Review | Prosperity Drive by Mary Morrissy

Morrissy’s eighteen stories in this volume called Prosperity Drive might initially strike one as an ‘exploded novel’, or ‘a novel in fragments’, both methods of interpretation being suggested rather helpfully on the back of the book for any prospective reader who picks up the collection in a store and curiously reads what it is about. But Morrissy’s game is deep. The author’s intentions are subtler, more intelligent and darker than an idea of a clever fragmented narrative structure or the dubious notion of some type of usurpation of a Raymond Carver/James Joyce approach to storytelling.

There are many chance encounters that resonate throughout the book with endless ripple-like consequences. It could be viewed as either a novel or indeed as a collection of short stories. I would view it as a kind of hybrid of the two, with the book being offered as a short story collection by the author. These stories radiate out from or are interconnected with the street called Prosperity Drive, which itself has its own kind of irony as the story is set during a time in Irish history, from the 1960s onwards, when the Irish economy was not experiencing the kinds of growth as it is now, despite our recent historical economic setback in the late 2000s.

Within the multiple narratives, people meet by chance or intention. People prey on each other, love each other, hate each other, fight and marry and leave each other, and travel to all four quarters of the planet without losing that thin thread of connection we call our history. This is a case of business as usual in ordinary life. But wait, there is more. There is an underlying structure here beyond the notion of the serendipitious driving the characters to act and react with a kind of conditioned reflex to life’s vicissitudes. In these stories we are told things indirectly. Morrissy, by the laying of subtle clues as to personal biographies or in fragmentary explanations of relationships or in the mentioning of intentions that have by life been thwarted, or indeed in writing how people met or failed to meet, shows rather than explains how we are all irrevocably connected.

 we are left with the urge to go back and read the book again as so many layers of meaning and possible interpretations co exist inside the tome

The irony of Prosperity Drive is despite its ostensible fragmentary structure, it is all about connections, as a map showing distance, space, depth and height shows clearly all the complex linkages and places and invites us to explore the matter further. This gives the book not simply readability, but re-readability. Here the notion of geography informing our identity is explored, how the notion of home as the space we love and hate and needs to ultimately be reconciled with, for home has both made us and hurt us, and the inescapable truth of all that I am has been hewn into the rough surfaces of our early selves because of a chance of geography, history, genetics, and the choices both made by us and for us.

“Hugh was, just at the moment, sort of separated. Marriage, he had discovered much to his secret relief, was a revolving door… though he had never believed it to be a permanent state.” (p 91)

Thus one of the most effective ways of telling how it is for humanity is not simply a single direct narrative with accompanying plot developments, crisis points and a dovetailed resolution that gives a measure of psychological satisfaction, what one might call a rather momentary stimulation of the frontal lobes. No. Something special is called to tell it how it is, and Morrissy employs a musical motif to show how it is.

prosperity-coverIn the reality that is represented in Prosperity Drive, as art is a place where reality writ large is displayed, multiple narratives emerge very early on in the book. All of these lives are connected to and radiating out from Prosperity Drive as a theme that is both played against itself but also played in counterpoint against itself. Prosperity Drive is akin to a Canon, or perhaps more accurately, a Fugue. In music a fugue is a device whereby a phrase or theme – a contrapuntal composition – is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts into a whole. In Prosperity Drive the theme of identity and its evolution, or indeed its dissolution, is played out both in tandem or in counterpoint following a fixed delay within the notion of the effects of time, geography, genetics and choices on a particular life or lives. The effect of this technique makes for exquisite reading, especially in the hands of a writer like Morrissy, whose economy of prose and choice of metaphor never makes the narrative stodgy or laden with any kind of minefield of overwrought intellectualisms, something that could easily happen. The repetition of theme is an endless source of possibilities in Prosperity Drive, possibilities that echo in the mind and imagination afterwards.

We read of a maze of lives both lived and possible lives that might have been lived. We live in questions in this book. The question what if lingers everywhere. Every member of every possible social strata has a voice here. Each voice speaks of their loves and lives, their dreams and agonies and losses.

And the questions. So many.There are so many unanswered questions, all of whom remain perhaps ultimately unanswerable. Like the secret questions we all ask about our lives and of the lives of others, the answer is there is no answer. There are questions that define us, questions like wounds that still hurt, or like scars that have sort of healed, but you still feel the old ghosts haunting your every action and intention. More Prosperity Drive questions:  What if that sordid and beautiful love affair had worked out? What if the creepy mechanic hadn’t manipulated the girl into giving him a handjob on her first date? Who are we apart from our past? Here are a few from the book, which is a kind of matrix of questions:

Why did Quinny the maid kill herself?

“But the dead maid remained lodged in Irene’s mind … Even years afterwards, and with another new baby in the house, Owen still called the nursery Quinny’s room.” (p 87)

What if the pedophile ex-cleric hadn’t lingered in the little girl’s dressing room?

“’Can’t you see there are children here?’ She demanded, placing a protective manacle on the shoulder of the one who had caught him out … ‘Very sorry, Ma’am,’ he answered…” (p.21)

Then there is the question of the little girl, Ruth, getting music lessons from a blind piano teacher. Then she gets a classmate who can’t read. Ruth doesn’t help her illiterate fellow student Bridget, who is more gifted and had perfect pitch. She is envious of her fellow student’s superior gifts, and there is the issue of ethnicity. Bridget is a member of the Travelling Community.

“FIAEVI SJ XLI HSK!

This is how the world appears to the illiterate” (p.29)

Then Bridget quits her free lessons out of shame at her disability, thus ruining her chances of a career, an action that leads Ruth to later on in life teach illiterate people to read and write, mainly out of a guilt she can’t get out of her system. What if she hadn’t been so jealous? The question haunts her life.

There are so many unanswered questions in Prosperity Drive, all of whom remain perhaps ultimately unanswerable. Like the secret questions we all ask about our lives and of the lives of others, the answer is there is no answer. There are questions that define us, questions like wounds that still hurt, or like scars that have sort of healed, but you still feel the old ghosts haunting your every action and intention.

From this exploration of themes, this repetition in different lives of the same effects and choices, new vistas and possibilities of narratives emerge, some fully detailed and others merely touched upon, the fugue builds until we are left with the urge to go back and read the book again as so many layers of meaning and possible interpretations co exist inside the tome.

The questioning process in  Prosperity Drive, I would suggest, is not exactly an infinite regress. It can’t be, not in the realm of human behaviour. We are here dealing in the realm of the paranoid, psychologic rather than the cold arctic realm of clear lucid logic. All questions lead to one question – who am I in this life? Answering this is the task of becoming a person.

It becomes clear that from this notion of the self, at once moored to history and equally desperate to escape the nightmare of it (to crib James Joyce for a moment), effects each of the people in Prosperity Drive. They struggle constantly to move away from all and any restrictions and to defy the chains of their history, to become something other than the narrow confines of the past, to fulfill themselves, to dream outwards and blossom into a wholeness that is both impossible and yet the very calling of what it is to be a human being.

Morrissy succeeds in creating a deeply moving work here, one that remains in the mind and the heart, a work of great subtlety and depth, a truly Irish book with a sweeping international feel, a work that asks the big questions and yet these questions are asked with the wisdom necessary to see that for some questions the answers are too daunting to do anything more than raise them and continue to raise them and lead readers and other writers to the doorway of moral choice.

  • Prosperity Drive, by Mary Morrissy (Jonathan Cape, £12.99). A copy can be ordered here. Her short story, ‘The Children of Lar’, is the current entry in HeadStuff’s Fortnightly Fiction series.

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