Tuesday 4 January 2011

'There's making it up and there's making it up.'

Standard Time 
by Keith Ridgway

John Self has been drawing attention to Irish writer Keith Ridgway both on his blog and on the Fiction Uncovered website. Armed with this name on a trip to the LRB bookshop to find me a birthday present my dad found only two titles on the shelf (shame on you LRB): his novel The Parts (which appeared to be a bit of a disparate doorstop) and a slightly neglected looking copy of this story collection. A prize winning book (Standard Time won the Rooney Prize in 2001) needs a good home and hopefully found one on the day I turned... let's just say a year older.

To finish his review of Ridgway's novel, The Long Falling, John used a quotation from a scene in which one character is asked by a policeman during an interview to start from the beginning. His reply: "Where's that?" The opening story of this collection, The First Five Pages, picks up on that idea:

Put one story behind you and start another. That is the theory. But I find that what should be new is polluted and old. That there are no endings, that all stories overlap, and that all you can do is decide where to begin. When to begin.

A story collection seems like a good place to begin with a new author, a taster menu if you like to help you get a feel for their capabilities and there is real variety here even though all but one of Ridgway's stories are set in Dublin (we even have a couple of stories that take us back into the city's history). What struck me immediately was how different these stories seemed to what I might have expected. Many writers use the shorter form to exhibit stylistic flourishes or experiment. There can, let's face it, be some grandstanding. But Ridgway manages to write stories that have the calm confidence of the novel even whilst containing the punch of the shorter form and even moments of literal extreme violence. In fact it could be said that violence is a recurring theme. One of the characters in the gruesome historical piece Ross and Kinnder articulates the public desire to shock and be shocked.

...whatever horror takes place in the world, it is never enough. It will be puffed up until it shocks, and so the audience writes the plot, demanding teeth marks.

The violence in Ridgway's stories ranges from the blood-spattering of a hired killer in the story above to the casual elbow to the face delivered by one man to his lover after a drunken scene in a restaurant. But it is never gratuitous. We are shocked by the beating received at the end of Never Love A Gambler (a story in which the threat of violence hangs over one character with gambling debts) not only because of its viciousness but also its cruelty, given the surprise of how it comes about and who is on the receiving end. Violence isn't restricted to its most obvious forms. Jane's Addiction sang that 'Sex is Violence' and particularly in his depiction of gay relationships Ridgway captures the power of the significant remark, the physicality of coupling and the subtler ways in which intimacy can be a weapon with which to jab at those closest to us and where each blow is loaded with import and meaning. The narrator of The Problem With German is quite clear what that problem is.

Robert does not like the sound of German. You cannot, he told himself, whisper in German. You can only argue and be adamant and precise. He does not believe that a German speaker ever has to search for the right word.

But Ridgway uses the language barrier that is heightened by Robert's visit to Berlin with his German lover to stand for the general breakdown in communication between the couple. There is a wonderful sense of the trust implicit in any relationship as Robert needs his interpreter to understand even the most basic exchange around him and it isn't until one flashpoint is translated for him that he realises how hard it can be to interpret the behaviour of others without a common language to communicate with. In Off Vico the elderly narrator, a writer, is approached by an apparent stranger who claims to have met him before. His quick dismissal of such a thought seems at first to be the result of confused identity or simply the impact of ageing but as they converse he struggles to keep his head above the deluge of memories that flood over him.

Abstractions by the handful, I grappled with my history for a moment, as one will, must, will, when confronted with a past which one had imagined as a future, and one sees, again, always recurring, that the bulk of things lie behind us, done and dusted, used just once, through in an instant. Abstract regret, abstract sorrow, abstract life. That we discuss anything at all is a wonder to me.

His battle with memory is due to the defences he himself has erected around deep buried feelings and an encounter charged with eroticism. The manner in which these defences tumble is brilliantly written by Ridgway who does allow himself some stylistic flourishes here in a standout story.

Those two themes of how little we really know of those closest to us and the concentration of feeling that comes from the briefest of relationships are combined in the longest story of the book, Angelo. Its length is due to the narrator's need to tell us everything he can remember about the man who has come into and then out of his life, trying desperately to work out exactly what happened.

...I don't have the time to be brief. You understand me? I don't have the time to sift through it all and distill the moments of importance, and communicate them in a way that would make you care. I am distracted by the debris, by the incidental, by the little bits of minutes and hours and days that stay with me, that have lodged somewhere in my mind as tastes or sounds or inclinations of his head or movements of his hands or words he said. Because I need to show him to you, and I'm not doing it right, I'm not covering it all, I'm all side-on and oblique and I'm too self-conscious and it's not going to work if I try to frame it just so, try to get it perfect. I have to just throw this at you. And you just have to catch it.
It is quite unusual to have such a blatant holding up of hands as happens in this story, to have a narrator wish that they were telling us 'only the interesting things' and call so blatantly for our complicity. I'm not sure if it entirely worked for me but it certainly conveyed the confusion of someone who was no nearer to understanding the person they had allowed to get so seemingly close and yet knew so little about.

A quick mention too for a story that gives us an unreliable narrator par excellence and is easily one of the more disturbing stories I have read recently. This is due to complicity once again but a very different kind. Headwound has us on guard from the outset because of that ominous title and we read each sentence waiting for the event to happen. But the voice of the father who narrates it carries a level of humour that has us smiling even as we get closer and closer to the story's inevitable climax. Unsettling doesn't even begin to describe the feeling you have whilst reading.

Having made it sound as though Ridgway shuns style it is worth mentioning that there are subtle differences in each story; style is used to suit each tale and he even allows himself moments of descriptive prose that give you that satisfying feeling of having read a unique way of describing something relatively mundane. I'll leave you with such a passage from The Dreams of Mary Cleary and add my voice to those who would like to see more people reading Ridgway.

The sea heaved in the bracket of the bay, splashing the land with its foam, thrumming the air, putting a knife in the cold wind. And the wind. A howl of soaked air funnelled down through the low hills, a mouth filling punch, all unseen and screaming, as if a great ghost, the ghost of a different city, moved through its taken place, raging at the living places, pushing what was pushable, groaning what was not.


Anonymous,  4 January 2011 at 14:23  

this is another remind thati should try Ridgeway at some point ,like you I read John's reviews and was keen to try ,hopefully soon did notice my library has a few ,all best and happy new year stu

William Rycroft 4 January 2011 at 14:54  

Happy New Year to you too, Stu. I enjoyed these stories and am also tempted by John's reviews of The Long Falling, Horses and Animals. Look forward to your thoughts on whatever you decide on first.

John Self 4 January 2011 at 20:38  

You're ahead of me on this one, Will, so I'm glad you liked it. I did read the first story, which I was impressed by, but then set the book aside (I have such completion issues over collections of stories...).

And I bought my copy of The Long Falling in the LRB shop, so it looks as though they didn't bother to reorder it afterwards! For shame.

William Rycroft 4 January 2011 at 22:58  

I'll give them a good telling off when I next walk by.

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