You have to start by clearing away the necessary caveats. The 84-year-old Edna O’Brien writes like an angel. Despite her regular publication in such outlets as the New Yorker, she is less of a star in the United States than in Great Britain, where she remains a fêted, glamorous figure. Still, she is certainly known in America, winner of such things as the Los Angeles Times book award and widely celebrated by reviewers. As well she deserves to be. The work in the 528 pages of her new volume, The Love Object: Selected Stories, proves a unique combination of a delicate imagery almost akin to Anton Chekhov’s and a raunchy openness about sex almost akin to James Joyce’s.
If Erica Jong were less self-obsessed and could actually write well, this is what she would want to write. There’s a hint of William Trevor’s Irish grimness in the background to these stories, a touch of Flann O’Brien’s Irish madness, and more than a bit of Virginia Woolf’s sensitivity to the stream of women’s consciousness. From the heartbreaking opening story, "Irish Revel," to the comic "Tough Men" and on to the musings in the closing story, "Old Wounds," The Love Object demonstrates just how good Edna O’Brien is.
She’s so good, in fact, that praise for her writing serves merely as the throat clearing that needs to be gotten out of the way. With lesser talents, maybe, that’s where we would stop. But Edna O’Brien requires an answer to the question of why her work isn’t quite as satisfying as it promises it will be. She’s good enough that we need to ask what’s wrong.
It’s sex, unfortunately, that leaves O’Brien stranded on the ground she has so carefully claimed for herself. The writing is driven by sexual desire, aimed at sexual fulfillment, and bulked up with sexual activity. Her female characters don’t reject the male principle—they embrace it: "All the things that I loved up to then, like glass or lies, mirrors and feathers, and pearl buttons, and silk, and willow trees, became secondary compared with what he’d done," as a women describes an adulterous encounter in "The Love Object," the collection’s title story. There’s an anger in O’Brien about everything that keeps women from the orgasmic completion of life they need in her stories: small-town small-mindedness, self-destructive fears, the Church, the unattainability of sexually attractive men. And there’s a gradually developing sense that even with all the apparent obstacles stripped away, the mystical medicine of perfect sex still isn’t easy to find.
The anger was always there. O’Brien was born in 1930 in County Clare, Ireland, a place she despised, to strict, religious, and anti-literary parents, whom she also despised. Trained as a pharmacist, she married an Irish writer named Ernest Gébler and fled with him to London, where she eventually found work as a reader for a publishing house. Her reports on manuscripts were clever and perceptive enough that the publishers commissioned her to write her own fiction—and the result was her breakthrough Country Girls trilogy of novels, published from 1960 to 1964.
Her parents, along with everyone else in her hometown, hated her picture of their lives, and much of the rest of Ireland denounced the sex-driven books. In England, however, the Irish overreaction made her seem the D.H. Lawrence of a new age: a celebrity heroine of the impending sexual revolution. Over the next 50 years, a string of thirteen novels, eight short-story collections, a memoir, and a pair of literary studies followed, establishing her as a permanent member of the British literary establishment.
Sometimes even O’Brien’s erotic fascinations seem driven by the anger she still feels about her Irish childhood. Sex is a tool of rebellion, breaking down the corrupt, vile structures of the past, and with all that old evil gone, we are finally free to . . . well, have sex. Which will free us from . . . um, the hindrances to sex. And if we’re not thereby made fully happy, then there must be yet more evils preventing the human fulfillment that sex promises—and we must rebel against those by, you know, having sex. Edna O’Brien’s rage at the stultification of small-town Irish life ends, at last, in rage at the insoluble stultifications of human existence itself.
Still, what a writer she is. The early story "Irish Revel" is often anthologized in best-story collections, with good reason. It tells the story of a 17-year-old named Mary who has escaped her repressive home life for an evening, bicycling into town to attend a rich girl’s party where she plans to meet the older man she hopes to make her lover. The heartbreak Mary finds, though, is that she’s been invited to the party less as a guest and more as unpaid maid. She ends up teased by the girls and pawed by the drunken male guests, and her fantasy lover is revealed as a married man barely aware of her existence. And at the end she has to bicycle back to the claustrophobic "little white box at the end of the world" that is her parents’ house.
O’Brien’s "The Rug" is even more beautifully constructed—a small masterpiece about a farm woman to whom a beautiful rug is delivered. The anonymous gift adds a previously missing flare to everything in her life. The front room is brightened and made "suddenly cosy." She and her daughter have happy conversations about who their benefactor might be. The world seems turned into a lovely, mysterious place—until she learns that the rug was misdelivered, never meant for her, and the actual owner comes to reclaim it. "‘We live and learn,’" she says at the story’s end, "as she undid her apron strings, out of habit, and then retied them slowly and methodically, making a tighter knot."
There’s little more you could want from a short story. Little more, that is, if the world is an essentially unhappy place, and nothing in human existence, not even Edna O’Brien’s beloved sex, is able to provide the human fulfillment for which she hungers. One by one, these are great stories, greatly written. In sum, however, they are just a little too sad—sad and just a little unsatisfying.
Published under: Book reviews