Sarah Clancy has been shortlisted for several poetry prizes including the Listowel Collection of Poetry Competition and the Patrick Kavanagh Award. Her first book of poetry, Stacey and the Mechanical Bull, was published by Lapwing Press Belfast in December 2010 and a further selection of her work was published in June 2011 by Doire Press. Her poems have been published in Revival Poetry Journal, The Stony Thursday Book, The Poetry Bus, Irish Left Review and in translation in Cuadrivio Magazine (Mexico). She was the runner up in the North Beach Nights Grand Slam Series 2010 and was the winner of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature Grand Slam 2011.She was an invited guest at the 2011 Vilenica Festival of Literature in Slovenia and in Spring 2012 her poem “I Crept Out” received second prize in the Ballymaloe International Poetry Competition.
Hitting every note on the reader’s emotional register
By Sarah Clancy
‘’You are too quick to find solutions’’
‘’I prefer not to solve things so quickly.
It’s easier that way. Never solve one problem until you have another one ready’’
(Dave Lordan from First Book of Frags)
The characters in Alan Mc Monagle’s short story collection Psychotic Episodes, are at no risk of running out of problems anytime soon; ‘My cousin was having a bad summer. His best friend had died in Mexico. His cat had died in his arms. At any moment his mother was going to die. She was paralysed and had lost her mind.’ from The Mega Million Lottery
Psychotic Episodes is a trip. It is a blindfolded confused, unsettling and often hilarious trip into the minds of a cast characters who either have no idea what is going on or, in the few cases where they do have a grasp of events, they have no idea what they feel about them.
The collection hits every note on the reader’s emotional register by enlisting an unusual literary ‘device’; that of creating totally clueless and emotionally illiterate characters. Because of the strength of characterisation in the stories it took me several readings to pinpoint this technique or craft. At first reading I only knew that the stories unsettled and simultaneously beguiled me. I was immediately reminded of Nabakov’s memorable and eminently pitiable character Pnin, a middle aged Russian refugee who blundered his clueless way around the world of academia in the US. Like Pnin, many of Alan Mc Monagle’s characters are very very nearly mainstream or conventional. They miss by a whisker, and Alan makes extraordinary fictions from the whisker they miss by.
Psychotic Episodes celebrates marginalisation. It probes exactly how staggeringly close people can be to belonging, whilst not fitting in at all. Though certain of Alan’s stories do deal with more conventional ways of opting out such as drinking, drug taking and escapist travel the writer is at his best when he explores the far more interesting territory of people who have done little to participate in their own alienation. The few drink/drug/mental illness focussed stories do remind me of other writer’s work; of Ablutions by Patrick De Witt, of On the Road by Kerouac, of Ben Lerner’s ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’. (In Lerner’s novel a hapless constantly stoned emerging poet who suffers from depression is on a year-long writer’s junket to Spain. He is medicated, dispirited and disconnected from everything. He is as terrified of recognition and success as he is of failure.) However, other than poor misunderstood Pnin, the characters in the sober stories in Psychotic Episodes remind me of those of no other writer. Perhaps the closest comparison I could make is to the minor players in a Coen Brother’s film.
This book is almost but not quite dystopian. In most of the stories we are aware that there is something better, we just can’t see it too clearly. Reading it, I can imagine that his people inhabit a world where they can’t ever quite get themselves at the right angle to the pavement. They are tilting forward, too eager for something too slight, or too slight for something substantial. I love them. Each time I read it I fall for them, head over heels, whilst simultaneously despising them.
Alan’s book is steeped in loneliness, and there’s always someone either protagonist or cameo player to feel sorry for; there’s the poor toddler being babysat by a hapless and unfeeling couple whilst disaster looms like an old friend. In ‘Women drivers on Taylor’s Hill’ there’s a gentle nameless cyclist who becomes smitten by the numerous women who knock him down with their SUVs and injure him. The worse the injury the more he seems to fancy them.
There’s nine year old Vanessa in ‘Runaway’ coming up with a near perfect solution to her own heartbreaking predicament and though her eight year old messenger-friend participates, he remains oblivious to the real situation and renders Vanessa even lonelier than ever. There’s a child being led away by the hand from a street market by another older child who has a stolen knife in his pocket and I loved both of them.
What matters in this collection is imagination and weakness and Alan never lets up with either. He constructs some of the bravest weaknesses imaginable, several of his characters (cowards to a man woman and child) commit semi-suicides; suicides masquerading as accident, as rescue, as escape. Alan writes without ego, brilliantly sparsely, with the language never straying from that which would be credible from each character. There are no virtuoso paragraphs of luminous writing here and if there were they would not ring true. I have the comfortable feeling reading this collection that Alan would write this way however his stories were eventually received. At some stage when I am feeling sufficiently connected to the world myself to cope with it, I would love to read a novel from this talented and compassionate writer.
PS: On my third go at Psychotic Episodes I suddenly understood that my uneasiness at reading this collection was because I found the characters too similar to me, and indeed to others I know. Read this book, it may be about you.