Nuala Ní Chonchúir excels at the difficult form of short fiction known as flash fiction. Her new book is a collection of these ultra-short pieces, Of Dublin and Other Fictions.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s new collection of short stories comes out this week, and it’s a little different from the norm: both in terms of her previously published work and the conventions of the short story market; Of Dublin and Other Fictions is a chapbook of flash fiction. It’s not that Ní Chonchúir hasn’t published flash fiction before — in fact, that’s what she’s known for, having picked up a prize or two for her frequently profound and funny stories — but a collection of flash fiction by a single author is practically unheard of. So, my initial thought was, how to approach the book; is reading a collection of flash fiction more akin to reading a poetry collection or a collection of short stories?
My previous exposure to flash has come one at a time, either through the odd piece publishing in literary magazines or a very short story as part of a collection of longer pieces. In those encounters, a flash fiction was akin to a fancy ring or glittering gemstone, a one-off, a party piece, an exception. Reading Of Dublin, I discovered the experience is all the richer for being able to consume the whole book in one sitting, even having the time to re-read and savor some pieces.
The first story is “Jesus of Dublin,” the observations of a statue of Jesus displayed in a box on O’Connell Street, the center of Ireland’s capital city. It’s a warmly humorous and gently satirical piece, making subtle points about the centrality of Jesus to Irish life and the damage his supposed servants have done to the institution of the church, all the while emphasizing Jesus’ separateness from “his” church. He and his mother watch over the city (she’s “down the Bull Island doing her Stella Maris thing”), and like any good Irish lad, he keep in regular contact with the mammy. The final paragraph is as detailed a portrait of the modern city of Dublin, with its mix of cultures, classes, and nationalities as anyone has managed in recent years — all the more impressive as Ní Chonchúir conjures it in 60-odd words.
Another standout story is “Fish,” the tale of a brief moment of tenderness and understanding shared by two neighbors. A man has suffered a disaster in business, and a woman was there to see it. Her reaction when she knows he’s seen her witnessing his lowest ebb is beautiful, a sudden act of humanity that refuses to judge or gossip, but eloquently demonstrates her sympathy, and emphasizes their shared humanity and a generous “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” spirit.
The larger background to that story is of course the downturn, the bursting of the Celtic Tiger property bubble, and the often unsettling atmosphere of gleeful spectator sport that has descended over newspaper coverage of anyone deemed to have got too big for their britches or thought to have “brought it upon themselves.” It’s an ugly side to Irish life and one that’s received too much expression in the newspapers of late. It’s nice to see such a beautiful and poetic expression of solidarity and human kinship after so much negativity.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir reads part of “Fish” in this trailer for Of Dublin and Other Fictions:
“Fish” and “Jesus of Dublin” both illustrated the strange capacity of flash fiction to encompass so much more than it seems to contain. On first reading, “Fish” appears to last a long time. It’s mysterious and tracks the events of an afternoon, yet is somehow only a page and a half in length. It’s as if time slowed down while you read it. How is this possible? Well, that’s the writer’s skill: the well-chosen words, the narrative sleight-of-hand, the non-judgmental point of view. In this case, there’s so much packed into a short story that your brain won’t believe your eyes that it’s really as short as it seems.
The final story, “Penny and Leo and Married Bliss,” Ní Chonchúir’s contribution to a modern-day retelling of Ulysses, is another highlight, rewriting Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the voice of a contemporary Dubliner. Leo is a typical jack-the-lad; Boylan is reinvented as Father Boylan, the new parish priest who Molly/Penny considers “a waste of a good-looking man.” As usual, Ní Chonchúir gets the voice pitch-perfect, and reduces Joyce’s 50 pages of neuroses and flashbacks down to not-quite four. Fans of Joyce will enjoy spotting the iconic passages she changes and alludes to, and anyone familiar or unfamiliar with Ireland’s ur-novel should find the piece an hilarious and realistic slice of life.
Across all of the pieces in Of Dublin & Other Fictions, Ní Chonchúir’s easy grasp of dialect and colorful slang is a joy to read. Despite the title, not every story is set in Ireland, nor even in recognizable reality; some pieces are placeless, but explore universal feelings: curiosity, grief, parental love, lust. Ní Chonchúir experiments with the short form and includes some impressionistic and fantastical pieces. These work in this short length and bewitch and beguile as you parse them out — for me, the experience of these less-plot or voice-driven pieces was more akin to reading poetry.
All-in-all, Of Dublin is a satisfying and exciting read, full of beautiful language, vivid emotions, and unexpected situations. There are a couple of pieces I could almost imagine people memorizing like poetry, and certain stories I’d love to see performed at a poetry slam. Of Dublin and Other Fictions is an exciting book that showcases the breath and depth of its author’s artistic sensibility, and reminds us that Nuala Ní Chonchúir is one of the most versatile and talented young writers anywhere.
Learn more about Nuala Ní Chonchúir at her website…
Stop back tomorrow, when I’ll post an interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir.