If there are writers who place the reader in a position of suave authority, there are others who offer tentative vulnerability and alienated bitterness: who insist on placing the reader in a position that is partial and problematic. Brian McCabe is a good example of the latter, someone who, in Selected Stories, doesn't so much turn a phrase as allow his characters to trip over life's anomalies. Whether it is the central character in 'The Fight' observing that about the only thrill a stone is likely to get is when someone picks it up and tosses it somewhere else, or the narrator in 'Strange Passenger' taking his late father's things away, "taking this black bag of death to a rest home", McCabe is good on a certain type of defamiliarisation.
Yet on the whole this takes two very different forms. As in 'The Fight' it can come as touching, youthful innocence, evident in the example of the stone where the character says, "The stone would enjoy that, because if you were a stone probably the only excitement you got was when somebody threw you. He could just imagine how it would feel, to be stuck in one place for years and years, then somebody notices you and picks you up and sends you flying through the air or rolling down a mountain." It is also evident in an observation about lipstick in 'The Lipstick Circus'. "He pulled it open, then turned the part at the bottom that made the lipstick come out. He played at making it come out and then go in again. It was sort of like a tortoise sticking its head out and then pulling it in again." One finds another example in the same story, "how could he ever yawn the way his father yawned, as if he were playing a trombone." But equally there are less innocent remarks, often coming from older characters: "Everyone was eager to think of the birth rather than the death. Except me. I sat there staring at Carol's bulge with a stupefied dread. No. Not for me. Not yet." ('Strange Passenger') In 'I'm Glad that Wasn't Me', the owner of a basement restaurant, Gus, watches "people's feet going by. Eventually he saw a girl's legs go by he wanted to go to bed with."
If in the youthful examples it is as though the world doesn't quite add up, in the latter the characters seem much more to have the measure of it. When Gus says, "he had nightmares about sauces that burned, about those inspectors from the Department of Health who invaded the kitchen without warning one day and examined his wooden spoons, his pots, his toilets", this is a man of the world, but a man who knows its difficulties and tensions. Where in 'Anima' the central character's father refers to the lumpen proletariat, and the young boy wonders "what did that mean? What was the proletariat, and what had happened to its leg", suggesting youthful innocence within ignorance, other stories show that the absence of innocence and ignorance hints at disillusionment and acceptance.
When a teenage girl sleeps by his front door in 'A Good Night's Sleep', central character Lockhart offers her a bed for the night, but she takes it the wrong way, and as he leaves her outside Lockhart thinks, that "he'd maybe been too impatient with her. Yet he felt angry too, angry with her arrogance. How dare she not care about herself?" Like the much older homeless man in 'I'm Glad that Wasn't Me', both Gus and Lockhart have to deal with someone whose life is very different from their own but for whom they feel partly responsible. In 'I'm Glad that Wasn't Me' the tramp comes into the cafe/restaurant every day for a cuppa, and while he isn't the ideal customer, neither does Gus feel he can oust him from the place. Like Lockhart, Gus feels irritated but obligated; they're characters who are human in their concern but equally aware of their relative indifference. In each story they are contrasted with characters more indifferent than concerned. Lockhart's neighbours simply throw her out of the building, seeing her as "some junkie sleeping in the stair". The cafe assistant Paul says "that guy is bad news, Gus, and you know it". These subsidiary characters may have the measure of the situation, but they don't give much space to the feelings of others.
Part of the bitterness and alienation in McCabe's stories of emotional maturity come from the attempt to feel but without naivety; to accept the difficulty of being human, but not to forego the responsibility towards others as a consequence. If the youthful characters are often involved in an epistemological relationship with the world, making sense of what they see, in the mature tales the characters are involved more in a moral one. McCabe, who studied philosophy at Edinburgh University, and whose stories occasionally invoke Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger and Kant, wouldn't be a stranger to such philosophical categories as the moral and the epistemological, but that is of course not the same as saying he deliberately creates his work around them. It is more that the problem of knowledge works well within the context of the young characters; the problem of moral action the older ones. When the young boy in 'Anima' thinks his sister's laugh sounded "like a balloon being rubbed the wrong way", McCabe doesn't offer it as a 'wise' simile, but instead as a 'naive' one. Equally when in 'The Lipstick Circus' the character compares his father's yawn to a trombone, the metaphor seems from a literary point of view slightly weak, but from a characterisational point of view strong. We might not quite imagine a laugh like a balloon being rubbed the wrong way, or a yawn similar to a trombone, but we can easily imagine a young boy thinking that is what they sound like.
One of the problems with literary language and the precision of images is that it sometimes tells us a great deal about a writer's literary skill but to the detriment of the characterisation. For example in contemporary Irish writer Kevin Barry's short story collection There are Little Kingdoms, one senses the importance of writing well over the needs of character specificity. In 'Breakfast Wine' the first person narrator says, "Glamour carried itself with great elegance and ease. It was jewelled at the fingers and jewelled at the throat. It wore fine woollens and high leather boots and a green velvet cape, the texture such an excitement against machine-tanned skin." The character remains a cipher, but the description is very precise, and the narrator gets lost as a character, with Barry forcing him to wear the garb of the literary master as he describes a woman's appearance. What we have is nice writing but no characterisation as both the narrator and the woman who has just walked into the bar are lost to the language.
Perhaps McCabe would not have the 'skill' to write such a passage, but we should be wary of regarding fictional language as some abstract ideal and look at what end it seems to be serving. More precision in some of McCabe's stories would have weakened characterisation, given the youthful figures an authority when what is vital to the tales is that they do not possess it. What is the point of creating vulnerable characters if the language utilised is full of elegance and poise? If one accepts that stories like 'Anima', 'Lipstick Circus' and 'The Face' are about the epistemological problem of making sense of the world, then what matters isn't the quality of the metaphorical language, but the tentativeness of the world presented. In 'The Face', about a miner killed at the coal face, the narrator says "his father looked up at him and nodded to him to tell him to go through to the other room, so he went through and watched t.v. and wondered how the face had killed John Ireland, the man who ran the boxing gym for boys, and how something terrible could make people need to kiss each other." McCabe wants to capture here the inexplicability of death and also the surprise of a kiss between his parents that at the boy's age would be linked to excitement and not to grief. Where Barry phrase-makes very well, one can easily extricate the phrase from the story and it holds up. Whether it is "machine-tanned" in 'Breakfast Wine', or a mechanic character described as someone in 'See the Tree, How Big It's Grown' finding "life...very hard sometimes because you cannot take a spanner to it", the phrases are nicely quotable, but that is partly because they are not especially integrated. McCabe's language seems to come out of the epistemological problem and is thus contained by it. Barry makes remarks about character; McCabe fromcharacter.
This is equally the case in McCabe's work when the problem shifts to the moral, and the characters move from youthful to mature. In 'Strange Passenger', 'A Good Night's Sleep' and 'I'm Glad that Wasn't Me', the characters are burdened with responsibility. Their problem isn't at all perceptual immaturity; more ethical indecisiveness as they wonder about the appropriate behaviour given the situation. When a member of staff refuses to give the tramp a tea strainer in 'I'm Glad that Wasn't Me', Gus insists: "It was meant to be one of the small, personal touches which might distinguish his place from the others. These standards had to be maintained." He couches it in terms of professional duty, but the story rests on personal responsibility too, and part of that obligation resides in taking care of customers, even caring for them. "It was three in the afternoon and the place was empty when Gus recognised the shoes of the down and out. They were heavy, shapeless, battered and soft, as if his feet were wrapped in layers and layers of soiled bandages." Gus also notes that "his feet came down the stairs the way a child's would - both resting on each stair before going onto the next." Gus might not especially want him in his restaurant, but he allows him a vivid place in his thoughts. It might be the professional thing to serve a customer properly, but it is an ethical thing to give over one's time to reflecting upon such a figure as the down and out.
In each instance, in 'A Good Night's Sleep' and 'I'm Glad that Wasn't Me', we have good examples of what might be called spheres of obligation. Usually we have our immediate family in the inner circle, close friends slightly more peripherally, perhaps our nation after that, and the rest of the world beyond this. But occasionally someone from the world beyond our usual spheres becomes a moral conundrum. Both the homeless man and the girl on the stairwell enter into the characters' sphere of obligation as Lockhart feels he ought to invite the girl in for the night even though she was five minutes before a complete stranger, while in 'I'm Glad that Wasn't Me', the tramp had been coming to the restaurant almost every day for the last two weeks, and it is there he collapses and dies. As Gus thinks of the corpses he had seen - in Indian, in Sri Lanka, in Peru and the deaths he had lived through in Scotland (both his father's and his mother's), "he knew this had been his first real death - the first death he felt truly involved in." It is the first in which his actions are important as he attends to the body and asks one of the staff to call an ambulance. It might seem insignificant but the man has entered very much Gus's sphere of obligation. Just as Lockhart find himself offering the girl a bed for the night without knowing her at all, so Gus will be the person explaining to the medics how a man he barely knew has died in his restaurant.
Sometimes, though, the obligatory duty that the character is reluctant to acknowledge can lead not to the ethically sympathetic, but the morally problematic. When in 'Strange Passenger' the narrator says on hearing of his father's death, "my reaction had been - but had there been any real reaction? Hadn't I just made the sorrowful and shocked noises appropriate to the occasion", this is the problem of failing to offer the right response to someone to whom we're supposed to be close; towards someone in that inner sphere. When later he says to himself, "the business of having to take the bag of his [father's] things to a rest-home - as if the old folks waiting to die in there would appreciate a gift of a dead man's things", this isn't the dutiful son, but the one with obligatory tasks he would rather avoid. If Gus and Lockhart come across as sympathetic figures partly due to their concern for others outside the expected, the narrator in 'Strange Passenger' comes across more problematically as he sees his father's death as something of a hassle. To see a stranger's death we feel ourselves suddenly involved in as an inconvenience is one thing, but to see our own father's demise equally so creates an ambivalent figure of identification. Much of this ambivalence we might feel comes from our assumption that the father ought to be at the dead centre of this sphere of obligation.
However, just as we earlier differentiated between the epistemological and the ethical, so also we can see McCabe's interest not only in spheres of obligation but also of attraction. A number of the stories play on people entering one's emotional and sexual parameters. Again 'I'm Glad that Wasn't Me' comes to mind, just as Lucy often comes to Gus's. Lucy works in the restaurant with her boyfriend Paul, and it is her legs he finds attractive as she comes along the street and down to the basement restaurant. "If he'd been ten year younger and unattached, he could have gone for a girl like Lucy - or, maybe she could have gone for him." Had she been someone whom he had seen walking along the street her attractiveness would not have touched him, but as she enters his sphere of attraction, as she works in his restaurant and proves a diligent and conscientious employee, so he projects a little painless feeling onto her.
We see this projection more absurdly manifested in 'The Sunbather', with the youthful central character whilst abroad watching an American girl each day on the beach in a quiet spot away from others. She would lie naked tanning in the sun. The narrator becomes fascinated, and watches her from the rocks above, sketching her. On the same trip, though, he meets someone else who is staying in the same hostel. While with the American "he imagined her blue eyes...gazing into his over a candlelit dinner" and "the elegant brown Modigliani of her shape against the white walls of his hotel room", with the English girl he sees "her body wasn't ideal, being more like two bodies joined at the waist - the top half small and thin despite the wide hips and heavy thighs - but she was not unattractive". The projection interests him more, though, and it isn't until after he finally sees the American close up that he senses what he has lost by failing to engage with the English girl who seemed to be trying to engage with him. "When she turned round he almost laughed - not at her, but at his own foolishness. She was fifty, over fifty, probably approaching sixty. The loose skin of her neck was creased and gnarled and furrowed...The grimly smiling, heavily made up face was a taut mask of distress and anxiety." He later asks at the hotel desk about the English girl and gets told that maybe she has gone to Crete or perhaps Rhodes.
The story is one of the few occasions where McCabe uses the ironic twist frequently adopted in short fiction, but he utilises the device as it suits his needs; his interest in the sphere of attraction. The American woman enters it at a distance; the English girl in close proximity. But where one allows for casual fantasy, the other demands human interaction. The narrator admits he is looking for a holiday romance, but presumably wants a romance so heightened that the reality of a prosaic if attractive English girl can't match it. She is in his sphere of attraction, but he doesn't realize it until she has gone, just as he hasn't realised the age of the American woman until he sees her face to face.
This notion of someone entering the sphere of attraction is relevant also in a very different way to 'The Hunter of Dryburn'. Written as a first person monologue in dialect, the narrator is talking to a young couple in a bar, and he constantly alludes to the young woman's prettiness, and the rarity of her attractiveness in a bar like the one they are in. "Nae offence, but she's quite a catch", he says to the boyfriend near the end of the story. "Quite a catch...If ye want ma advice, haud ontae her. Or somebody else might, believe you me". It is as if he is acknowledging his own desire no matter how absurd he might feel it to be that she would ever go for a man like him from a much lower social class. As he says near the beginning, "Na could tell yez were educatit people ken. Na could tell yez wernae frae roon aboot here, that wiz obvious. See it's no very often Ah get the chance, mean tae talk tae folk like youz in here ken." The impression given is of a woman out of his league who is briefly slumming it in the lower divisions of a small pub with her lucky boyfriend. However, the woman still enters his orbit as she wouldn't if he had seen her walking down a city street.
In his introduction to the collection, McCabe says "I often have to make things up from the word go. Sometimes it is these invented elements and details which become crucial to the story and which transform the experience into fiction as opposed to memoir." It is perhaps because writers have not only their outer life of experience, but also the inner urge to explore the subjectively essential, that resists the factual and which demands this process. A fiction writer is of course someone of imagination, but this notion of imagination needn't be in relation to telling a story or creating a fantastic world. It is often no more and no less than a resistance to the world as it is, for the world as it might be, shaped by the imaginative yearnings of the writer. This doesn't make the writer's world a more optimistic version of 'real life'; many indeed lean towards the pessimistic. No, it is more a question of the 'real' not initself serving the singularity of a writer's problematic. If many writers are resistant to biographical readings of their work, then one of the most obvious reasons for this is that if the purpose of the work was to reflect the life then what would be the point: isn't the life already being lived anyway?
What isn't being lived but being created is the work, and even in the most autobiographical writers like Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski the life wasn't enough: they also needed a surplus existence that created the art work. Indeed it is a point McCabe addresses in his introduction, mentioning Flannery O'Connor's 'fictional truth' rather than the literal truth. It is through this fictional truth that ideas about spheres of attraction and obligation can come, and where McCabe can explore the difference between epistemological and moral problems. These are ideas McCabe doesn't categorically state any more than he writes stories that are autobiographical, but it is as if the subconscious presence of the factual and the theoretical create this fictional truth. Perhaps it is a more useful term than literature, with its connotations of fine writing and authority; an attempt to find in fictional form truths not easily revealed in the readily real.
© Tony McKibbin