New Fiction October 2004

The Real Thing

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It takes only a few pages of William Trevor's latest collection of stories before we find ourselves on the devastated circuit of teapot, toast, and flickering turf that Trevor has for decades mapped as his own. This is a damp, socially stagnant world in which saucepans and chairs and domestic heat are inordinately treasured, and jars of jelly babies and the Big Houses of provincial Ireland still cast a spell; a world in which old-economy protagonists—a librarian, a priest, a uniformed waiter, a fisherman, a horse trainer, a scullery maid, a maker of religious statues—will frequent a café with a 7-Up sign rather than a coffee bar, and will contrive to eat tinned peaches, liver and peas, and chicken-and-ham paste. In most writers such anachronisms would be intolerable. In Trevor's work they are, somehow, not.

Part of the explanation is cultural luck. Trevor is (as Elizabeth Bowen and Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain were) the beneficiary of Joyce and Yeats, who authorized readers around the world to take an interest in the daily routines of Ireland's shabby middle classes and tragically glamorous Protestant Ascendancy. Moreover, Trevor, from a Protestant family in a small town in County Cork, is of a generation that grew old in a war-torn, agricultural, religiously constrictive, and economically backward Ireland that quaintly specialized in dashing the hopes of its population. It was terrific dramatic material. In contrast, younger Irish writers (that is, anyone younger than the excellent John McGahern) are saddled with describing the nuances of peace, economic growth, and small-time cosmopolitanism—one reason, perhaps, why the latest novels by Colm Toibin and Colum McCann are bio-fictions about Henry James and Rudolf Nureyev.

The other part of the explanation is that the more William Trevor practices, the luckier he gets. This is his tenth collection of new stories, and his famous economy and fluidity are as much in evidence as ever. Trevor describes interior states as concretely as he conjures his sparse domestic interiors: here's a chair, and there, in the kitchen, is a broken heart. The governing artistic virtue, at all times, is truthfulness. There is nothing bogus or histrionic here. No matter who takes the narrative point of view—the horse trainer's embittered widow, a schoolboy toying with a jackdaw, a man breaking up with his mistress, the priest (very movingly), desperate for the spiritual companionship of a developmentally arrested young woman—every situation that Trevor makes thuds solidly of the real thing. He stands by the old-fashioned epistemological notion that imaginative empathy is a dependable and sufficient instrument of knowledge. Not unrelated is that he distrusts the suggestive, dangerously ungovernable effects of heightened language, perhaps to a fault: he is not above such phrases as "sallow complexion" and "considerable bulk."

Ultimately, what is formally interesting—about these fictions is the relationship they predicate between reader and text. Earlier this year the novelist Michael Chabon confessed in The New York Times Book Review to the vice of quickly tossing books aside. "Your beginning better be just killer," he warned. William Trevor is refreshingly free of anxiety on this score. He makes no attempt to arrest or flatter or reassure the reader—there are no one-liners, no improbably witty characters, no far-out shenanigans, no patent-leather prose. He expects our attention and, most of all, respects it. Which is why, outmoded though they may seem, these stories are the opposite of dated.

Joseph O'Neill is the author of two novels, This Is the Life (1991) and The Breezes (1995), and the nonfiction work Blood-Dark Track: A Family History (2001).
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