Wry dispatches from a west coast state of mind

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Pond
Claire-Louise Bennett
The Stinging Fly Press; €12.99
Review: Val Nolan

An unnamed woman lives on the edge of a coastal village in the west of Ireland. She reads books about the “gruelling practical exigencies occasioned by confinement”, cultivates “low maintenance crops”, and only rarely experiences “any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk”.

Thus uproarious, digressive, and predicated on a subjective accentuation of meaningless detail, Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut volume succeeds where other contemporary depictions of rural life collapse beneath the weight of their own self-conscious seriousness. It is a work which exists as both a short story collection and as a novel, surely even as a memoir of sorts, a narrative linked by the voice of a narrator for whom the unravelling of “minor foibles is a relevant pursuit”.

Embracing formal experimentation in this fashion grants the volume an usual energy and, though any work pushing fiction in this manner is in danger of confounding reader expectations, Bennett finds balance here in a pleasing back-and-forth between shorter pieces capturing moments of personal significance and longer offerings – stories or chapters as the reader prefers – which yoke the often abstract artistic ambitions of stream-of-consciousness writing to the more mundane trepidations of everyday life.

Her narrator sees the world through “thoroughly square” windows and has an “innate weakness for shabby clothes”. Men and cattle drift through her life, yes, but Bennett’s focus never leaves this woman who is curious in all sense of the word. She displays a “level of intuition” of which it “is impossible for anyone to make anything without mirroring the nascent twists of cosmic upheaval” and, in that way it must be said, is often “highfalutin”. Indeed, the narrator is the type of character who uses “highfalutin” with nonchalance and a total lack of irony.

Her resulting wordiness borders on overt parody of the artistic-temperament, yet Bennett imbues Pond’s narrator with just enough self-reflection to undercut any charge of true pretentiousness. And when she fails to do so – one suspects deliberately – the side-splitting results veer from meditations on the “stigma” of writing in green ink to quasi-Beckettian asides on rural living such as “I am used to vehicles coming up this way. That is something I am used to. And sometimes – though less often – they go down the way, and I’m used to that too”.

This is to say that Pond is a very funny book. It is also one which benefits from being read – and for that matter reread – aloud, perhaps to family or friends, perhaps alone. Only in that way is the slow building avalanche of Bennett’s weird hilarity truly apparent. From a delightful early description of bananas and oatcakes to a letter to a South African company requesting replacement nobs for an “obsolete mini-cooker”, the volume’s defining characteristic is a tendency to ramble which is both ridiculous and ridiculously profound.

Like the bird which falls down its narrator’s chimney, Pond is “a small sharp thing”. The book is “something to do with love. About the essential brutality of love. About those adventurous souls who deliberately seek out love as a prime agent of total self-immolation”. But, at the same time, Bennett consistently roots these desires in her narrator’s shyness and her cockeyed way of looking at the world. It lends the heroine of this highly recommended volume all the tremendous authenticity of a “mind in motion as it railed, proclaimed, recalled, confessed, imagined, and eventually wrung itself out”.

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Two Recent Anthologies…

I’m delighted that a pair of fine volumes featuring work by yours truly have recently arrived on my desk.

Best of Electric VelocipedeFirst off, my Sturgeon nominated story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ comes home in The Best of Electric Velocipede, edited by John Klima, a retrospective collection from the much-missed journal which originally published the piece. ‘The Irish Astronaut’ follows an American pilot on a visit to the moon-like hills of Country Clare in the aftermath of a crash which has placed doubts over the future of the manned space programme.

The story finds itself in some really wonderful company here, with the Best of collecting thirty-four pieces of fiction and poetry from across the twelve years during which Electric Velocipede was published. Those familiar with EV will recognise the great verve and willingness to take risks which defined the magazine in this selection. This breadth of material renders the Best of eclectic in terms of style, however what never varies here is the quality of the work. A few of the pieces which stick with me the most include ‘Indicating the Awareness of Persons Buried Alive’, by Liz Williams, ‘∞o’ by Darin Bradley, and ‘The Beasts We Want to Be’ by Sam J. Miller, but there are also stories by Catherynne M. Valente, Ken Liu, Liz Williams, and many others. It’s a treat of a book… which I’d be saying even if I hadn’t contributed to it (honestly!).

You're Not AloneThe second anthology is You’re Not Alone: Thirty Science Fiction Stories from Cosmos Magazine, edited by Damien Broderick. This volume reprints ‘All the Wrong Places’, a comic story I wrote about the search for the Higgs Boson particle for the Australian popular science publication Cosmos. ‘All the Wrong Places’ was only my second story sale back in 2010 and I’m glad to see it back in circulation. Though of course, as the editor says in his introduction, the piece is ‘a jape which risked being undone by the march of science after its first publication’. While that’s just a risk of the sci-fi field (!), I’m confident that this particular wild particle chase still has something to offer even in light of CERN’s discoveries.

You’re Not Alone features contributions from Australia, New Zealand, England, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United States. Many of the pieces are shorter than those in the Electric Velocipede collection, however the result is a no less varied or intriguing selection which ranges from Hard SF to more philosophical offerings. Standouts for me include Pamela Sargent’s ‘Not Alone’ from which the anthology takes its title, Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘For Solo Cello, op.12’, and Liz Heldmann’s ‘Echoes’. But there are also stories from Joe Haldeman, Cat Sparks, the late Jay Lake, and a whole crop of newcomers. In that way, You’re Not Alone is a great read, yes, but also a measure of short science-fiction’s evolving identity and continuing vitality at the start of the twenty-first century.

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The Higgs boson? It was just here in the bar…

Have you seen the Higgs?

With this afternoon’s CERN press conference raising the newsworthiness of the Higgs boson once more, it seems like everyone is talking about the universe’s most famous (and elusive) particle again.  While CERN’s resident Higgsologists presented a considerable amount of data, enough to make significant progress in the search for the particle, they still weren’t able to conclusively state if it does or does not exist.

Now, I’m no particle physicist, but I once had a go at locating the Higgs in my story ‘All the Wrong Places’, published in Australia’s Cosmos magazine back in February 2010. You can read the full piece via this link.

“This is really funny, light absurdity,” Locus said about the story, a farce about how the search for the Higgs has wormed its way into popular culture. Its protagonists are two C-list physicists tracking the Higgs through its various adventures:

“Evidence was mounting that we should forget about electroweak parameters and particle accelerators. Instead we started measuring Michelin Stars and blagging our way into exclusive after-parties. We bought sunglasses and expensive cameras. We started hanging around fancy hotels and passing grubby bills to every sticky-fingered concierge that we could find.”

A little over two years have gone by since I wrote ‘All the Wrong Places’ and I feel like I’ve developed a lot as a writer since then (always forward, right?). Looking back on it, there are some things I would change about the story (in particular, the excursion to CERN strikes me as ground zero for any potential redraft) and, if I was writing it today, I’d also include something about the Higgs saving the Euro. I suppose topicality is a double-edged sword though, so maybe that particular omission is for the best. Still, this is a piece I really like, the kind of story which allows me to indulge my super-frivolous mode (sorry, Science!). I hope you enjoy it.

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