The Weight of a Human Heart
The final story in Ryan O’Neill’s debut collection, ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’, plays out in a series of book reviews. A newly minted author has his book slammed by a reviewer, and, on the basis of her beauty in the author photo, the reviewer begins courting the author’s wife as well. He positively reviews her (terrible) poetry collection in a ‘400-word chat up line’ and even manages to get it shortlisted for an award. Ultimately his courtship is successful, but the reviewer meets with considerable violence at the hands of the jilted author.
As a final note for the collection, it seems a clear enough warning to any would-be reviewers, although perhaps wisely O’Neill’s wife does not appear in his own author photo. But it’s also pretty representative of the operative dynamics of many of the more experimental stories here. Plenty of them invoke some metafictional device, deconstructing the story as it’s being told. But, perhaps more importantly, they also serve to draw the reader closer. The reconfiguration of familiar modes of writing acts like a shared confidence between reader, text and author, and does a lot to surmount the often alienating first impression experimental writing can make.
A good example of how these devices can draw in the reader is ‘Seventeen Rules for Writing a Short Story’, which shifts style and subject matter every few lines by taking famous writing advice literally – from Kurt Vonnegut’s suggestion that any character must want for something, even just a glass of water, to Raymond Chandler’s advice that, when in doubt, the writer ought to have two men with shotguns burst into the room. Not only will many of those maxims be familiar, but the story also enunciates what seems to the reader like something they’d always known: devoutly following all of these rules would produce terrible, ridiculous stories. But O’Neill does apply all of these rules literally and instead produces a joyful, funny story, sending the relationship between author, text and reader careening off on another axis again.
Here’s something else illustrative, from near the end of ‘A Story in Writing’, wherein each section announces the literary technique it’s going to adopt (for example, haiku, digression, hyperbole or prolepsis).
‘You have no idea how to end this, do you?’ Frank said.
‘That’s the problem with this kind of thing,’ I replied. ‘The idea is always better than the execution. It’s gone on for too long […] I’m beginning to suspect the metafictional aspects have detracted from the overall story.’
This sort of endlessly winking irony could indeed become tiring, but it doesn’t here. There’s great variety in this collection – it’s not all postmodern noodling – and the stories are intelligently sequenced to take advantage of O’Neill’s exhaustive range. However, most characters and their lives do find themselves inescapably tied to words and language, and the embrace of the implausible is a delight. Here you’ll find childhood spankings delivered with a dictionary; an ESL teacher’s marital troubles expressed in the exercises he sets his students; a broken typewriter betraying a dead mother’s secret; a character slipping on a Patrick White novel, breaking his arm, and declaring himself ‘doomed to be a metaphor for Australian literature’.
O’Neill’s great achievement is balancing and reconciling his inventive flair with what we’d expect to be prioritised in more orthodox fiction: compassion and heart for its characters. The title of the collection is a tip-off to the primacy of that. The playful approaches O’Neill adopts are all routes to revealing something about character, routes to sincere expression, that wouldn’t be open without that novelty. In part this is because these devices are also used for pacing – just as the stylistic conceit begins to weigh down the story, the focus veers back towards the pathos at its centre. Much of this collection’s freshness comes from these unusual arcs and twists, which lead to familiar epiphanies and resolutions in unfamiliar ways, making those moments fresh and real again in a way that’s increasingly beyond the tireless march of realist fiction.
Stories collected from previous publication in various journals and anthologies often reveal a writer’s pre-occupations, and this holds true for O’Neill’s writing. And while his playfulness is prominent, just as noticeable are his stories’ frequent recursions to Africa, especially Rwanda and the genocide of the mid-nineties. Sometimes they’re just brief allusions, while other times they are the core of the story. One of the most harrowing stories in the collection, ‘Africa Was Children Crying’, is a fundamentally realist piece that tells of the protagonist’s disengagement during fleeting encounters with death, illness and poverty in Africa. This story is made all the more effective by the shimmer of ontological loss that the decidedly non-realist ending casts over it, the protagonist becoming literally lost to himself. In this age of compassion fatigue, where empathy is often lost amidst overfamiliar images and narratives, O’Neill’s experimental approach brings new life and potential to how we might engage with the world around us and the world beyond us.