Closer to Life’s True Sadness: A review of Good Trouble by Jospeh O’Neill
John William’s Stoner is not one of the best known of novels. Though, it has had its champions. Most recently Julian Barnes wrote a glowing review article and described it as his book of 2013. What Williams did in that novel, perhaps better than anyone other novelist I’ve come across was to write the story of an ordinary almost boring man and to make it a glorious, even in failure, if rather sad history of a man who would be forgotten by almost everyone.
The sadness of Stoner is of its own particular kind. It is not, say, the operatic sadness of The Good Soldier, or the grindingly sociological sadness of New Grub Street. It feels a purer, less literary kind, closer to life’s true sadness.
In Good Trouble Joseph O’Neill comes close to the achievement of Williams. In this collection of nine short stories O’Neill presents us with a brief glimpse into the lives of nine protagonists (six male, three female). Each of them are, in their own way, a reflection of people we all know but rarely ever get to know.
Like Williams, O’Neill is an academic and there is an academic theme running through some of the stories. But, that is only one of the strands that we can follow through the stories. Tales of broken relationships, between family members is another major theme that is explored.
But apart from the mechanics of the book, it is a very good read. This is, I think, the first time I have ever read a collection of short stories from start to finish in the order in which they are found and in the space of a few days. Normally, I try to pick the stories that best fit the time that I have at hand to read. But, I began at the beginnign this time. Now, I must admit, this happened partly by chance. Sitting on a train with about less than an hour ahead of me, I looked through the table of contents and decided that I would have enough time to read the first story. On top of that the title certainly grabbed me. Pardon Edward Snowden.
I don’t know what it is like for most people, but I usually know within the first few lines or the first page if I am going to be able to enjoy the book in my hands. Reading the opening lines of Pardon Edward Snowden, I knew almost immediately that I was going to enjoy this story. After reading the next couple of stories I knew I was going to like them all and I set off and read it very quickly (for me).
The protagonist (Mark) in the first story is a poet, who is outraged that another poet (Merrel Jensen who is nine years his junior, though obviously unaware of his place in the literary hierarchy) has sent around a petition to his literary peers (as he assumes, incorrectly, Mark would claim) seeking the pardoning of Edward Snowden. But, and this is what annoys Mark the most: the petition is written in the form of a poem which is just not right. How can you agree or disagree with a poem?
It made no sense for an agreeing multitude, or mob, to undersign a poem: you could no more agree with a poem than with a tree, not even if you’d written it.
I think I looked up the OED app on my phone about three times while reading the first story, which is a lot. But this did not deter me at all and I had to look up several more throughout the book but it just demonstrates that as well as being a good story teller, O’Neill is also a great word-smith.
Mark is a character who has not achieved, at least not yet though time is running out, all that he would have liked. And the sense we get is that he may never reach the heights that, perhaps he believes he ought to. If only he had the brass neck of Merrel Jensen maybe it all would be, have been different. It is this sense of deflation that permeates the stories.
All the characters share a similar world weariness. Even though none of the characters are particularly elderly but one sense the weariness is not borne of the duration of time, by the weight of their own flaws and by their treatment by those around them. Quiet often by those who are closest and they would have assumed the most reliable. But, this is not always the case in life and in Good Trouble it is rarely the case at all. In the second story of the collection: The Trusted Traveller.
Two academics have retired from New York to Nova Scotia, Canada. For the last number of years, they regularly, every year, receive the visit from a former student. The former students we are told invites himself along for a reunion dinner which is not eagerly anticipated by the hosts. Now that they have moved to Nova Scotia, they are hoping to be able to draw a line under this annual meeting. However, the (uninvited) guest is not to be dissuaded by the distance that he will have to travel or the fact that the hosts will not be able to put him up, even for one night. He arrives, they pass a pleasant evening and off he goes.
A year later they are wondering that they have not yet heard from their ‘trusted traveller’. The story ends without any explanation or further revelation. We do not know if the guest ever did turn up or if anything happened to him. We only know that the protagonist does not give it very much thought and is relieved not to have to spend another evening with him.
The ending of the second story is replicated in many of the others. In the sense, that there is not so much of an ending as a infinite hiatus. We are left to wonder if the unwanted guest ever appears or even makes contact. Do the hosts ever ‘look him up’ or wonder what has happened to him. This is where the short story is so different to other forms of art. Endings are not important. The goal is to provide a snapshot and to leave it dangling in front of the reader. It can be a little unsatisfying for some readers but it takes a skilled and confident writer to be able to write less rather than more. To leave a story only partially told.
This is not dissimilar to his most successful novel: Nederland which was long-listed and tipped by many to win the Man Booker in 2017. Although, the stories are very much set in the United States and are of the United States, the characters seem more European. They are more introverted and more unsure of their place in the world and in that they have much in common with John William’s Stoner and even with some of Julian Barnes’ protagonists. If I manage to find a better and more enjoyable collection of short stories any time soon I’ll be a very happy reader.