Tuesday, 6 May 2014

A near-vampire in a mass of would-be zombies


Full title: Bullfighting
Author: Roddy Doyle
Genre: Fiction, short stories
Attributes: 224 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Viking Adult(2011)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Most stories in this collection are written in the tone and with the narrative intentions embraced by Roddy Doyle since the beginnings of his writing career. They are about the vagaries of working-class life in Irish urban settings, where people are often overwhelmed by solitude, where relationships are very mono-dimensional, and where the social course of events is worth as much as a stroll downtown or the reception of terrible news.
As can be concluded from his other works as well, Doyle’s characters are compulsive speakers. Even when they have nothing to say, they try to say it counterfeiting effortlessness, the way one would run a handycam through a crowd. Politics, health, immigration, marriage – all revolve around this incessant need of the characters to speak, which in essence is a need to repress their fear of action. This compulsive chatter is doubtless related to the existential problems most of these fictional people are facing. If I were to choose the worst thing that’s happening to them, I would have to highlight the plague of aging: “getting older, slower, tired, bored, useless.”
But.
Pressing as it may seem, this theme suffers from repetitiveness. Almost every story in Bullfighting has a character (at least) who looks back upon life with nostalgic frowns. Thirteen narratives, thirteen sad stories about inevitable things; so inevitable, they’re hardly sad (no chance at tragedy!); or narratively interesting, for that matter.
It’s precisely because of this repetitiveness that a story such as “Blood” stands out, refreshing in its unique oddity.  A character who doesn’t exactly quit the pattern of Doyle’s other characters in the collection (an anonymous Dubliner who hasn’t even developed a taste for Bram Stoker, by whose memorial house he walks almost every day), turns out to be a visceral bloodsucker, in the most literal sense of the word:
“Nevertheless, he wanted to drink blood.
Badly.
The badly was recent, and dreadful. The itch, the urge, the leaking tongue – it was absolutely dreadful.
He wasn’t sure when it had started. He was, though – he knew when he’d become aware.
– How d’you want your steak?
– Raw.”

(c) Jason Wilson
Read “Blood” alone and you get a different picture about Roddy Doyle. Here, the narrative is surprising; in the rest of the collection, it is predictable. Here, the protagonist finds regenerative virtues in his odd habit; in the rest of the collection, the characters are implacably muted by destiny. Here, there’s life sucked out of death; in the rest of the collection, death hovers over everything like a matron checking up on her fatalities and fining them – resigned.
“Blood” stood out well enough to make Neil Gaiman place it in the opening of his collection, Stories, published in 2011, the same year Bullfighting appeared in print.