Eve Patten, review of The Pleasant Light of Day by Philip Ó Ceallaigh, in The Irish Times (21 Feb. 2009)

Details:Eve Patten, ‘When time slows down’, review of The Pleasant Light of Day by Philip Ó Ceallaigh, in The Irish Times (21 Feb. 2009), Weekend Review, p.11.The Irish Times, 21 Feb. 2009; also available at The Irish Times, online - accessed 29.07.2011.]

N HIS FIRST collection of stories, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse, published in 2006, Philip Ó Ceallaigh set his signature style in a piece called “In the Neighbourhood”, a long episodic account of life in a Bucharest apartment block, where sex and death are rendered banal by their proximity to mundane obsessions and petty slapstick. A showcase for Ó Ceallaigh’s natural skills with perspective, the story cited at one point Gustave Flaubert’s simple principle of vision - “For something to become interesting, it is enough to regard it at length” - and took this maxim profitably to its heart.

How reassuring then that in the strongest works of his follow-up collection of short stories Ó Ceallaigh stays true to longer narratives, taking time to evolve mood and leaving space for the reader to see and think, in between the drifts and stretches of the prose. Perhaps the longer length is a compensation for the fact that he hasn’t taken the traditional route from short story to novel, or perhaps it is simply that he knows to capitalise on what he does extremely well - measured, drawn-out tales which progress spasmodically, not cumulatively, rejecting denouement and epiphany in favour of serial contacts, exchanges, fractures, while never losing sight of what V. S. Pritchett called the “concealed discipline of form”.

In The Pleasant Light of Day this temperate approach flourishes in a range of stories on metaphysical themes, such as “Tombstone Blues”, a meandering engagement with the twinned natures of carnal and spiritual knowledge, set against historical echoes of the 1969 moon landings. Or “Uprooted”, in which Galway and the Aran islands (an unusual return home for the author) provide a kind of dreamscape for a contemporary society dislocated from time and tradition, “suspended in confusion between something old as the stones and something trashy coming over the airwaves”, and in which relationships, tentatively developed, are at best provisional.

Some readers might well find the rich poetic flavouring of these pieces a bit showy, a flaw in Ó Ceallaigh’s writing to be filed alongside his other weaknesses - his occasional tendency to overwrought imagery (”A duck pulls a chain of ducklings. Clouds tremble in the water”), or his penchant for scenes of urgent sexual congress with a series of ripe, anonymous and surprisingly compliant women. While we’re on the subject, there is a hint of adolescence too in the experimental cul-de-sacs he insists on taking, quite gratuitously, in a few of the opening stories here - wearisome metafictional conceits and a smug parody of Latin American magic realism which an editor in loco parentis should really have spiked, if only for the author’s own good.

These relatively minor lapses of judgment aside, how does The Pleasant Light of Day hold up as a successor to one of the most exciting debuts in recent Irish fiction?

It is by no means as even or balanced a collection: despite its successful re-engagement of the preoccupations of Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse - post-communist tristesse, the feral, incidental nature of modern urban life - it lacks overall coherence and with its broader geographical diversity (now we’re in Texas, now Turkey, Andalusia, Georgia, Egypt ...) it risks passport-stamping at the expense of an achieved sense of place, straining sometimes towards a rather uncomfortable journalese.

But when individual tales work, they’re wonderful: quiet realisations held in the frame with the lightest of touches. Take the title story in particular, in which a father and his small son wander together through Cairo’s Museum of Antiquities, speculating with refreshing naivety on the vertiginous cross-currents of history. The prose here shows how good this author can be when he calms his imagery and allows time to spin out slowly in the narrative:

“If people really saw that all their passions were truly ancient, he imagined, perhaps the traffic in the square would grind to a halt, the engines and horns go silent. The taxi drivers would sit in their cars with no reason to drive any further. Fares would say, ‘Here is fine’, and would reach for wallets and remove the coloured notes. But the legal tender would be meaningless and fall to the ground, and it would lie where it fell, and the passengers would get out, dazed, and wander like sleepwalkers through the stilled sea of vehicles. The drivers would fold their arms over the tops of the steering wheels, rest their chins on their arms and gaze through their windshields.”

Such pieces are real gems: they make it right to praise Ó Ceallaigh highly for his ambitiousness with the short story shape, his break from the grip of ingrained Irish modes and his attempt to secure an authentic international voice, one which renders all the right dues to Carver (this goes without saying), but also to Bowles and Greene and Kafka. If he occasionally pays a price for his bravado, he also reaps its rewards many times over. These stories are vivid and visceral, clever and affecting, sometimes quite funny, sometimes anarchic, sometimes even a little tedious, but never less than admirable for the brimming confidence of their composition.

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