Selected Stories by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, 2019), 592 pp., $40
Grove’s face wasn’t injured, as far as you could tell, but it curved in on one side, so that his left temple and jaw were at least an inch further out than his left cheek. Whether he talked or smiled, his lips on that side stayed straight and together, and the right side of his face moved by itself. And there were two deep lines that ran from beside his nostrils almost to the end of his chin. He wasn’t scarred or hideous or funny. You didn’t want to laugh at his face and you didn’t want to say you felt sorry for him. But I can’t remember being in any company with him when people didn’t tend to look at him rather than at anyone else. They wouldn’t let on, but they were absorbed by his dent.
It’s the best possible opening for this collection, and perhaps the best way to frame a review of Vincent O’Sullivan’s Selected Stories. The opening paragraph of ‘Grove’ – a story taken from O’Sullivan’s 1978 collection, The Boy, The Bridge, The River – sets the tone and progression of this collection, which spans nearly forty years of short stories. It also tells us to pay attention to the obvious and not-so-obvious details of the characters we encounter – that each individual deserves a second, or third, or many-times-more look. Finally, this opening paragraph suggests that looking at characters might mean, also, looking closely at how they look at each other, how they are viewed by other characters. The art of observation highlights our flaws, our idiosyncrasies – also our connections, our warmth. We’re all in this story together, O’Sullivan seems to say.
O’Sullivan writes with a sure hand. There’s nothing flowery about his characters; they are no-nonsense people living in the real world. There’s nothing big-world or highfaluting or philosophically high-minded about Grove or Freddie or Latty or Helen or Frith or Bernice or even the mother who becomes somewhat famous in ‘Picture Window’ (‘This has the makings, you might say,’ O’Sullivan writes, ‘of a typical New Zealand story.’). They go on road trips, they share meals, they squabble, they make love. They read books, they watch Shortland Street. They go to church (even if they are not religious). They walk through the door carrying an avocado, artichoke soup, a French roll and unsalted butter. They talk and talk; sometimes they are silent with each other. They live. They die – there is quite a lot of dying (In an interview for North & South, O’Sullivan says: ‘One of my favourite lines of Bertolt Brecht, the German poet, is, “The laughing man has not yet heard the news.”’)
And they observe themselves doing these things. Even more: they notice how they gently touch their hands to each other: on a sleeve, on a knee, on a forearm, on a face, across another hand. Sometimes they let their hands linger in the tiny space between them, resting on a concrete wall, or on a bench, nearly touching.
These are the people who inhabit O’Sullivan’s pages. They are, for the most part, well-mannered – and we are drawn into their lives because of the very manner of their lives. It’s not a collection that shakes you up with ‘aha’ moments or rowdy detail. It’s not loud.
The ordering is chronological, with work from 1978 to 2014 – an obvious logic for such a large amount of material. But there is a slow progression here. Grove’s face is not injured – and so we want to find out more. It’s interesting to note that we begin with a story such as ‘Grove’ and end with ‘Luce’ – two titles that point, simply, to the central character. Also, note these lines that open the following title stories in previous collections:
You could tell the Edisons were somebody not simply because their name made you think of the old geezer in the encyclopaedia (and of course they said they were relatives) but because Dick who was the father wore a little RAF moustache. (‘Dandy Edison for Lunch’)
if you could only see me the way i am now alec you’d piss yourself at the very sight. (‘the snow in spain’)
It is a thing one doesn’t easily admit. Which is why I have never spoken of it, not even to my sister before she died, not to Tom, who by now knows pretty much all there is to know about me. (‘Pictures of Goya’)
I read this collection with building expectations for each character I encountered. Perhaps it can be read as a bit of foreshadowing when we come to Latty in the second story: ‘He did not understand why … a life which had given so much of itself to control and dissimulation, to discipline and will, should at this moment, this late in the day, reveal something new.’
Even if the arranging of these stories brings no meaning other than ‘this is the date when the author wrote this story’, there is a kind of progression from ‘Grove’ to ‘Luce’: an unfolding of people, examining themselves, examining each other – and revealing something new.
O’Sullivan writes not about events (monumental or small) but about the people that events (monumental and small) shape. He asks his reader to look, and to look again – sometimes on our own, but usually as a companion to the people on the page.
After looking out at the blueness of Katoomba and hearing one man explain the clear blue of the sky, we learn that this same man is blind. Most significant is the way we come to this, one woman speaking to another: ‘You’d scarcely think so unless you watch carefully. His wife touches him differently. Odd how that gives it away.’ The narrator then reflects further: ‘Which I understood as later I took it in, how Rose’s hands would hover and lightly rest and discreetly direct. I am still surprised when I think of it, how intensely close she and her husband are … the quiet pooled intelligence of both’ (p.485). The blindness will come to be a significant factor in this story, yet curiously is unnoticed by the narrator in that first encounter.
The same goes with any of these stories: we are told something of a person, then shown it in a new light by characters observing each other. When Freddie dies (in ‘The Last of Freddie’), talking about him sustains him, and builds a varied and colourful world: ‘They spoke of him warmly, without envy of each other … Maddy at least was thinking, he is never going to exist so full as this again’ (p. 200). When Bob Roberts dies we meet two women at his graveside, and we come to see this is a story not about their relationships to Bob but their relationship to each other, unfolding via witty dialogue and light-hearted encounters, summed up thus: ‘The women went on to speak of something else, then something else again’ (p. 264).
Sometimes observations are from a distance. A woman and her husband watch a loud event unfolding on the street below their apartment window in ‘The Corner’ and we watch them as they watch the crowd, the garbage truck, the old woman, the dog, a crescendo of activity that keeps them peering down. A teen is just a teen (in ‘Family Unit’), until her dad sees her atop a tower with a Goth he can’t abide: ‘Ted was appalled and puzzled. He experienced … the sense that certainties wobbled, that the ground tremored beneath him’ (p. 440). A girl appears one thing, then another, to the man who must provide testimony to a scene he unwittingly observed: ‘He remembered the sly movement of the girl’s eyes as she saw and at once dismissed him at the top of the steps. Yet in court she was like a child almost’ (p. 136). And then: ‘it came to him that she had the look of people who are balancing something, alert yet self-absorbed’ (p. 137).
Sometimes these observations are shared directly with the reader, drawing us into the story more. In ‘Picture Window’ the first-person narrator leaves off describing a fairly famous ‘Mother’ to an interviewer in order to share more insights not with the interviewer (who is dismissed) but with the reader: ‘Let me tell you a little more about who she was. One’s own mother. The first mirror we look into, the first means we have to define ourselves, define what we resist’ (p. 348).
If there are two stories that set up this ‘look again’ urging most directly, they are ‘The Boy, the Bridge, the River’ and ‘The Witness Man’ – both of which require the reader to journey with the characters as they explore the meaning behind their own observations and memories, as they wind back through time and bring relevant details to the present, as they examine how to reconcile the past with the present. Each of these demands that we peel back layers, even if we know we may never quite arrive at the truth, even if the searching is never over: ‘I am learning all the time, Latty thought. There is nothing which is what one expects, nothing I have the right to predict’ (p. 50). Both these stories also demonstrate the layers beneath characters observing others. In ‘The Boy, the Bridge, the River’ Latty looks at Len, who is in turn watching others (not an uncommon occurrence in these stories): ‘He watched his friend’s absorbed interest in the young couple and thought how lucky perhaps a man might be to have lived so simply’ (p. 42). In ‘The Witness Man’ we feel discomfort when Clem is asked directly: ‘What did you see?’ and ‘How long did you watch them?’ (pp. 131–32), and we are reminded by the lawyer in court about ‘the jigsaw’: ‘You must piece it together’ (p. 134) – as much of a challenge for the reader as for Clem.
In each story, we are given something, then something more. We see Grove’s face with an unusual curve, then each sentence brings us to a new angle, a new detail. Grove stays with me like Annie Proulx’s Quoyle with his peculiar ‘hand-goes-to-chin’ habit. I’ve been thinking about that small gesture since I first read The Shipping News in the mid-90s. These two small details suggest: You may want to look away, but you need to look more closely.
It’s perhaps inevitable in a collection such as this that some stories don’t fit as well as others – they don’t allow enough time for these observations to unfold. I found ‘That’s the Apple for You’ a bit too flip without carrying characteristic O’Sullivan wit; I found ‘The Professional’ a neatly packaged story with an ending that far outweighed its basic structure – I wanted more of this heft to run through the whole story. I loved the shift in tone in ‘the snow in spain’ but wondered if it fit into the collection as well as others. And ‘Terminus’, while hard and true in the scene it shares, felt perhaps like part of a larger story that needed more telling.
Even so, the characters watch each other, and in turn urge the reader to watch them and consider their stories from new angles, in new light. And all of these interactions – the ways one person sees another – urge us, as readers, to take part.
I recently read a piece by Kirsty Gunn about Vincent O’Sullivan in which she writes:
He’s in the room surrounded by other poets and novelists and short story writers and critics, listening to their opinions, mingling in amongst them, introducing them to each other and making sure everyone has a chance to have their say.
Perhaps that best sums up this collection of people on the page: every one of them has their say. And yet, there is a skilful light touch here: ordinary people doing ordinary things, nothing ponderous or pedantic. Perhaps O’Sullivan is merely nudging us with each story: I see you looking at them looking at each other. We’re all in it together.
And he’s got us, right from the beginning: we peer at Grove as others do, and we are absorbed.
MICHELLE ELVY is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor. She edits Flash Frontier: An adventure in short fiction and is assistant editor for the Best Small Fictions series. She also chairs National Flash Fiction Day. This year, she is co-editing Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand, with Paula Morris and James Norcliffe (forthcoming, Otago University Press). Her book the everrumble (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2019) is a small novel in small forms. michelleelvy.com