In her debut collection of short prose, Nicole Flattery focuses on womanhood and smashing expectations to assert herself as one of Irelands most astute young writers
Edition published by: Bloomsbury Circus, 2019
If you’ve been paying attention to the short story form, then you’ll know that Irish short prose is in rude health just now. From the mercurially gifted Wendy Erskine to Danielle McLoughlin and Kevin Barry, the palette is as rich as it’s ever been. And refreshingly, all of them are forging ahead and out of the perennial spectres of Joyce and Beckett.
One can most certainly add Nicole Flattery to their company. Show Them a Good Time, her debut collection, is one of those that starts with a big subject – the nefariously multi-faceted perception of women in wider society – but lets that subject form itself out of surrealism and tangibility. It simultaneously achieves an organic sense of worth and pushes worthiness away, in frequently hilarious and headstrong ways.
And its real magic lies in the way it manages to unscrupulously and breathlessly smash expectations; both those of the protagonists and the reader. Flattery’s writing is often tricksy, and yet she holds the rudder straight via instantly realistic truths, fears and injustices.
A Tale of Two Landscapes
As well as thematic femininity, there are specific notions that thread themselves through Show Them A Good Time, a constant reminder of the crushing weight women experience. There’s the persistent cultural battle between the presence of ‘the city’ and rural Ireland – something Flattery, who lives in Galway, might be acutely aware of.
In the likes of the titular story, the notion of making a life for oneself is synonymous with big metropolitan breaks, and anyone who never gets there is left behind. But in this instance that city existence forces our protagonist back to where she grew up, judged and ashamed by her existence there in the pornographic industry. The city offers no sense of completion; when Kevin asks her why she got into that business, she replies:
‘Well, I’d gone all that way. I had to do something’.
In Flattery’s world, living rurally is just as ghostly, particularly when lurched over by the shadows of parents & familial expectations – another curse that lingers throughout the collection.
At its most direct, the notion of being outcast by all your surroundings is hammered home in juicily stark ways, whether that be via internet dating in Not The End Yet or multitudinous variations on motherhood (or the lack thereof) in Track and Parrot. In the former, for example, potential distance between mother and son – emphasised by the vacuity of fame – is laid bare when the protagonist writes a scathing review of her comedian boyfriend on a forum under his mother’s name.
Abortion: A Love Story
Very much the collection’s centrepiece and longest story, Abortion: A Love Story pulls absolutely no punches in its meandering arc. It maintains Flattery’s ability to be utterly absurdist while construing real soul, and is without doubt the most on-the-nose accounting of a patriarchal society that I’ve read for some time.
It follows two students at an unnamed college – Natasha and Lucy – both of whom have experienced enormous personal loss. Those losses are amplified by societal expectations, from both men and women, and both secularism and religion; as well as all the other societal ruminations Flattery’s covered previously.
As the two protagonists piece together a brilliantly funny, poignant play, their lives become about subverting those expectations and reclamation; and that’s where Flattery’s real structural mastery comes into play.
If instances in the story are confusing, then that seems deliberate. Not unlike Micaela Cole’s extraordinary I May Destroy You, there are plenty of ruminations on the general emotional and cognitive confusion caused by trauma; in Natasha’s case the inability to finish sentences or forgetting what she’s studying. Initially she feels threatened by Lucy, but it’s through their shared trauma – Lucy has cut herself off from her past completely, including her ‘country’ parents – that they begin to make sense of each other.
And actually, it’s amidst that confusion that the protagonists give us the most biting glimpses of their strength of character. Natasha says that she ‘doesn’t like anyone my own age’, whereas Lucy bats everything away with a rickety but hilarious sense of self:
Lucy: ‘Jesus Christ let me out of here’.
Professor: ‘Who said that Lucy?’
If the derision of Beckett is a plucky comment on the way in which Irish character is canonised, then Flattery flips it on its head and makes it even more pertinent and humanly powerful later on. After admitting to having self-destructive impulses, Lucy asks her:
‘Would you say you’re a typical Irish girl?’
Eventually, the whole notion of their play becomes about not giving people what they want; allowing these women to behave how they want to societally – a place of ‘no laws’. But as the play convulses around itself and becomes a compendium of otherworldly pain and savage socio-political commentary, Flattery doesn’t just trick her invented audience, but us, the actual reader, too. It’s an exceptional, riveting double-bluff. And even if the impact of Lucy & Natasha’s efforts is left fairly open-ended, the sense of achievement and subversion takes on a life of its own.
Wit and Wisdom
A lot of Show Them A Good Time struts the line between personalisation and looking in from the outside impressively. Flattery doesn’t make every line hefty with portent, which means that when that heft is delivered – either humorously or otherwise – it rings harsher.
In her hands, dark humour becomes pretty much her most malleable ingredient. In the titular story, she manages to condense total anxiety into nifty one-liners:
‘In my entire life, not a single good thing had come from standing in a circle’.
Or marks the way sex deceives the reality of relationships with men with a giddy sense of pathos:
‘I loved being picked up. Things were much clearer from that height’.
Or in Sweet Talk, where she manages to make the Exorcist seem like a fair walk in the park from the perspective of a teenage Irish girl:
‘It was dark, but it was just priests really. Priests in unusual circumstances.’
In Hump she expertly traverses masculine sensitivity and the bleakest crags for jokes in probably the whole collection. Upon relaying that her father had only spoken for 30% of his life, our protagonist says:
‘It was a dismal percentage, and I was familiar with what dismal percentages could do to a person’.
That the protagonist is a 17-year-old shows just how much agency women have from a young age; the sneering idea that young people aren’t capable of understanding what the world holds for them is felled in one brilliant swoop here. And then mere moments later, she allows us to glimpse into body dissatisfaction with sardonic bluntness:
‘I was surprised when I caught site of my concentration camp legs. How did they support me?’
At no point does any of Show Them a Good Time feel incongruous. Flattery never leaves the real world; reality is pretty much the most intrinsic part of this collection. But she forces us to look at reality in revitalising ways. Her characters do and say the opposite of what they’re expected to, and her prose is soaked in turns of phrase that come out of nowhere. It’s a collection establishes her as one of Ireland’s most astute young writers.