:: Article

Modern Times

By Christopher DeVeau.

Cathy Sweeney, Modern Times (Stinging Fly Press, 2020)

A friend of mine once asked me why I had gotten so excited about a new Cathy Sweeney story appearing in the Dublin Review. I think I said that it was because her writing is “properly perverse”. Up until my friend grimaced and looked away down at their shoes, the natural fact that this would mean different things to different people hadn’t really occurred to me. I think maybe they thought I was saying Sweeney was a pervert, or calling myself one. I don’t know, and anyway the subject was changed quickly.

How to explain to someone who didn’t already understand, the value I’d found in a stories like the one about a woman whose career at an educational facility for learning-impaired teenagers comes to an end when she’s caught having an affair with one of her students? Not enough — perhaps even a bit of a dodge — to say that the language, as it almost always does in Sweeney’s stories, positively sings. The plot in this instance was not incidental to the writing’s value. Here was not the soft belly of so much recent fiction. Here was a story ready to wager something, prepared and willing to be misunderstood, which was even in part about the depth of misunderstanding’s potential, and yet which existed without apology all the same. If it would be a dodge to say of the story (titled “A Theory of Forms” and collected now for the first time with Sweeney’s other work in a volume published by reliable workhorse press The Stinging Fly) that the precise details of the plot didn’t matter, or mattered less, compared to the nature of the language — itself sparse, precise, a bouquet of unique and exquisitely chosen weeds — equally then, and from the other direction, it would be a mistake to say that the plot was the point of the thing. As in many of Sweeney’s stories, as in life, it often doesn’t seem to matter overmuch what happens as that it happens, or that it happens to someone. There’s an inevitability in what many of her characters go through and in the decisions they make, an inevitability sometimes taken up or pantomimed in the telling of the stories themselves, the first four of which in this collection take the form of fables and fairy tales, which is to say, stories in which certain things are to happen in a certain order. That what happens in Sweeney’s fables is a woman divorces her husband whose cock she’s been bringing to work with her for years, or the physical architecture of a palace becomes beset with plague as the kingdom descends into end-stage capitalism, does nothing to weaken the stories’ own architecture. Later, this inevitability is gradually replaced with a more familiar kind, and in the arrangement of the stories it’s easy to see a deliberate tendency away from fairy tale towards the more grounded surrealism of sex, divorce, disappointment with how one’s children have turned out, etc., without weakening the sense that the form matters at least as much as what fills it: these are the things that happened; perhaps other things could have happened instead, but would they really have been so different, this being the form taken by a life?

You could be forgiven then for taking a title like Modern Times to imply a judgment on its age (or if the idea of one coherent age has begun to seem old-fashioned, its time of life). One question then might be whether what’s offered is a diagnosis or an appraisal; or put another way, whether what’s at issue is health or value. And while Sweeney’s book does have many of the features which have come to be associated with postmodern prognosis-making (unnamed narrators unable or unwilling to articulate their own desires and states of mind; a marked preference for divorce, and not marriage, as narrative’s natural direction), in many other respects there is something a little old-fashioned about Sweeney’s style (much of what she accomplishes with subtle turnings of indirect discourse would be unworkable in more fashionable literary modes), and the writing is in any case far too quick to get bogged down in anything so self-defeating.

Rather, what they seem to me to capture, better than any other writer I know, is the under-determined anxiety of being someone in particular, a condition unnamable insofar as the name could only ever be your own, and what the late Stanley Cavell — a great philosopher of loneliness — described as the state in which “my limitation to myself feels like a limitation of myself, [when] it seems I am always leaving something unsaid; as it were, the saying is left out”.

The much-maligned novelist and short-story writer Harold Brodkey once observed that in order to avoid undermining itself, writing on nihilism needs always to be tied to an extraordinary technical concision. This is partway true of Sweeney, with the proviso that (like another Irish writer recently mislabelled as such in the LRB) she’s not really a nihilist. Her concern is not meaninglessness (which is ridiculous, and anyway tired) but meaning’s failure, what it is that we have to make do with when meaning fails. It’s in this way that most of her protagonists avoid outright tragedy, surviving it into something more interesting but less final.

Part of how she accomplishes this is in negotiating a contradiction natural to both art and language (considered academic in one and invidious in the other); specifically, the way in which exactly those features of a thing (a conversation, a work of art, a tradition, a ceremony, a person) meant to offer us a way in, are often what leave us feeling the most distanced instead.

Another way of putting this is that it is better to say nothing than to try saying too much; not exactly a lie, this is the empty feeling experienced in the presence of someone trying in grand language to express what they don’t entirely feel. Among these stories’ greatest strengths, then, is their commitment never to say more than they’re able, which allows them to express so much more than many stories by lesser writers often do. This is particularly evident in those written in the third person, like “The Love Child” or “The Handyman” (about “a woman who wasted a great deal of time (a) expecting her married lover to leave his wife and (b) expecting her single lover to propose to her” and a divorcee’s imagined frisson with the builder come to fix-up her house for sale respectively), in which, with little or no direct dialogue and scant, often one-line descriptions, the characters come to feel as isolated from us as we are necessarily from their author, separated by descriptions that might otherwise be invisible in their familiarity — “The seats were narrow and the window was shrouded in dust. The woman did not know where she was, so she did not know how long it would take to get to the city” — but which here become the flat surface upon which so much feeling can be recorded. The shorter stories, some only a page or so long, can even come to seem like tableaux, in which, as in a photograph, we are separated by description from the thing described.

This effect, a considerable technical accomplishment in its own right, brought to bear in stories concerned precisely with distance in its various forms and degrees of scale, with loneliness, alienation, indefinable disappointment, is powerful and moving directly in proportion as it is measured and deliberately wrought.

In tackling these themes in this manner, the writing sometimes runs the risk of taking on the shortcomings of its own subject matter — the compulsion to insincerity, the dogged consubstantiation of language — but at others the stories seem content to step back and enjoy the mere fact of communication accomplished in real terms, if rendered in imaginative ones, as in “Flowers in Water,” which is about a filmmaker who films his movies without a camera — “He was not a mad man, just an unsuccessful one” — rewatching them later with his young daughter, projected against a blank wall. The dourest of the stories is brave enough not to eschew the complexity of happiness.

The stories’ brevity sometimes begs a question, but for all that they trade in boredom, regret, disappointment, they would be incomplete if there wasn’t beauty in them, tremendous amounts of raw if (or because) frequently defeated feeling. Though technically in some sense a newcomer, with this her first collection, it has been clear to those following her writing these past years in journals like the Dublin Review, Banshee, The Stinging Fly, and Egress, that Sweeney is one of our finest writers.



Christopher DeVeau is a freelance editor, designer, and publishing consultant, and a semi-professional photographer. Based in Dublin, he has previously worked as an editor at Dalkey Archive Press, and has written criticism for CULT Magazine and CONTEXT.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 16th, 2020.