Book Review: Unbecoming (Mike O’Driscoll)
Unbecoming is, to the best of my knowledge, Mike O’Driscoll’s first collection, and Elastic Press have done a sterling job bringing his unflinching examinations of humanity’s sinister aspects and fears to print. Reading the thirteen stories contained within it’s obvious that O’Driscoll has been ready for a book like this for some time. A common flaw with many single-author collections is inconsistency of thematic subject matter, a problem aggravated when writers have yet to settle into their own distinct voice. O’Driscoll deftly dodges these bullets with his memorable style and focus on a number of core concerns. Many of Unbecoming’s tales address the concept of identity and the extent to which it is transient and can be lost. Obsession is another recurrent theme, and to an extent so too is the importance of the act of creation over the artefact produced. What we do makes us who we are, not how we define ourselves.
The collection begins with ‘We Will Not Be Here Yesterday’, the story of a controversial avant-garde artist told through quotes from fans and critics, excerpts from reviews, transcribed segments of interviews, and so forth. The story is inherently disjointed, moving around its central conceit at a significant remove, and it is not until the very end that the pieces fall into place. The reveal is foreshadowed, not telegraphed, and its sinister, surrealist impact is not weakened by the opaque academese and art-critic lingo that precedes it.
A later story which also addresses art is ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’. This one leans into SF territory, being about a world in which artists only reproduce works in the style of past masters: the artworks are new, but the modes are old. Ironically this is all thanks to the workings of something called the DADA machine. The tale’s youthful protagonist encounters an older artist by the name of Eric Kemper, a onetime pioneer of abstract expressionism who has old-fashioned ideas about art:
“Art is an act of creation that takes place in the imagination. […] Anything else, paint, canvas, words on a page, a performance, they’re all extraneous, tools to pin art down. Just like DADA machines cage the art of the dead. Before that comes an act of imaginative creation. If you don’t understand that, you have no right to call yourself an artist.”
Kemper believes that art exists solely in the mind; that everything else is merely an externalisation, a representation of true art. Through the juxtaposition of his “archaic” ideas with the slick commodities produced by the DADA machine, the story explores the uneasily chiasmatic nature of the art industry’s twin aspects, these being commerce and art. Ultimately the story takes the reader to an unexpected but not unpleasant conclusion – possibly one of the few optimistic endings in the collection, although ambiguity remains at the forefront.
There’s only so much that can be written about art – the old aphorism that writing about music is like dancing about architecture is partially applicable here. Of course art does speak broadly of identity, both of the artist and the viewer, and as I have already noted identity is one of the collection’s dominant themes. The second story in Unbecoming is ‘Shadow’, an unsettling tale about an ad man who appears to be losing his life – quite literally fading from it after narrowly escaping death. He is angered that people so quickly forget a dead colleague, but despite remaining alive his fate is similar. ‘Shadow’ is a sinister take on the way human beings, especially those integrated into social hierarchies like modern businesses, so quickly let go of the past and paper over the cracks that people slip through. This can seem a terrible and petrifying fate when one is defined primarily by such characterless roles.
‘In The Darkening Green’ tells us the story of a band of orphans in the near-future, who live and are raised at the unconvincingly-named “Happy Kidz” orphanarium orphanage. The story focuses on the cruelties of a child’s life in which the most obvious constant is absence. As in ‘Shadow’ O’Driscoll converts metaphor into literal truth, as the children who leave forget their past lives. The story also comments on consumerism and what children are encouraged to desire, as characters learn to value “nice things” over their friends, becoming themselves commodified. Towards the end of the story there’s a twist on the innocence of childhood, with what I took to have a sexual connotation. This fits the critique of the manipulation of childhood innocence, but while it functions thematically it feels out of place in this story, failing to bring with it a sense of danger or threat or indeed tie in particularly well with the already-established plot.
The eponymous ‘Unbecoming’ is next, treading the dangerous ground of a story about a writer. Fortunately O’Driscoll is true to form, putting an original and disquieting spin on the concept. The protagonist, author Les Steiner, beats his writer’s block through the use of a pseudonym, but soon finds that his stories are being credited to a third name that is not of his invention. This avalanche grows in intensity and soon both his invented and real identities are threatened with burial.
“…I tried different parameters, entering the title of my first novel, City of Dreams. The author came up as Sonny Powell. Time slowed until it seemed I was caught in a fugue. My fingers typed in the words Ghost Dance and I wondered how Lee Falconer could have written the same book. Fred Ewing, the author of my third novel, Eye Teeth, was as unfamiliar to me as Trenton or Sporlender.”
This story can also be read as a sly criticism of authors who seek to ‘escape’ their genre routes out of hubris and arrogance. Appropriately, O’Driscoll originally published this story under a pseudonym.
The volume’s penultimate tale, ‘Evelyn Is Not Real’, adopts a rare female perspective. Its protagonist, Grace, recently lost her husband but is settling into a relationship as the story begins. Ray Dunbar, her new lover, “was in movies”. He tells her that she reminds him of someone he knew from working on a film, a woman named Evelyn. Grace and Ray watch the film in which he and Evelyn co-starred, a strange and ethereal noir movie that changes upon each viewing. Each time the relationship between the protagonists is redefined, and this seeps through to affect the watchers. It is the unfortunate Grace who ultimately plays the role of victim.
This leads us nicely into O’Driscoll’s third primary concern, that of damaged people and flawed or fractured relationships. ‘The Hurting House’ focuses on the broken relationships intersecting a love triangle. Both of the men involved seem to be defined by the third party, a woman named Maddy. The narrator, one of the two male parties, says he feels “his life is on hold” since losing Maddy. His counterpart, the previously self-assured Richard who until recently enjoyed Maddy’s affections, seems utterly broken by his recent loss. He turns to the narrator as someone who he feels will understand his pain. The answer to the question of what happened to Maddy, who does not directly appear, is hinted at but never revealed. Oh, and there’s an ironic reference to Les Steiner of ‘Unbecoming’, which may amuse.
In ‘Sounds Like’, middle-aged Larry works as a supervisor in a call centre. He monitors calls to oversee employee performance, but most of all he treasures the silence between switching calls. This obsession with silence eventually overwhelms his concern for his family, leading to a rapid succession of very dark tragedies.
‘Rare Promise’ explores another love triangle, this one between several reunited friends. The protagonist, Vinnie, experienced sexual abuse as a child, and through his repression of these events came to understand them as a lesson in the mechanisms of power that are inherent in relationships. This informs his later actions as he is presented with a choice between a hopeful future and a false return to the imagined innocence of his youth.
Another detached protagonist features in ‘If I Should Wake Before I Die’; its narrator “learned not to feel”, and has come to understand the world through radio call-in shows and other third-hand sources. A damaged sociopath, he lacks empathy and is angered by change, fixated instead on replaying the past. However, he is also curious about whether other creatures feel. As this strand of thought permeates through his revisited memories he struggles to gain some fragment of humanity, to feel and understand loss. It’s a mean kind of redemption, to be sure, but it would be a struggle to make this character less sympathetic over the course of the story.
O’Driscoll takes a different tack in ‘Hello Darkness’, this time deploying a narrator who is intrigued by detachment to the point of deriving sexual attraction from it. He’s damaged goods himself, of course; an ex-child TV star living in L.A., dragging around a mannequin named Dolores. His relationship with his father is a poor one, but it’s a relationship he can’t break away from, as his father doubles as his agent, paying him to “stay away” and out of trouble.
His life takes a turn as he encounters a heroin-addicted prostitute working under the moniker Lulu and quickly becomes fixated on this unfortunate woman. She soon wises up to his game, observing that he only “acts out the emptiness instead of making it real.” She claims that her own detachment is an act for tricks, and that the heroin is a tool and not an end in itself. Despite this he senses something deeper and sadder in Lulu. ‘Hello Darkness’ is an exploration of the malleability of women when they are suborned to male desires, and the cruelty and tragedy of such dehumanisation.
The collections two as-yet-unmentioned stories are more difficult to categorise, which is appropriate, for excessive categorising makes life interminably dull. ‘The City Calls Her Home’ is one of the collection’s co-authored stories, with Christopher Kenworthy lending his pen to the tale of Bernadette Coghlan. Bernadette is playing rebel, seeking to stake out a measure of independence through the act of leaving home and striking out alone. She’s capable: she copes. Both resolute and resolved to fate, she is nonetheless characterised by her responsible approach to life, a habit she is trying to shirk.
As Bernadette reaches London fighter jets are streaking across the sky and people are missing. There is something wrong but no one will say what, either on the national news channels or in the shaded corners of backstreet pubs. The city, it seems, is changing and calling to people, something which no one pretends to understand, least of all Bernadette.
Finally, the story ends in a setting that works well as a conclusive metaphor for the collection: Death Valley, an inherently strange and isolated place (the story makes good use of the not-entirely-understood moving rock phenomenon of the valley, and its Gold Rush-era ghost towns). ‘The Silence of the Falling Stars’ focuses on one Henry Woods, Park Ranger, and a young family he encounters whilst out on patrol. Thematically the story plays with concepts of illusion, of silence and isolation and, in more human terms, of looking outward but neglecting to look inwards. Ultimately the tale’s meaning, if it claims one, remained a little outside my reach, although one memorable phrase stuck:
“There is an end in sight, no matter how far off it seems.”
‘The Silence of the Falling Stars’ is not alone in defying a simple reading, although it is perhaps the closest the collection comes to being frustrating. Though it’s no bad thing to work for your literature, I suspect that more relaxed readers would turn elsewhere for thrills. For those in search of deep mining of the human psyche, of explorations of what it is to be broken or damaged and embrace or reject the world, Unbecoming will prove a rewarding read. And, from a small publisher like Elastic, I suspect that buyers will know exactly what they are in for.
A more specific criticism of the collection as a whole lies with the foundation on which most of the stories within are built. In generic terms, most are rooted in small perturbations in the natural order of things where just one or two elements are slightly wrong, rather than outright fantasy. Often it seems that the traditional psychological/supernatural divide of horror fiction is being deliberately walked, an ambiguity allowing for both interpretations, but in many such cases (such as, for example, ‘Shadows’) the psychological explanation doesn’t hold up as well as the supernatural. Whether this is intentional or not is difficult to determine. If it’s a deliberate conceit then it could be poking fun at the literary acceptability of certain strands of horror fiction, as in presenting inherently supernatural psychological horror in superficially ambiguous terms. However, this does mean that there’s usually only one explanation that holds up to close inspection. With that said, as many of these stories are written in first person perspective, from the point of view of openly fault-ridden characters, the unreliable narrator defence can be rushed to defend their ambiguity.
Fortunately it’s easy to disregard this question whilst reading Unbecoming, and to many readers the question might well be irrelevant. This is a book I found fascinating and rewarding in equal parts: that its stories linger in the mind long enough and make impressions deep enough to ask such questions is clearly to its credit.