Friday 29 May 2009

Turned outwards to the world

The Pleasant Light of Day, by Philip Ó Ceallaigh (Penguin)

The serene title of Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s collection seems to belie the honest, irreverent and sometimes ugly stories of human experience that constitute it. Until the end of the book, that is, when the fine and almost imperceptible layers of his philosophy have built up sufficiently to make Ó Ceallaigh’s message clear. Only at this point do we see that the title is actually a rather fitting one.

Ó Ceallaigh’s characters are diverse: an Orthodox pilgrim seeking St. Antony’s last resting place in the Egyptian desert; a journalist searching for a story in Georgia; a Siberian peasant girl waiting for her soldier lover to change her life. Men and women, young and old, businessmen and peasants.

What these – and the other protagonists of the 12 stories in this collection – all have in common however is a sense of unease, a palpable dissatisfaction with their lives that leads them to seek something different. Ó Ceallaigh specialises in identifying moments where modern consumerist lifestyles fall down, the areas where the veil between perceived happiness and true contentment has worn thin and it becomes clear that some other solution must be found.

All this is achieved with a softly-softly approach; Ó Ceallaigh has no interest in preaching a message of redemption, and keeps his authorial voice to a whisper for the most part. In the two stories where he raises that voice to a shout Ó Ceallaigh takes on a tone that is deeply sarcastic and very funny.

One of these stories, ‘The Alchemist’, is an almost vicious parody of the novel by Paolo Coelho that mocks not just its author but everyone who reads it. Ó Ceallaigh is scornful of the culture of self-help manuals and quick-fix mantras that do nothing but provide a further distraction from the real business of living; he advocates instead an approach that requires true self-analysis and eventual acceptance of the state of modern reality. It is only by embracing such an attitude that personal peace will ever be found.

The collection’s other extremely acerbic tale, ‘My Secret War’, is the story of a man persuaded by a torture-happy government of his repressed anti-patriotism and secret desire to foment terror. There are murmurings here of Bret Easton Ellis, George Orwell and the recently deceased JG Ballard; Ó Ceallaigh puts a dystopian spin on the world as he finds it, cleverly altering our viewing platform so that new angles are made visible and we are forced to look at things in a new light.

These two stories have less of the subtlety and contemplativeness of the rest of the collection, but their humour makes up for the jarring effect this difference creates.

Ó Ceallaigh’s desire to depict the daily struggle of the everyman against an unsupportive system results in characters that, although engrossing, are no more than mere outlines. The business of characterisation is skirted round as Ó Ceallaigh devotes more time and energy to creating an effective and all-encompassing atmosphere in his stories.

This is particularly the case with the experimental tale, ‘Uprooted’, which uses a variety of different narrative formats to tell the story of several men’s obsession with a beautiful coquette named Kirsten. The reader is never quite sure who is being described as Ó Ceallaigh switches between the experiences of Eoin, Aidan, Conan and Jonathan; the girl Kirsten remains a shadowy presence at the centre of the narrative. The result is a tale laden in atmosphere, helped by passages of untranslated Gaelic and phrases of charmingly expressed sentiment such as this one, which describes Aidan after spending a day with Kirsten: ‘Unused to being so much with a person, talking, he is unable to return to himself. He is turned outwards to the world. Something moving in him that has long been still’ (pp111-12).

There is something rather unsettling about the amount of variation between the stories in this collection, but the tales themselves are engaging enough to make up for it. The result is a book that leaves the reader not quite sure of what she has just read, but pleased to have read it. Perhaps this is best expressed by the protagonist of the collection’s title story: ‘It was good to enjoy the pleasant light of day’ (p193).


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