MARK O’FLYNN White Light. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
Poet, playwright and novelist, Mark O’Flynn is a man of many talents. White Light is the Blue Mountains-based writer’s inaugural collection of stories, gathering together for the first time a diverse selection of short works previously published in Meanjin, Island, Heat, the Review of Australian Fiction and more.
The longest story in White Light weighs in at a svelte 13 pages, but don’t be fooled by White Light’s slim spine. There’s nothing lightweight about this collection. Each one of these 16 stories packs a serious punch.
In ‘Banjo’, we meet an illiterate inmate who finds his only solace in the poetry of Banjo Paterson. The young female narrator of ‘Bulldozer’ sneaks outside in the early hours of Sunday morning while her family are sleeping to play with the big yellow bulldozer that sits on the hill near her house. ‘A Lovely Outing’ focuses on an elderly woman who is prepared to forgive the young man who attacked her – even though her family aren’t. O’Flynn even takes on Shakespeare’s Iago, who, in a rambling monologue, loudly proclaims his innocence even as he mounts the scaffold to meet his fate:
Who’s the clever dick now? Eleven soliloquies and still they shove me – me! – out to the wings behind an arras and cast the very title of our play, the whole catastrophe, to that Elizabethan clothes horse.
It’s O’Flynn’s mastery of voice and character that makes reading White Light such a pleasure. Every piece offers us something different from the last. And yet, the effect of all these voices never feels confusing or overwhelming. There’s a steadiness about this collection, an unwavering confidence borne of the ability to create, in so few words, characters that ring true.
The 16 short pieces that make up White Light are all joined with subtle threads, but there are four stories that share a more obvious connection. ‘Under the Figs’, ‘Bridie’, ‘A Good Break’ and ‘Tales of Action and Adventure’ each focus on Dean and Shona, a suburban couple, and their children.
In ‘Under the Figs’, the first story in the collection, the towering, bat-infested fig trees that line Dean and Shona’s street are threatened with demolition, and Shona, a nurse, visits her next door neighbours for the first time to check on the progress of a new baby, born to a young unmarried mother.
Later, in ‘Bridie’, a young girl who lives on the same street knocks on the couple’s door late at night. Bridie’s mother hasn’t returned home, and Dean stays awake with the girl until the early hours of the morning, keeping the child company.
Both ‘Bridie’ and ‘Under the Figs’ pick at the awkwardness and isolation of suburban life. Yet even when the family aren’t at home, alienation is never far away. ‘A Good Break’ sees Dean take his family to the beach, but he is powerless to assist when a stranger is dragged half-drowned from the waves and dumped at Dean’s feet, unconscious.
In ‘Tales of Action and Adventure’, the final piece in the collection, O’Flynn casts the couple in a more sympathetic light. Shona’s first boyfriend is coming over for dinner, just returned from a trip around the world, and his worldliness leaves Dean feeling inadequate. But as the traveller regales the couple with endless stories from his travels, he exposes his essential neediness. Isolation, it seems, isn’t confined to suburbia.
Isolation and detachment are themes to which O’Flynn returns time and time again. In ‘The Isthmus’, he makes these themes literal. A retired couple, Hector and Caroline, are visiting Victoria’s Twelve Apostles. They become stranded on an outcrop when the rock arch connecting them to the land breaks into pieces behind them and tumbles into the ocean. Waiting to be rescued, Caroline feels the connection between her and Hector crumbling too:
We could not be more estranged if we were on a desert isle in the middle of the Pacific with a lone palm tree between us. I wonder if I could push him off the edge and blame it on the wind, but there appear to be too many witnesses with telephoto lenses.
O’Flynn has a real gift for writing comedy that’s tinged with sadness and cynicism. ‘Loaded Dice’ sees a doomed Monopoly game turn into a metaphorical lesson in the way society works:
Already a widening social rift has split the good nature and sense of trust that was originally between us. Healthy competition gone sour. I contemplate stealing from the bank …
In contrast, the undiluted sadness of ‘Drip, Drip, Drip’ is the collection’s most tragic moment, and hits with a staggering force. An anonymous narrator sits by a father’s hospital bed as he receives chemotherapy. Mentally listing the side effects of the different medications, the narrator recalls a trip to the ocean when they were much younger, and the sting of a bluebottle. The hospital room takes on this metaphor, the drip bag on its silver stand becomes ‘the bladder of some poisonous fish‘; later, as the father vomits, ‘[a] string of squid drools from his lips’.
There’s something incredibly fortuitous about White Light. These 16 short pieces offer the reader an enticing glimpse into the work of decades. Some of these stories were published as early as 1996 – and yet, here in White Light, they all slide neatly into place, as if they were always destined to be together.
Funny, tragic and beautifully crafted, at every turn White Light shines with the author’s blinding wit.
Mark O’Flynn White Light Spineless Wonders 2013 e-book or PB 150pp $22.99
Michelle McLaren blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).
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