Pictures by Goya and Other Stories
In the title story of Vincent O’Sullivan’s collection Pictures by Goya, two characters find themselves in an awkward position. They have been carrying on an adulterous affair when the husband of the woman is discovered to have a serious illness. For a while it seems he might even die. Then, suddenly, there is an unlooked-for reversal. The treatments have been successful; it appears, after all, that he will live. No one wants to confess to disappointment, but there it is. It is as though the wind had failed or a cloud had passed over the sun. The mood of their lives has changed.
Many of the stories in this collection have this feeling, a drift toward isolation and dismay. It’s not that the events themselves are not dramatic, they are. A woman dies falling out of a train; another is exposed as a fraud and a poseur; there are adulteries by the score; men and women, both, are abandoned by the people that they love. But between the characters and these traumatic events there is a kind of space or veil, “like one of those transparencies that were sometimes stuck to windows so you looked through the lines and distortions of one scene before you saw whatever it was that was there, on the other side.”
Few, if any, of the characters are what one might be tempted to call happy, but few are truly miserable either. Mostly they are fine, as in “I’m fine with that”, which is to say, OK. This feeling of suspended emotion strikes me as one of the most remarkable aspects of the book. It is not a matter of coldness or disinterest; there is a searingly honest intelligence here at work and no tendency to shy away from pain. It is, rather, as though all this life, this turmoil, were being viewed at a distance, as though the perceiving consciousness, both that of the author and the characters themselves, were drawing back, away from the moil and toil.
Take, for instance, a story called “One Ordinary Thursday”. A man is confronted with the news that his wife is having an affair with a friend’s husband. The woman who tells him this (whose husband is the one involved in the affair) is in a fury. But he, as it turns out, already knows and has given the arrangement, if not his blessing, then at least his consent. Now that the affair is out in the open, he realises that everything will change:
He thought of the numerous Sunday lunches and their easy, leisurely talking on the sundeck as the afternoon declined. They would never be like that again, the four of them. There was something so finally ended, and yet the thought of that did not disturb him much. It was there his mind hovered, on how he should have been more moved than he was.
Sometimes, as in “One Ordinary Thursday”, this feeling of distance is part of a character’s make-up or point of view, but often it is a function of the fact that the turning point or critical moment is already in the past. It is “the memory we sometimes carried in us like a splinter that couldn’t be removed.” A lawyer, waiting for his client in “Not Always, Mrs Woolf”, remembers the jacaranda blossoms on the shoulders of a woman who left him and never returned. A woman in “Photos, to Begin With” is haunted by the memory of a man who committed suicide after being falsely accused of flashing a teenage girl. In “Table for Three”, a long-standing friendship among three couples is blasted apart by the sudden return of a man who once meant something to each of the women:
Afterwards Paula remembered … a story about tourists in Greece. The details were lost but the gist of it came back to her. Cultivated English tourists in a grove somewhere or other, and the veneer of civilisation crazing and shattering as the old god came among them, Pan descending and throwing them into turmoil, none of them understanding why. Their own evening turned to something like that.
As in so many of these stories, the crux of the matter in “Table for Three”, the turn or hinge between the present and the past, is signalled by the use of an unusual word. Speaking of the man in question, who has returned to New Zealand with a Japanese wife, one of the husbands says, “Racist I am not … but whatever he was with was – well, positively simian.” Paula “had been watching a lone star pulsing brighter by the minute above the hills across the harbour. Then Tommy stupidly said that, and their world turned a corner.”
There were times, as I read this book, when it irritated me, this poet’s or playwright’s preoccupation with words. There are places in almost every story in which a character speaks in someone else’s argot, or uses a word that is foreign or too young, or too affected, and then catches himself (or is caught by the author) in the act. “If only,” John said. A phrase he had picked up from the teenagers next door.” Or “[T]hey were not in the least what Fran, so consciously using a word that was in … would now describe as an ‘item’.” Or “Dad had known the same pilot and even shared what he called ‘digs’ with him.” As if it were not enough to just use the words, but necessary to reference them.
It occurred to me, though, as I went along that these were not merely tics or gratuitous gestures, but clues to the undercurrents in these stories and that they hinted (as we might say in New England) at places where the ice was thin. There is an example of this in what might be my favorite story in the collection, one called “Family Unit”, that manages to suggest at once the closeness of families and the ways in which they are, inevitably, made up of units, existentially speaking. Ted and Bernice and their two children have arrived at their holiday motel in Taranaki. There Bernice rediscovers an old friend, while the children head off to sniff out new adventures. Ted, who cannot quite figure out what do with himself:
tried to look jolly even as he realised that he had never used that word in his life about anything. Jolly for Christ’s sake! He’d no more use it than Bernice would say “leering it up”, and yet that had happened too. He disliked everything about what was going on.
And yet it’s never as bad as we think it’s going to be. As they drive away from the motel the next day, after a night of spectacular chaos, “the brown placid expanse of river lay to the right of the car, while over there to the left, Ted imagined the turmoil of the river water meeting with the sea.” That is the exactly the sort of place O’Sullivan would leave us, not between a rock and a hard place (thought at times that may be how it feels), but between the river and the sea.
Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review.