May 2012

Arts & Letters

‘The Weight of a Human Heart’ by Ryan O’Neill

By Karen Hitchcock
‘The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O’Neill’, Black Inc; $27.95

The 21 stories in Ryan O’Neill’s new collection are tied together by a preoccupation with language. There are books, magazines, word games, phonetics, grammar lessons, miscommunications, translations on every page. The world exists insofar as it exists in books; in ‘A Room Without Books’ the end of the world is to be found on the last page of an atlas. Even the metaphors are bibliophilic: a cloud is an empty speech bubble, it rains “with a heavy handed symbolism”, long silences are like “the blank pages before the start of a novel”, a character weeps “non-fiction tears”.

The male characters are illiterate or literature-obsessed (language teachers, writers, librarians, academics). A lot of them get it on with African, Chinese or Slavic women; they exchange misunderstood words and then they fuck. Couples live together but in exile because of their different mother tongues.

In ‘The Genocide’ a Rwandan woman, according to her (white) husband, expresses her anger by “breaking grammatical rules and mutilating idioms”. He thinks she speaks of her past only in English because she hopes the pain will be lost in translation.

O’Neill’s belief in the power of language, his argument that nothing exists outside of language, is breathtaking. It is religious, Lacanian, monotonous. But, thank God, the book is also hilarious. ‘A Short Story’ is a delicious satire about university creative writing courses: from sending up the teaching of a paint-by-numbers approach, to the misdirected worship students have for their teachers – who are in turn reliant upon this worship to prop up their egos and embarrassing delusions of grandeur.

The rules in ‘Seventeen Rules for Writing a Short Story’ are quotes by famous writers that O’Neill adheres to one by one in the paragraphs that follow them. Rule 13 is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s: “A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise.” In the nine short sentences that follow this rule, John declares his love for Mona, Mona admits she gave birth to and adopted out their child years ago, and Andrew comes out. It is clever and it is laugh-out-loud funny, but it is utterly unconvincing as a story. It doesn’t even attempt to convince you, move you, have you suspend disbelief – so is it a story or a side-splitting skit?

Given the focus on matters of language, the title of O’Neill’s clever, uproarious, dazzling collection of short stories is somewhat misleading. It should perhaps have been titled: ‘Heart is a Word in the English Language that starts with ‘H’, has Five Letters and No Longer Works as a Metaphor for Love’.

Karen Hitchcock

Karen Hitchcock is a doctor and writer. She is the author of a collection of short fiction, Little White Slips, and the Quarterly Essay Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly.

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