Roddy Doyle‘s slim new short story collection, Life without children, mostly takes place in and around Dublin during the recent closures. His main characters are almost all who reach early age: lonely, desperate, plagued by the multiple betrayals and traumas of life.
They evaluate and re-evaluate themselves and try to establish a sense of stability. Motifs of bicycles (which crash and cause injuries and death) are reminiscent of the endless zest for life in James Joyce’s Dubliners; although here, there are moments of hope, reconciliation and even sentimentality.
The main theme is how men should lose their children – not death, but simply adulthood. In the title story, a man who has defined himself as a father for decades suddenly finds himself isolated. He remembers an acquaintance who turned his daughter’s old bedroom into a home office. The fact that the walls are still painted pink is silently devastating.
In ‘Curfew’, a man sees a woman carrying a teddy bear in a pendulum. He tells his wife about it: ‘I miss the kids,’ he said. He started crying. This collection is at its best when he examines the relationships, especially in “The Five Lamps”, in which the protagonist searches for his male son in Dublin, who has been missing for four years. Someone gives him a smoothie, and Doyle’s clipped, simple dialogue shivers with emotion:
The boy you’re looking for. I was a boy. Are you with me?
– I am.
– And I’m glad my mother came looking for me. I thank God every day. ”
Alienation from modern life here is an outgrowth of aging. The characters wrestle with an unfamiliar jargon: ‘Social distance is a phrase that everyone understands. It’s like gender fluidity and sustainable development. ”
Technology and cell phones cause complications. In ‘Worms’, a couple reconnects via Spotify playlists, only to discover that they are not completely telling each other the truth. A cell phone charger in “The Charger” causes a man to be afraid that his adult children, who have returned to the house for lockdown, are planning to kill him. In the title story, the main character throws his phone in a trash can.
Deception, both of the self and of others, is also widespread. In ‘Gone’, a man’s girlfriend leaves him the day before the restraint. It’s the only story with two voices, alternating between his and hers. The abandoned boyfriend walks through the house and yells at his missing girlfriend; she, meanwhile, finds a new place to live, and plays with slip about different identities.
When the boyfriend decides to become a delivery manager, he rejoices in his new role: ‘In this lockdown, a bag of chips has never been so exciting. And I deliver the excitement. “It is a small inevitability that he finds his ex-girlfriend, but the meeting is handled beautifully: ‘How are you, Laura, I asked. Okay, she said. Okay, I said. Enjoy your scampi box. ”
The coincidences in the stories can feel exaggeratedly designed; it is perhaps inevitable if the canvas is so small and so limited. Fiction, while naturally about inwardness, thrives on incidents and friction. The nature of the fenced environment requires repetitive structures: such as the bicycle wheels. We are in restraint, expecting endlessly. Whether the Covid crisis will become an important, fertile ground for fiction remains to be seen.
Life without children by Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape £ 14.99, 192 pages
Philip Womack is the author of ‘Wildlord’ (Little Island)
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