Paddy O’Reilly, Peripheral vision: Stories (Review)
The title of Paddy O’Reilly’s latest collection of short stories, Peripheral vision, comes from the story “Restraints”, in which the narrator, standing in a robotics lab where things have gone awry, says:
… and I caught again a flicker in my peripheral vision.
It’s a good title for the book because the stories are about people or events that happen to the side of “ordinary” life, however we might frame that. (I don’t talk enough about titles in my reviews, but they are important.) O’Reilly’s characters vary greatly – in gender and age. Short story writers, I’ve noticed, pay little attention to the criticism novelists often face regarding the voice they write in, like, can a man write a woman, can an anglo-Australian write an indigenous or immigrant person, and so on. Short story writers frequently range far and wide in the voices they write in. As I was reading this collection, I found myself thinking about short story writers, and what writing short stories might mean to them. While some people see short stories as a training ground for the “real” thing, novels, the writers themselves, I suspect, see them as a form in which they can let their imaginations fly. They can try being anyone or anything, anywhere, and are less likely to be taken to task for it. Certainly, in Peripheral vision, O’Reilly’s characters range from a teenage schoolgirl to a homeless man, from a twenty-something brother to a ten-year-old step-daughter, from a Filipino man to a young Australian teacher in Japan.
There are 18 stories in this collection, of which 12 have been published before. I had in fact read two of them: “The salesman”, a powerful and confronting story that I reviewed here as an individual story, and “Serenity prayer”, which was published under the title “Reality TV” in Angela Meyer’s The great unknown (my review). Another story also underwent a title change, from “Friday nights” to “Territory”. Titles! Clearly important. Well, I presume these title changes are O’Reilly’s and that she thought the same story presented in a different collection would work better under a different title. “Reality TV”, for example, is a straightforward descriptive title, with a little hint of irony, for an anthology about inexplicable things. “Serenity prayer” is a more subtle title encouraging multiple readings, particularly if you consider the ways in which this prayer is, and has been, used. This story, about a publicly betrayed wife, gets you in, and then, at the end, makes you wonder.
Simplistically speaking, the stories can be divided into two types, plot-driven and character-driven. “Territory” is a fairly traditional plot-driven story about a group of six girls out on the town on a Friday night, but, there are clues that there’s something more going on. For one, there’s the way they dress:
That was the one thing you might question about us. Other girls who went out in a group looked more alike. Arty types with arty types; girls who knew how to pick up wearing the uniform of short hip-hugging skirt, skyscraper heels, mascara and lipstick … We were a mixed-up crowd …
Then there’s the reference to a seventh girl, Suze, and the suggestion that everything might be alright now she’s been accepted into medical studies. Gradually hint upon hint is dropped suggesting that these girls aren’t just out for a good time. A very effective story. “Serenity prayer”, mentioned above, is another with a strong plot line. “One good thing”, one of the longer but still nicely sustained stories, is about the friendship between two school girls, and a violent act that occurs during a holiday visit. Its resolution, as in most of the stories, is open, leaving us to consider the short and long-term ramifications of such acts. Each of these explores a core idea – but sharing that idea could spoil the plot, so I’ll leave it here.
I can though talk about the ideas underpinning the character-focused stories. “Caramels”, for example, is about a homeless man. The ideas underpinning it relate to pride and dignity. It has a story of course, describing his life, but in these character-focused stories, plot is not the driving force. “After the Goths” is about a young twenty-four-year-old man working through guilt about something that happened in his teens. It makes him behave meanly to his older brother but, in a nice touch, his brother doesn’t rise to the occasion. Not everything, O’Reilly knows, has to be high drama to be interesting.
Other stories are perhaps better described as slice-of-life. “Deja vu”, set in a small town in France known for its medicinal hot springs, is one. It’s about the relationships. There’s Anthony with unexplained concerns of his own, who meets an older couple and finds himself drawn into their company against his will, as can happen when you travel. And there’s the older couple, comprising a whining dissatisfied wife and a long-suffering husband. It’s, partly anyhow, about the accommodations you make. Martin “had never been able to speak rudely to anyone” and George, the husband, seems to do a good job of accommodating his wife. The language here is delicious. The whining wife’s “mouth held the shape of a drawstring purse”. A little later, “her lips grew tighter, as if someone had pulled the drawstring”.
There’s wry humour in some of the stories, like “Breaking up” and “The word”, and a couple of the stories, “Procession” and “Restraints”, tip, intriguingly, into the speculative genre. In all, though, O’Reilly presents humans facing challenging situations – some violent, some threatening or risky, and others confusing or unsettling. Whatever it is, she rarely fully resolves the tension, leaving it instead to the reader to think about the morality, the values, the accommodations at play. This can be disconcerting if you like closure. But I like it, not only because closure can be boring and, frankly, not realistic, but also because it means you can read the stories again and again, and come to a slightly different conclusion or, should I say, understanding, each time.
Peripheral vision is exciting to read. Each story is so different that I was driven on to the next one, wondering what I’d find there. What I invariably found was a new world with another challenge to my way of seeing. I wonder what her peripheral vision will pick up next.
(Review copy supplied by UQP)