the short story department of the New Yorker to waste all that ink on something this bad.
(And he goes on for another five paragraphs)
This is a bit extreme, it seems to me.

However,  it just is not clear why Barrett uses the language that he does in this story.  It does nothing to encourage the reader to identify or sympathize with the central character. Indeed, it does nothing but draw attention to itself and irritate the reader—at least this reader.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps mistakingly, I took the pompous language of the (omniscient?) narrator as an attempt to replicate the thoughts of the story’s central character, Bobby, and his obvious insecurities as a person (“He’d been smitten with the concept of suicidal ideation since a teen-ager”), as well as his obvious self-doubts as a would-be poet. In that light, I found Bobby and his quest for “anhedonia” somewhat comical-- and felt no little sympathy for the guy and his story. Yes, he story seems largely meaningless, but that’s probably way Bobby (and the author) intended to be-- or so I told myself. After all, meaning runs the risk of giving pleasure. :)