The Silence Room, Sean O’Brien. Carcanet Press. 202pp, $13.95.
The Silence Room is the debut short story collection by English poet and critic Sean O’Brien. The book is a mixed bag of shallow entertainments, unsuccessful experiments, and a few, perhaps eight, strong stories—and a couple of these were truly magnificent. O’Brien is an incredibly talented writer, but, confusingly, his stories often lack a certain power.
The Silence Room begins with the story “I Cannot Cross Over,” a series of events and encounters that are mystifying for their lack of context and any raison d’etre. It is only upon reading Antonio Tabucchi’s Requiem: A Hallucination, which has “suggested” this piece, that one can begin to follow the trail of very faint crumbs to O’Brien’s intentions.
What makes O’Brien’s piece unlike Tabucchi is its lack of attention to the reader. We do not know this is a hallucination, whereas in Tabucchi the narrator surmises this is likely the case. In “I Cannot Cross Over” the narrator can’t remember very much and doesn’t know why he does certain things, he just does them. Is he on drugs? Is he dreaming? Are we supposed to care? I assume the author wants us to care. I want to know why I’m to spend time with a story, and if one story is somehow related to another story, or inspired by another or suggested by another, I’d like to know the nature of that relationship. Is O’Brien gently mocking Tabucchi? In “I Cannot Cross Over” there is very little that could be said to be serious dialogue or narrative exploration about the nature of life, death, art, religion, or philosophy, as is the case in Tabucchi.
“I Cannot Cross Over” includes autobiographical elements, which is also the case in Requiem, and O’Brien seems to be at play with both confessional elements and allusions. The reader is excluded from a sense of a spiritual quest, if there ever really was one, and the level of emotional investment and intellectual comprehension one is supposed to feel can certainly be no greater than the one expressed by the narrator himself who, at the end, standing over the bridge over the quay announces, “It can’t be as important as this, whatever it is.” This, the reader may suppose, is an expression of deep cynicism, or deep denial. The narrator has just watched his pulped poems, raw material for calendars featuring beautiful women, fold into the tide of the river.
Much more satisfying is “Tabs,” the second offering in this collection. Therein O’Brien describes with great relish and care a Newcastle institution known as the Lit and Phil; it is a library that one must apply to join and, upon acceptance, pay a subscription. Against the Lit and Phil O’Brien juxtaposes a smoking ban going into effect and, it seems, “the lights [are] going out all over Europe”:
There had been a time when the smoking ban would have meant a row. There would have been resignations and calls for extraordinary meetings. And, though it would have made no difference to the outcome, there would have been impassioned mutterings around the big table. It was the headquarters of a salon de refuses of the law and the academy. This shifting group of desperate men clung to the life of the mind by their fingertips there at the smoky hub of the library, like Balzacian gamblers leaving the wheel of their ruined fortunes only to drink and to pawn their last possessions.
There is resonance in the language. Statements are made. Dare I say it? There is passion. The narrator is concerned that we know about the “oily encrustations” covering the books of the upper galleries, the places where “poets went to die.” A 1923 edition of Wallace Steven’s Harmonium sits upon the shelves “sweating tar like Eliot’s Thames” and the librarians moving through “the diseased yellow air . . . [shifting] the smoke-ravaged stock from shelf to shelf . . . like nineteenth century doctors sending their doomed consumptive patients from spa to spa.” The Lit and Phil’s most treasured member is Harry Box, a lecturer at an unknown college, whose obsessions are: Steven’s Harmonium, poetry more generally, the composition of poetry, the apt quote, the contemplative silence, Scotch, the open sea, exotic locales, literature about the open sea and exotic locales, the proper rolling and smoking of fine tobacco. Only secondarily are women of interest and then only as “a distant, more benevolent idea.” Ironically, however, women, we are given to understand, or “some other damn thing” would wake men such as Harry up to the “anachronisms” that they are, a fact “which had little to do with age.” Harry’s involvement with a modern day Jeanne Duval, who is, cleverly enough, a supervisor at a perfume department, leads to tragic consequences for the woman (she dies) and for Harry (he loses interest in Les Fleurs du Mal and Harmonium). The tragedy of the story, outrageously, is the crushed poetic spirit, not the loss of life or Harry’s cheating ways.
Before the tragic accident involving Harry’s love interest, the narrator expresses his inability or unwillingness to interrupt their abstracted sessions at the bar:
Aside from [Harry's] genetic disinclination to talk about such things, our companionship was established on the basis of literary speculation. Life—that is to say, choice, responsibility, consequences—could not be permitted to intrude. That went without saying. You might object: how typically male, to overvalue—what? The pristine condition of something that in most circles would barely have qualified as conversation—and to do in defiance of a summons from life itself. . . . How little do you know, dear reader, if that is your view. Is there to be no space left for idleness and dreams, for the old boys’ El Dorado? The Cythera of cancelled futurity?
The narrator hems in his argument so that for the reader to object to “the old boys’ El Dorado” would be so—what? Female? You have to not mind, here and elsewhere, female readers. You have to not take it so seriously, after all.
“Tabs” is a good read because there is a sense that the author is invested. The rest of the stories, however, fall clearly within the realm of the “uncanny,” and though characterization is on a whole secondary to effects and the creation of mood, as in every great ghost story, I have to admit I miss the more human side of “Tabs.” The author’s commitment seems to be, on the whole, the creation of stories that evoke that uneasy “feeling,” the kind that is “vexingly unspecific,” the kind that is provoked by The Silence Room itself, a windowless narrow basement in the Lit and Phil which contains ancient county records. Some attempts along these lines do indeed come close to succeeding in an evocation of unease. I include within this category the stories that show their hand early and stay well outside the bounds of reality, such as the strange destruction of a line of Northumbrian poet-priests in “It Follows Therefore” and the monologue of a stalker—perhaps a traditional Irish banshee—in “Closer to You.” However, “Once Again Assembled Here” effectively portrays the uncanny sense of determinism one can experience in “real life,” “Behind the Rain” deftly passes between reality and the fantastic, blurring the two and creating uncertainty, and “Three Fevers” subtly suggests the writer’s horror over his eventual obsolescence.
There are some stories which begin realistically but show a heavy hand at the moment of a turn to the unexplained or the psychic event, as in “The Custodian,” “The Cricket Match at Green Lock,” “Silvie: A Romance,” “In the Silence Room.” “Features of the Text” effectively renders a horror-provoking result of a guilty conscious, though even here, pulling back on the number of circumstances in which the phenomenal event occurs may have resulted in a more powerful, convincing tale. “Kiss Me Deadly On the Museum Island” is set in West and East Berlin and plays with the inclusion of noir elements of the GDR—spies, crossing borders, signing forced confessions, Checkpoint Charlie, the love interest wearing a forty year old suit when the narrator locates her in East Berlin. It is clever, but the metanarrative aspect of it is revealed late and one senses the joke not only on the narrator—”This is not real,” [he says]. “You are playing at – at all this. This fantasy of crime and detection and film noir” – but the reader as well. “Not in Gateshead Anymore” reveals itself to be, in the end, simply a horror story, though its structure is subtly informed by idea of the “double” which is presented in its story-within-the-story.
The last story “In the Duchy,” a dreamscape of a city in which people reside in reading books and only tangentially in the world, O’Brien reveals an end to the act of reading. The admission of the elusiveness of this end results in the most effective piece of the collection:
To be here is like belief, amid this routine of imminence: not now . . . not now . . . not now . . . but very soon a sign will be granted. It is not that things will be made clear but that they will express an authority which has until now been discreetly but entirely withheld.
“In the Duchy” is a lyric exploration of images, a travelogue of those who wonder and who are weary, both, of those who search, those bent on finding. It is not O’Brien’s response to Tarbucchi’s Requiem or to anyone else. One senses, in its poetic style, its lightness and play, the incomparable voice of Sean O’Brien at its most focused. Play is, after all, serious business.
Meg Sefton graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 2008 with an MFA in creative writing. Her short story “Deborah” has appeared in Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression. Meg lives in Florida with her husband, her son, and a very large Bouvier des Flanders, and since writing her last review for The Quarterly Conversation has acquired a Coton de Toulear.
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