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L.P. Hartley once said that the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. For the mostly nameless women in the eight stories which make up Nicole Flattery’s debut, Show Them A Good Time, the present seems like a foreign country. The collection is full of young women, often from rural Ireland. They struggle to find meaning as they disappear into the landscape of whichever city they find themselves in—be it Dublin, Paris, or New York. They are, all of them, like fall characters, pushed out onto the stage before they’ve had a chance to read their lines.
Flattery has been publishing some of these stories in The Stinging Fly and elsewhere since 2015. She goes straight for the jugular in each one, managing to be both flatly and darkly hilarious, whilst also being quietly devastating. The worlds are the familiar made strange—damaged relationships; college life; loneliness; unfulfilled ambition; awkward social guessing. Flattery doesn’t allow her characters any easy resolve, any Joycean epiphanies. When each story comes to an end, the characters are still traipsing towards oblivion.
When each story comes to an end, the characters are still traipsing towards oblivion.
What is perhaps most impressive about this debut is the degree of control Flattery exercises with her prose. She knows that great writing lives and dies by its sentences. She has remarked in interviews that she wants her sentences—and, I suspect, by extension, her paragraphs—to breathe. There are no superfluous words, no unnecessary exposition. However, there is throughout an almost too-real vulnerability hiding behind each of the tightly packed sentences.
In “Parrot,” which is about a married woman in Paris and her relationship with her step-son, we learn that she has had—like most of the women in this collection—many failed relationships. Describing the after effects of one particular breakup: “He moved his stuff out and she continued doing the scrambling necessary to staying alive; working two jobs in the city, her personality dissolving into small talk. The cost of travel, the cost of lunch, the cost of being young.” What we are left with, in most of these stories, are haunting impressions of confusion, faint and unsentimental emanations of loneliness.
He moved his stuff out and she continued doing the scrambling necessary to staying alive; working two jobs in the city, her personality dissolving into small talk. The cost of travel, the cost of lunch, the cost of being young.
Though Flattery’s great strength seems to lie, to me at least, in her descriptions of anomic city life, she manages to nail the small-town bizarre. As someone who grew up in the countryside and spent his summers as a teenager working in a petrol station in the middle of nowhere, the titular story, about a young woman who spends her days working at a petrol station, as part of some vaguely purgatorial state-sponsored training scheme, was painfully familiar. Think Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage, rewritten by Kafka, or Jen George. Flattery describes the town as being famous “amongst people with carsickness. It was here they stood retching and spewing before moving on somewhere better.” Similarly, in “Parrot,” the protagonist and her mother, on their first visit to Paris, are described as women who “knew dirt, country roads, had learned to make conversation in corner shops. Confronted, finally, by glamour, by seriousness, they did everything wrong. They went to the wrong bars, the wrong restaurants, the wrong streets. She wasn’t sure they saw Paris at all, neither of them exactly clear on what a holiday was.”
Think Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage, rewritten by Kafka, or Jen George.
I doubt any synopsis of “Track,” the most oft discussed story in the collection, will ever do it justice. It tells the story of a young woman from Ireland, who moves to New York and becomes a human dartboard for her once successful boyfriend, an angry and neurotic comedian. Perhaps the most tonally controlled of the collection, the story, which won the White Review 2017 Short Story Prize, moves between hilarity and brutality in an instant, with the protagonist almost vanishing off the page by the story’s end.
The longest and most experimental of the collection, “Abortion, A Love Story,” is about two students at Trinity. Natasha and Lucy meet while Natasha is having dinner with an older professor with whom she spends hours learning about everything from Baudrillard to Bunuel. The two students then go on to write, direct and perform a bizarre play about their lives to an audience of ten people. I’m paying the story the highest compliment when I say that it makes sense that Flattery’s favourite play is The Walworth Farce by Enda Walsh.
It is promising to see such a refreshingly strange debut collection of short stories being published and doing so well.
It is promising to see such a refreshingly strange debut collection of short stories being published and doing so well. Few writers are brave enough to take confusion and instability as their subject matter. Fewer again deal with it as determinedly, or interestingly, as Flattery does. If this collection is anything to go by, Flattery’s second book, a novel set in and around Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1970’s New York, should be something to look forward to. With Show Them A Good Time, Flattery has earned herself an eager audience who will be happy to follow her, wherever she chooses to take them next.