The Families, by Vincent O’Sullivan, (Victoria University Press, 2014), 251 pp., $35
Vincent O’Sullivan is arguably our most versatile literary writer. He is one of our most gifted and reliable poets and in recognition of his poetic prowess, he is the current poet laureate. He may well be our finest short story writer after Owen Marshall; he is also author of the notable play Shuriken and one of our major editors of various literary collections. Active as a novelist and critic, he has also written a biography of John Mulgan. That only leaves librettos for opera. And flash fiction – not, one suspects, for the not-so-flashy O’Sullivan. In an age which is increasingly addicted to shallow forms of writing such as social media and the shamelessly chatty blogs that read like the diary entries of fame-smitten teenagers, not to mention the sub-literate telegraphese of blog comments – contemporary modes that in my view ask little of our acumen – an O’Sullivan story requires alertness and concentration to engage with its richness.
Back in 1978, when I was a regular contributor to Islands, edited by the redoubtable Robin Dudding, I reviewed O’Sullivan’s first collection The Boy, The Bridge, The River, praising its skilful use of social realism and its exploration of alienation, loneliness and emotional deprivation. Alas, though I have dipped into a later book Palms and Minarets in order to select a story for The Flamingo Anthology of New Zealand Short Stories in 2004, I have not read his other short story collections.
While many of the characteristic O’Sullivan stylistic signatures remain in this new collection – the sentence that is essentially indirect speech ending in a question, the frequent inclusion of familiar expressions of speech (‘dressed to the nines’), and a shifting point of view that can temporarily disorient the reader – O’Sullivan’s fiction has increased in subtlety and range. Indeed, the subtlety of these stories is to my mind reminiscent of Mansfield and Chekhov. A dramatic situation is invoked but most of the time not dramatically resolved. A conclusion may be a narrative pause, a suspension becomes termination. A species of gentle fade-out is the norm.
Trick or twist endings, pioneered by Poe and perpetuated by Maupassant (only part of his wide range) and Ambrose Bierce, but most famously associated with O. Henry, are more or less anathema to Chekhov and Mansfield and so, accordingly, are never part of O’Sullivan’s strategy. His story may confront the reader with a moral dilemma, but it is unlikely to offer a definitive moral solution.
In ‘Mrs Bennett and the Bears’, one of the shorter and more straightforward stories, middle-aged Edward is teased by his more sexually frank sisters about his sexual reticence: ‘Women … were hardly his thing, as Jackie said, were they? “Forty before he tried one!” she said once to Bernice. And Bernice had slapped her hand and said, “That’s my big brother you’re talking about, you wicked widow!”’ Naturally readers may be forgiven for expecting that his visit to the zoo with a Japanese woman and the feeling of warmth between them may result in intimacy, but it only ends with Edward glancing skyward at figures on hang-gliders ‘like high stalled hawks’ – a visual symbol of Edward’s social immobility.
This story echoes, as do other stories in a more oblique fashion, a famous remark by Irish-American short-story writer Frank O’Connor, to wit that the main literary tradition of the short story is about everyday people dreaming of escape from their ordinary lives but never quite succeeding. In other words, life is often composed of missed opportunities. Few would quarrel with that sentiment, surely, even if one may be disappointed on occasion to find that fiction, instead of offering escape, provides only a feeling of futility, of failed escape on a small scale, albeit intense, below the epic level of tragedy.
‘Pieces’, the longest story included, exemplifies O’Sullivan’s strengths to the maximum. I shall herewith explore the plot in detail in order to demonstrate the masterly skill of O’Sullivan’s construction.
Two women are having a dialogue, which gradually reveals that Mandy is in big legal trouble and that Weston (the other woman) is her lawyer. Mandy needs an ‘invented’ defence – but against what charge? Lawyer Weston explains:
You have so far as most would see it, Mandy, acted savagely against your husband, destroyed property, inflicted damage on your son’s professional and emotional life. What I therefore have to do is to explain this behaviour in a way that does not excuse it but attempts to relieve you of responsibility.
The teasing lack of disclosure of Mandy’s crime invites us, if indeed it does not compel us, to read on. Madness is mentioned but not pursued.
Mandy has contemplated suicide but decided against it, because that would do her husband and her son no good at all. ‘My defence is clarity and righteousness.’ But clearly this won’t spearhead a successful defence. And what has Mandy done? The point of view shifts to Tom, the wronged husband. We are informed that he has provided her with a home that most women would kill for. Plus travel and expensive paintings. (A small voice in my ear re-quoted that great line from Cat On a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams: ‘You gave her things, you didn’t give her love.’)
According to Tom, their sex life is normal. And relations between father and son are also jovial if accompanied with some vigorous male joshing. No more clues as to the nature of criminal act yet. ‘Unstable’ and ‘lucid’ don’t sit well together, so lawyer Weston is going for ‘snap’. Mandy then proceeds to deliver a virtuoso three-page monologue, which reveals even as it conceals: an exciting change from the typical one-liners that O’Sullivan tends to use in the middle of a narrative paragraph. And they too have their sting: ‘Who said you have to fight not to get along?’ asks younger sister Gail in the title story, ‘Families’.
Then as the scene changes, the tense also changes from the past to the historic present. Mandy is fiddling with tins of paint, turpentine and scrunched-up pieces of paper. And finally, a box of matches is mentioned. So we are three-quarters of the way through a story of nearly thirty pages before the nature of the crime is revealed. Of the court’s finding, we are left to speculate. I suspect it would be some form of diminished responsibility. The story ends on a note of tenderness: the lawyer has bought flowers for her client.
In some ways, this is the most masterful of all the stories, though all are showpieces of O’Sullivan’s huge talent. In revealing the crime but not the punishment, the story reverses the plot of Dostoyevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment, where the crime is planned and carried out in gruesome detail and we patiently wait for the criminal to be caught. While some readers may be vexed by the delay in revealing Mandy’s crime, others may well delight in the suspense.
One of the legacies of Sargeson was the notion that writing short sentences was somehow more authentic or more appropriate than long – more in keeping with the presumed or observed idiom of the dispossessed. Sullivan’s prose confidently blows this notion out of the water (as did Graham Billing’s The Chambered Nautilus). Here is an example from the first story ‘On A Clear Day’, which reflects on the blindness of those who see:
It seems so obvious to me now, although it had not entered my head before, that all the talk you hear sometimes about the mystery of another’s personality, the unlikelihood of truly knowing those even close to one, really does stack up if it means a friend who has never in fact seen you, but the darkness of that, as it were, is transferred from him to you, he is the one you have never seen.
Numerous examples exist throughout the text. By way of contrast to the psychologically analytic, there are short bursts of lyric imagery: ‘She looked at the Modigliani print on the wall that faced her, the woman slender and inert as a lovely fish.’
The sumptuous detail of description such as the lavish display of the ‘bright jumble of expensive bric-a-brac’ in the quarters of the well-known firm of Kirkcaldie & Stains in ‘Posting’ puts it on a par with Updike’s exquisite detail. My only reservation with O’Sullivan’s prose is an overindulgence of sentences ending with a preposition. Yet it’s a daring mannerism of his style – and what writer of note doesn’t have a mannerism or two?
It seems – though this perception is based on a conflationary, generalising view – that while a younger O’Sullivan may have been focused on loneliness, alienation, or loners struggling against prejudice, the mature O’Sullivan has moved more to husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children – to families.
MICHAEL MORRISSEY is a poet, short story writer, critic and anthologist who has written more than 80 short stories, ten volumes of poetry and two novellas. His memoir Taming the Tiger (2011), which deals with his experience with manic depression, or bipolar disorder, was reviewed in Landfall 224.