(Photo: Grant Maiden Photography)
(Photo: Grant Maiden Photography)

BooksMarch 22, 2022

The subversive compassion of Vincent O’Sullivan

(Photo: Grant Maiden Photography)
(Photo: Grant Maiden Photography)

Emma Neale, something of a literary polymath herself, reviews Vincent O’Sullivan’s new short story collection Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques.

Confession: I started this collection wanting to race through the first six stories, to get to the novella and discover just exactly what the author had done with the tortured creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But of course, this is Vincent O’Sullivan, Mansfield scholar and literary polymath, so I should have known that those stories would mock my wish to skimp and skip. 

In each story, there is a novel’s worth of observation and nuance, flecked with the glinting mica of poetry and a cast of clear, distinct characters. In the novella, not only is there a similar novel’s-lode of insight, but also a bittersweet distillation and dramatisation of philosophical views and a limber, imaginative leap into a castaway narrative in its final section. 

O’Sullivan’s short fictions play with various time schemes: some travel an upwards, ever tightening arc of chronological narrative suspense; others, like ‘Good Form’, the first in the collection, telescope in and out of past and present, gradually spiralling in to crushing revelation. 

‘Good Form’, with its shadowy, laconic, yet prideful and supercilious father, slowly circles in to a central event in a brother and sister’s farm upbringing. A tale both of tragic religious mania and marital infidelity, it also exposes the difference between gossip – where events become a yarn to spin, a comic turn for the local community – and the reality of lived trauma, “the woundings of time”. For Andrew, the protagonist, the cyclical return of memory is so disabling that he almost has to schedule in periods of breakdown throughout his career. The way O’Sullivan finally steps into the historical crisis moment for Andrew is arrestingly skillful: the prose zeroes in, becoming highly visual, also full of assonance and internal rhyme:  

He hears what must be a bird or an animal even tangled in something, but no, birds don’t grieve like that. A high dense cry and then a drawn-out sound, a choked sound like something wanting to become words but unable to find them. He is struck with a feeling deeper than fright. As it comes again it is a cry that seems to drain colour from everything around him. He sees only a slowly billowed curtain lifting at the kitchen window. Everything else is so still.

The actions, sensations and psychological response all pool and pulse for the reader with the same intensity they have for the haunted man. There is a Grimm’s fairytale air, of an aging Hansel and Gretel united through the violence and madness they’ve witnessed: the final chords of the story become an understated testament to enduring sibling love.

Small speckles and colour-streaks of style characterise these stories: a use of incomplete sentences and gerunds (verbs that act as nouns: e.g. wounding, being, watching), and the present continuous. In ‘Good Form’ for example, this gives a sense of Andrew only being able to take remembrance in small doses. (“Being able to say so.” “The woundings of time.” “The habits of a lifetime.” “That is the way it is, as if like her weight, or her height. Describing her, but not defining.” “Going over changes nothing.”) In the novella, this “prose-mark” shaves off some of the formality of the omniscient voice, so it somehow seems like a mind talking to itself, lending a curious emotional richness to what might otherwise be a distanced, historical tone. 

Yet even with such shared genetic traits, the voice of each story arrives lively and individualised. So the voice in ‘The Walkers’, where the narrative presses shoulders close with Eric, a young man with an intellectual disability, would never be mistaken for the more removed literary pastiche in the first two parts of the novella ‘Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques’. Likewise, the voice that flickers between the scholar, Mandy, and her teenage daughter Louise in ‘The Young Girl’s Story’ has subtle tonal differences from the characters in ‘Splinters’. O’Sullivan’s skill, in fact, is that even with an individual character, the tone darts and scuds, floats and sometimes sinks below the sunlight zone, following the fluctuating perceptions of that singular mind. The tension and action of a story is found in this internal psychological movement as much as it is in the jolts and gasps of plot: and yet nearly all the stories here also have “tellable” narratives: the dramatic, sometimes horrific, events you could recount if someone asks, What happened?

Cover of the book; shows an icy landscape in greens, blue and grey, slightly Cubist/stylised, with a hulking male figure walking away across the rocks.
Cover art is by Sarah Wilkins (Image: Supplied)

Literary tradition echoes from many of the stories, as if we’re walking past a cathedral and strains of high and plangent hymns drift out. I can see the roseate windows, catch some words, some references, but I certainly can’t grasp every allusion nor in-joke. (The store, D’Arcy’s, in ‘Good Form’, for example, which includes guns and sexual derring-do: does it refer to early 1900s poet Walter D’Arcy Cresswell, who was shot when he threatened to expose another man’s sexuality? It seems a stretch, yet the name stands out in a local literary context — and so much in O’Sullivan’s work responds to tradition, that I feel as if something dangles here on invisible wires.) 

There is a geeky delight in spotting or speculating over some things: the way the title ‘The Young Girl’s Story’ slyly fuses two Katherine Mansfield titles (‘A Married Man’s Story’ and ‘The Young Girl’); its exploration of academic conferences, inventing an author called Manson as the field of expertise (so close to Mansfield it’s as if the author deliberately short circuits any nerdy sleuthing); the fact the story unfolds, as Mansfield could, the way young women aren’t only vulnerable but may use their sexuality with varying degrees both of self-awareness and consequence. This story captures ruthless, narcissistic academic ambition and materialism, and is an acidulous, skewering observation of disconnection between a mother and daughter: an observation which also informs ‘Splinters’.

‘Splinters’ subverts expectations of a sort of “poor old dear”: the cosy corner to which the daughter and son-in-law want to relegate Emily, the pensioner protagonist. Instead, the story leaves an impression of a spider-like mind, waiting in the eaves, although Emily’s possibly most lacerating observations are of her own past. 

The story moves from Emily’s sardonic dismissal of her sister, through various moods, to her own determination to confront and be confronted by her past: “Memory was Stonehenge from a choice of angles. It was there and you were here […] The exhilaration, if you had the nerve to face it, of knowing exactly where you were […] But once we get it straight – it’s where we sit in judgement on ourselves.”

One pivotal memory for Emily is of a sexual peccadillo – and yet betrayal isn’t the concept she hits on: unless, perhaps, it’s for the way the unbidden, wild moment reveals self-deception. Such indiscretions are both “fragments of history, of what is really oneself” and yet also ‘as if it were a fragment of time from other lives, but not their own”: as if their real lives are not fully lived, only glimpsed, in almost frightening, asocial, or at least taboo slivers: the animal and sexual taking over in silence, the lack of discussion afterwards perhaps the strangest, most disconcerting thing. Emily’s variegated tones – sardonic, unconcerned about consequences, warm and sparkly, ruminative, fiercely aware she only accesses authentic aspects of herself intermittently – create a character who has few illusions about herself, and who is thrillingly three-dimensional.

Subtle striations of internal character always appear in what O’Sullivan has recently called his “social commentary realism”. Yet in the titles published here, he also plays with the more dramatic twist in the tail, the gothic tale of horror and mystery. Both the eponymous story and ‘Ko tēnei, ko tēnā’ offer all the robust joys of a strong narrative spine. ‘Ko tēnei, ko tēnā’ pivots on Mason, a young scurrilous, priapic scion of a so-called gentleman (in reality, a slave-owner, sinner against humanity). The son becomes a sort of self-selecting remittance man, who deliberately violates the cultural boundaries both of his own European circle, and of Māori tikanga, aiming to outrage and titillate in a weird, disturbing power play and a fetishistic act of dubious trade then gift-giving. His total failure to read the undercurrents running between the women he is supposedly closest to, and his taste for sexual and cultural exploitation, results in a ghastly comeuppance: the “plot shock” had me staring at the page in the right kind of disbelief. Not disbelief in the author’s choice, but as if stunned by a blow to the head, the assault instrument being character action. 

Portrait of a woman – emphasis is on her glowing skin and strong gaze; she wears a black off the shoulder gown, hair pulled back and no jewellery.
Mary Shelley, aged about 43 (Portrait: Richard Rothwell; Photo: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

O’Sullivan’s brooding sport with the 19th-century gothic resurfaces in the title novella. The name given here to the monster – Jean-Jacques – nods to Rousseau, the philosopher who believed that uncorrupted morals were only possible in the natural state, away from the decadence of society. We see how Jean-Jacques, Frankenstein’s resuscitated, patchwork cadaver, becomes the center for a subliminal tussle over competing “civilised” views when he is rescued from the ice by Captain Francis Sharpe and his younger relative, Lieutenant Richard Jackson – who are sailing from pole to pole, on an adventure “merely to show it might be done”. 

I mentioned the potential game of spot-the-allusion earlier; and yet it doesn’t matter if the reader can’t translate, or even see the references. In some instances, memory of the original source might even hinder. I reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before plunging into this collection and briefly got hung up on how, in O’Sullivan’s version, the monster seems to discover the concept of God after his rescue from the ice. Yet in Frankenstein, the golem reads Milton’s Paradise Lost, and begs Dr Frankenstein, movingly, “I was alone. I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart I cursed him.” Once I accepted that Sullivan’s scene is essentially laying out the differences in philosophy between the Christian captain and enlightenment, science-enthused lieutenant, I settled down, feeling a bit like the foaming twit who stands up immediately after the seat belt signs light up on a plane. (Just trust the pilot: he’s an expert.) 

Another element I initially banged the shin of my brain against, smarting and asking, How the hell did that get there? revealed itself as a brilliant, sly joke when I mulled it over (while out running, under native trees: perhaps Rousseau would say, of course that’s when the franc dropped). The captain comes across the novel Frankenstein on a stopover in the ship’s travels. The book is soon treated as biographical fact: horrifying empirical evidence of Jean-Jacques’ past violence and true nature. Initially I couldn’t figure out why a work of fiction was seen this way by Captain Sharpe, it seemed a weirdly illogical metafictional loop. Why not have the crew come across a newspaper report of the creature, perhaps written by Walton, the captain who hears Victor Frankenstein’s story in Shelley’s novel? Then I realised, Sharpe’s entire world view is built around the Bible: his reality is founded on powerful, intractable myth. Of course he’d read a novel and treat it as gospel. 

Throughout the novella, there are enlivening details about shipboard life. The creature’s gradual education in facts and feelings, the self-questioning he arrives at, are poignantly unfolded, and the theories that his dubious rescuers come to, about what this “almost man’ might be” sleekly convey the general spirit of an era.

In the original novel, the monster longs for Frankenstein to make him a companion. There’s a beautiful, joyous, poignant fulfilment of this desire in the final part of O’Sullivan’s novella, where suddenly the formal Victorian prose falls away and the narrative has a fresh energy and clarity, as if to emphasise how Jean-Jacques has escaped the stiffness, reserve and evasions of 19th-century mores and manners. There’s a suppleness, a sensuousness, a deepening and sharpening of feeling as Jean-Jacques meets Va in the wilderness of Te Waipounamu. 

I love the way the novella gives the monster what he so desperately wanted in Shelley’s book;  the gentle development of the relationship is remarkable, moving, and so carefully visualised it feels filmic. Yet because of the ongoing activities of colonisation, and the nature of decades passing, a chill seep of foreboding still arrives in the South Seas idyll of love between two lost and outcast souls. The closure is plangent, yearning, sorrowful, yet beautiful; the last line both echoing yet reversing the final line of Mansfield’s ‘The Man Without a Temperament’ (which O’Sullivan has written and talked about so eloquently elsewhere). 

In both stories, the single word of dialogue spoken by the male partner in the final lines carries layered resonances. In Mansfield’s, it has a dark and icy, even vindictive blow. In O’Sullivan’s, the last word spoken is loving, if poignantly undercut by our knowledge of time. The almost-man has an almost-happy ending; and O’Sullivan’s gifts have given us a monster with such an empathetic temperament that I wager many readers would far rather shack up under a stone bivvy with Jean-Jacques than sit in desperate silence with Mansfield’s repressed, monosyllabic Richard Salesby. In fact, by the end of the novella, most readers will find that Jean-Jacques – driven only by others’ cruelty to violence – has become a fuller-feeling, more generous, compassionate and noble man than many “of woman born”. O’Sullivan remains one of Aotearoa’s most intriguing, erudite, bold, eloquent and subversively compassionate writers.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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