February 2020

Noted

‘A Couple of Things Before the End’ by Sean O’Beirne

By Adam Rivett
Image of A Couple of Things Before the End, by Sean O'Beirne
The Australian author’s debut story collection confidently converts the linguistic detritus of our era into something of lasting value

Hailing “a promising new voice” is a useful cliché of criticism, and one which Sean O’Beirne’s debut collection (Black Inc.) earns as literally, and as variously, as possible. What we have here are not so much stories as miniature monologues detailing a world somewhere between everyday and apocalyptic, and shaped with some of our lowest forms of utterance: political press conferences, YouTube comments, bucks night speeches. It’s rare to see a book so confident in its ability to convert the linguistic detritus of our era into something of lasting value.

In only 200 pages we move across a century of chatter. Some voices – royal watchers, the elderly remembering a hard life – seem lost to time, struggling to reconcile the past with their present moment, often with great pathos or comedy. Other voices are more modern and savage, detailing the backwards and cruel (as heard in the story “The Anzac Spirit”) or those who suffer under the rule of the backwards and cruel (“Nauru”). As the collection progresses, our current dilemmas – nationalism, climate change – come into clearer view.

Yet there’s no lazy moralising here. In many cases, such as the lengthy “Leader”, the point is simply to hand time and rope to just the sort of garrulous dickhead currently running half the world’s democracies, and watch them hang themselves. Even better is the book’s penultimate story, “Missy”, an increasingly desperate and affecting piece of climate-change fiction fashioned from the simplest material possible.

Still, it’s not all topical – some of the collection’s funniest moments are comparative throwaways, and all the better for it: a catalogue listing for a series of Aussie Rules mystery novels, for example, or “Nathan and Jordan”, a bizarre portrait of aimless teenage gluttony. Like another of the collection’s oddities, “A Night with the Fellas”, “Nathan” approaches something close to anti­epiphany. Voices wander close to moments of personal insight or revelation, then keep right on walking, back into the mess and banality of life. At every turn the writing is blessedly free of the strained lyricism and creative-writing-class polish of much contemporary short fiction.

The book’s true art lies in O’Beirne’s ability to first summon these voices, and then to let them speak with such clarity and force. His variety is impressive – nested between the note-perfect dunderheadedness of a listicle called “The Poofter Bus” and the aforementioned “Fellas” is a story wholly unlike either, or anything else in the collection: “Julian, 11 AM”. Reminiscent of a lost interview with one of David Foster Wallace’s Hideous Men, its intellectual anguish and political anger offer something approaching a way forward, in perhaps the book’s only moment of true hope. “I mean how else are we going to do anything better?” asks its speaker at the story’s close. He’s dreaming of a new language, a new life. In so honestly assessing our failing systems and decaying language in such uncannily voiced forms, O’Beirne does likewise.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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