Review Of Frank
O’Connor’s Collected Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/10/06
In a word- overrated. Or, perhaps disappointing, dull, bad, or tedious might be more suited. My quandary is in having to relate how profoundly disappointing the Collected Stories of an acclaimed master like Frank O’Connor are. Recently, I was disappointed in the works of another Irish ‘master’- William Trevor- yet that is nothing compared to what I feel having finished O’Connor’s tales. Trevor, as stuffy and rigid as his tales could be, occasionally alleviated them with poetry and insight. Not O’Connor. His tales are murky, filled with the worst Irish stereotypes (really caricatures, not characters), bad conversation, and just no real reason for most of the tales to exists, save as documenting how dull and dim the Irish of the 20th Century were. And conversation dominates almost every tale. They all follow a predictable pattern- a null start (similar to a Chekhovian zero ending, save pointless since we’ve no information at this point in the tale), piss-poor dialogue that complains about some person or some aspect of Irish existence (such as in The Lady Of The Sagas, where an old storyteller deals with smallmindedness, but not very well; or in Freedom, which shows up the hypocrisy in the IRA), and then a less than zero end. Or, to be cynical- zero starts, zero middles, and zero ends. The tales all blur into each other, as some prolonged forty year rant about life’s utter futility and gray pallor. To read a paragraph or two of one is to sample the full range of O’Connor’s palate. Grayness dominates the land, the words spoken, the characters, their loneliness, and whatever little things they are engaged in. The attempts at themes that resonate- childhood, rebellion, nationalism, religious strife, marital woes, the desire to leave Ireland, are all subsumed in the gray. Unlike Trevor or James Joyce, O’Connor never gets out of the mire his tales spread with his poor dialogue and narration, so his attempts at humor or pathos look and read all the same. There is almost no variegation to the results, and little variance from the literary ideals attempted. His tales are almost excruciatingly painful to read.
I think of Joyce’s Dubliners, and even in the worst of those stories there would still be a moment or description that would soar. Not so in O’Connor. In a sense he’s a Guy de Maupassant or O. Henry without the wit or zest for storytelling. How he has gotten such undue praise I can only attribute to Irish nationalistic zealotry. Not only are the stories bad in that they are unwitting caricatures, and nothing much happens, plotwise, but they are loaded with inaccuracies and details that seem shocking, at times. For example, in one of his most famous tales, My Oedipus Complex, which chronicles the ups and downs of a poor father-son relationship, the tale is set at Christmas, and presumably in Ireland- due to the descriptions of things and people, yet the child collects pennies and is excited by Santa Claus. There must have been some screw-up, because the Irish await Father Christmas and do not use pennies as currency. Either the holiday season was gotten wrong, or the tale was set in America, yet O’Connor did not bother to specify. And these sorts of moments occur throughout the tales. As for this specific story, it follows a boy named Larry Delaney, and the tribulations with his father, who returned from war. Here is a typical O’Connor take on Irish abuse:
At this he lost his patience and let fly at me. He did it with the lack of conviction you’d expect of a man under Mother’s horrified eyes, and it ended up as a mere tap, but the sheer indignity of being struck at all by a stranger, a total stranger who had cajoled his way back from the war into our big bed as a result of my innocent intercession, made me completely dotty. I shrieked and shrieked, and danced in my bare feet, and Father, looking awkward and hairy in nothing but a short gray army shirt, glared down at me like a mountain out for murder. I think it must have been then that I realized he was jealous too. And there stood Mother in her nightdress, looking as if her heart was broken between us. I hoped she felt as she looked. It seemed to me that she deserved it all.
From that morning out my life was a hell. Father and I were enemies, open and avowed. We conducted a series of skirmishes against one another, he trying to steal my time with Mother and I his. When she was sitting on my bed, telling me a story, he took to looking for some pair of old boots which he alleged he had left behind him at the beginning of the war. While he talked to Mother I played loudly with my toys to show my total lack of concern.
Yet, by tale’s end the two males seem to be in the same boat, figuratively, yet the tale just ends. No poetic end was needed, but the ending cuts off any sense that the boy has learned empathy or not. The reader is just left hanging. In a better written tale, with more depth and revelation such an end could have been very effective. As the tale is, though, it just manifests the many flaws of the prior portions of the story. A story seemingly dealing with the same clan, and a different year, is presented in Christmas Morning. Here Larry seems a bit wiser, dealing with the common tragedy of finding out Santa does not exist, and ending:
….it was almost more than I could bear; that there was no Santa Claus, as the Dohertys said, only Mother trying to scrape together a few coppers from the housekeeping; that Father was mean and common and a drunkard, and that she had been relying on me to raise her out of the misery of the life she was leading. And I knew that the look in her eyes was the fear that, like my father, I should turn out to be mean and common and a drunkard.
This is actually one of the few pretty good stories, yet it only accentuates the others’ failures in not following this tale’s plot progression and character revelations.
Part of the problem why Christmas Morning succeeds where the other tales fail seems to lie in that O’Connor has no real style that is his own, even though all of his tales follow a fairly safe formula, as outlined above. It is rare to find such in writers that have perdured the decades, yet this clearly makes his few successes aberrations, not gems of literary construction. Yet, O’Connor seems in a netherworld- his writing could be great, perhaps, with just an element here, or a dash of humor there, yet, it seems he embodies the ‘missing by an inch may as well be a mile’ school. His tales are not just not good, but often quite bad. In The Bridal Night, what could have been a humorous tale about a boastful groom is utterly lost in the endless stream of banal conversations that infect the tale. In News For The Church, a young girl tries to one up her priest in a confessional booth by scandalizing him with her sexual knowledge, only to find herself frustrated:
As she reached the pavement she pulled herself together with a jaunty twitch of her shoulders and then collapsed again. The city lights went on and made globes of colored light in the mist. As he returned to the church he suddenly began to chuckle, a fat good-natured chuckle, and as he passed the statue of St. Anne, patron of marriageable girls, he almost found himself giving her a wink.
There was potential in this story for a deeper examination of both the characters and religion, in general, especially since the girl seems to be preening so she will sound wiser to the priest vis-à-vis her older and more experienced sister, but O’Connor opts to play it safe, and end with the very sitcom like moment above. Can’t you just see the father guffawing as the credits roll? In Judas a boy is driven by obsession to pursue a girl. A similar arc is pursued in The Man Of The House where a boy is sent by his sick mother to get a bottle of cough syrup for her, only to be seduced by a cute girl at the drug store who convinces him to share the sweet medicine with her, leaving him to face his guilt. The end, however, is a saccharine, sitcom-like moment that really undercuts what had been a powerful tale. Too often, O’Connor’s bad ends ruin the few tales that have, till then, been working. In Guests Of The Nation, perhaps O’Connor’s most famous tale, and first in the book, two English POWs are executed in vengeance for the killing of Irish soldiers. The woman who befriended them is thus turned off to ‘the cause’. Yet, the tale never fully resonates as deeply as it could or should, because too much of the tale digresses to the soldiers’ pointless dialogues.
In a sense, Frank O’Connor’s tales fail in much the same way that American short story writer Flannery O’Connor’s tales fail- with a slight difference. Frank’s characters are mere stereotypes, whereas Flannery’s were not only stereotypes, but utter grotesques. That Frank O’Connor is described as a realist in his work is very interesting- wrong, but interesting. This is because it says something about the tendency of modern readers to conflate banality with realism- even if the banality is clearly not realistic, and exaggerated to the point of accidental stereotype, or intended caricature. I think this a key point, not only in dealing with O’Connor’s oeuvre, and why it fails, but why so much of what passes for literature is so banal. There is no joy in the higher plane that art can take a reader or viewer to. All that art, these days, seems interested in is the laziness of banality, which can be fobbed off as realism, so that people with no talent can salve their egos by calling themselves artists. The real tragedy is that O’Connor, I believe, had genuine talent, but just didn’t have a clue what to do with it. And that’s the kind of real tragedy he simply could never see, nor write about.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Dublin Quarterly website.]
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