George O’Brien, review of No Paradiso by William Wall, in The Irish Times (12 Aug. 2006)

Details: George O’Brien, ‘Getting to the point of surrender’, review of William Wall, No Paradiso, in The Irish Times (12 Aug. 2006), Weekend.

‘Gods make their own importance.” The concluding line of Patrick Kavanagh’s “Epic” might well occur to readers of this intriguing, if uneven, first collection of stories by Irish writer William Wall, whose reputation as a novelist has been rising steadily in recent years.

Take “Dionysus and the Titans”, for instance, where the ancient story is secularised and domesticated in the tale of Zoot and his Caribbean lover, Semele. When Semele dies Zoot looks after their infant son, Denis, until interfering relatives bring about Zoot’s enforced surrender to the social services. Or again, when the narrator of the first part of “In Xanadu” - a revealing though perhaps over-ambitious story about student life at UCC circa 1976 - sees two of his friends making love, he thinks “for an instant that I was watching the coupling of mythical creatures - a Paris and Helen, a Deirdre and Naoise”. Indeed, old Europe generally makes its presence felt throughout, whether in the arcana which bedevil the lonely lecturer in “The Bestiary” or the reference to Horace in the title of “What Slim Boy, O Pyrrha”, or the use of Dante’s Inferno as the narrative armature for “Surrender”.

These mere mentions of the mythological and archetypal dimensions of No Paradiso possibly risk making the stories sound pretentious. But for the most part, the allusions work quite well, though perhaps it’s inevitable that there’s a dissonant note now and then, as in The Meanings of Wind, say, which opens, “Sitting in the drowning car, Paddy thinks of Thucydides”; or when the narrator of Surrender thinks, while making love, of the Trojan horse. And an American businessman in “From the Hughes Banana” saying “Wait and see what the gods have planned to screw up your day” does sound somewhat forced. More to the point, though, the references consolidate the unavoidable presence in the characters’ lives of the intractable, the id, the unbiddable, or whatever the name might be of the shape-changing power which directs and redirects our paths. This is the force which commands the protagonist of “What Slim Boy, O Pyrrha” to run naked into first World War battle, which prompts the young university student in Fresher to pour a kettle of boiling water over the offending parts of the sleeping fellow-student who’s just raped her, which is codified in the obscure texts on which the protagonist of “The Bestiary” is an authority. The irrational makes its own deviant, imaginative sense. And there seems to be no alternative, ultimately, to this power’s all-pervasive influence, which results in the book’s main motifs and themes being descent, dissolution and death.

The stories’ geographical range - Cork, Castel Gandolfo, LAX (where the Hughes Banana, a yellow aircraft, lands), Naples and environs, “the Sibylline mountains”, Flanders Field - underlines this pervasiveness. No paradiso is certainly one way of describing the resulting vision (even if the book doesn’t have a title story). It isn’t only the unlikelihood of rising that stands out, however, but the prevalence of surrender. This is expressed most convincingly in the story of that name, where the protagonist, having completed his translation of the Inferno, must now prepare to meet his own death and burial. Here, imagined hell prefigures lived hell, so that what is intellectually known and physically experienced bleed into each other in an unnerving dynamic of reciprocation and antithesis.

It’s in the formal inventiveness with which this dynamic is handled that the reader will find No Paradiso most distinctive and most rewarding. In addition to the author’s alert, muscular style, his painlessly communicated appreciation of obscure learning, his vaguely didactic pleasure in accurately providing a sense of place, many of these stories are distinguished by a welcome engagement with form. The “strange geometry” of the final setting in “Surrender” is reproduced in the many variations of approach and perspective contained in No Paradiso.

Here again, not all of these work equally well. The change of narrator in “In Xanadu” is one case in point; and the use of the unfamiliar astronomical term, “periastron”, in the story of that name is another. But the long, impersonal perspective and repression of narrative omniscience in “What Slim Boy, O Pyrrha”, and the juggling of time and place in “Nero Was An Angler” (the Castel Gandolfo story) is very effective. And in the seemingly “found” story called “The William Walls”, consisting largely of thumbnail sketches of some of the author’s historical namesakes, the exploration of symmetries is undertaken most economically and most tellingly. For all the “other possibilities” represented by his namesakes, there remains, after all, only his own singular presence, so that the story both embodies and is playfully reconciled to the tension found in the “fracture in the bond between the world and the way of seeing it”, of which “The Bestiary” (and the other stories also) speak. In their various negotiations of such tensions, the stories of No Paradiso engage, challenge and reward the committed reader

No Paradiso By William Wall Brandon, 191pp. €12.99

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