Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Roddy Doyle’s “Box Sets” was originally published in the April 14, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
I sometimes have a so-what reaction to the stories in The New Yorker, and sometimes I am sure I’m missing and other times I’m sure it is because the story is just relatively blah. One that I feel was blah was was the last one Roddy Doyle published in the magazine, “Ash,” from 2010 (my brief thoughts here). I can chalk up another this week, with Roddy Doyle’s “Box Sets” (people assure me that Roddy Doyle’s novels are better).
Here we meet a couple, Sam and Emer, on the brink. They’ve suffered through what appeared to be the worst of the Irish economic decline. And just when things started to look better nationally, Sam lost his job. His sense of identity is shaken.
When the story begins, a fight “nearly” breaks out in a bar when a man and woman argue over which is better, “House of Cards,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” or the Danish version of “The Killing.” Emer sticks up for “The Killing.” Sam, with time on his hands, catches up with “the golden age” of television drama.
In the meantime, he’s trying to establish himself again, but nothing is materializing. “They’d be fine. Emer said it, and they said it together.” But not only do these words not make things better, they also do not heal the wounds that are already there. Wounds that, in this story, become quite physical.
It’s not a terrible story, but it certainly doesn’t go anywhere new, anywhere insightful. It’s, well, blah. But I’d also feel that way about a heated argument over the merits of television box sets. The point is elsewhere.
Trevor, I find myself at odds with your opinion regarding Roddy Doyle!
First of all, Irish author Roddy Doyle is the author of the novel The Commitments and also one of the screenwriters for the movie of the same name. As a light entertainment, that movie is one of my favorites, so I am predisposed to give his work a sympathetic read.
Then, on Monday, we were unexpectedly delayed for twelve hours at the airport in Austin, and so I passed the time reading not only this week’s story but the also the other ten or so stories that Doyle has published with The New Yorker. (Almost all of these stories are free, so the time went fast.) Read in a group, the stories have an oddly feminist slant, odd given that they are often written from the point of view of a man.
“Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me” first appeared in The New Yorker in 1996, almost twenty years ago. Paula, the main character, tells her story. A Guard has appeared at the door to inform her that Charlo, her estranged husband, has killed a woman and has himself been shot dead. In the meandering course of the story, Paula slowly reveals that Charlo beat her repeatedly and that she never told anyone the cause of her bruises and broken bones. After one of the beatings, she says, “He hit me. He sent me across the kitchen, and I hit the sink and fell. I felt nothing, only shock. A spinning in my head. I knew nothing for a while. I saw nothing; I was empty.”
Nevertheless, in the manner of these marriages, Paula tells us she loved Charlo from the minute she laid eyes on him, and that she still loved him. Paula’s a mess, and the story is a tad out of fashion. After all, men don’t beat their wives any more, do they? The story’s title, “Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me” alludes to the wall of denial that people often raise against having to stand witness to violence or bullying. Of course Paula should have stood up to Charlo. Of course Paula should have defended herself and her children. Of course she should have asked for help. But she was “empty.” Doyle is convincing. I am reminded of the true story of New Yorker Hedda Nussbaum, beaten into a senselessness so profound it is hard to imagine. So to me, in “Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me,” Roddy Doyle breaks the silence.
In the ten or so stories that follow, Doyle tells about men who have difficulty with sadness, anger, intimacy and illness. His interest in men’s psychology is sympathetic, though. “Bullfighting” is a terrific portrayal of men’s friendships. “The Dinner” is a tale of a father of four girls, one of whom has brought a boyfriend home for Sunday dinner, the problem being that the boyfriend is from Africa, and the father is all mixed up about what he is going to do and say and very mixed up about why he is so mixed up.
In “The Dog,” a childless couple’s marriage is temporarily revived when they get a dog. But without the dog, the husband feels like the marriage is dying. He wants the marriage, but he has no idea why it’s failing and no idea of what to do.
Doyle balances the conflict in his stories with throwaway dialogue that mimics life. To me, the silences in the dialogue mirror the silences of some contemporary playwrights. But the silences in the dialogue are founded in the silences within the characters; these are people who work hard to keep emotions buried, people who work hard to keep understanding at bay. This is the opposite of Henry James country, and I like Doyle’s work just precisely because of that. This worries Doyle — that people resist thinking things through. Doyle’s dialogue, however slight, creates a casual verisimilitude that balances the violence and denial beneath the surface.
The details of popular culture — the pub, the talking about television, or, as in “Ash,” using the volcanic explosion in Iceland to talk about marriage — are also his means of creating a world. The stories are quick and slight, but I think there’s more there than meets the eye.
(Trevor, I just read your review of “Ash”; I guess you didn’t like it! Was it the din of being all day at the airport that made me welcome it and all his other short stories?)
As for “Box Sets,” Trevor, I can understand your impatience with people whose primary cultural experience is TV. Actually, given that Doyle has been a screenwriter, I sense some impatience from him as well, as if he is using The Wire and The Sopranos as code for people who, having nothing else to talk about, use those titles as code. That the characters seem to speak in code speaks to the inchoate nature of their thoughts.
As a whole, “Box Sets” has a bitter tone that is most similar to “Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me,” given that both stories have men’s frozen emotions and volcanic anger at their center. In “Box Sets,” a couple has almost made it through Ireland’s cataclysmic Great Recession, but in the end, after all, the man loses his job. What I like about this story defies a simple explanation. For one thing, my own life has been affected enough by the Great American Recession that I am interested in the story’s setting. I want to know what Doyle thinks about how we cope with the anger that this thing has caused.
Essentially, this character is enraged by the way society has sandbagged him. I must say I understand that rage. What interests me, though, is his comatose emotional state, comatose, that is, until he explodes. The men in Doyle’s stories have difficulty understanding and communicating with their own feelings. It’s not a far leap to say that this inclination puts them in danger in a crisis. Worse yet, not only do they not communicate with their interior selves, they can’t communicate with their wives, either. Perhaps this is also old news. But I don’t think so.
The man’s initial reaction to losing his job is to freeze in place. Thus frozen, he doesn’t particularly notice what a corner he has painted himself into. While his wife is boiling some water, the man himself also suddenly boils over. He has already clammed up; then he decides he doesn’t want to go out; then he picks a fight with his wife over “her friends,” and then, suddenly, he hurls a hot coffee mug.
What Doyle so deftly does not do is explicitly explain that this mug was most likely aimed at his wife, and not for the first time, either. We know it was, because she cries and because he leaves the house. What Doyle also so deftly does is show the man’s stubborn refusals: at the end, he doesn’t admit that his wife has probably left him; he says only that her “case” is not in the hall when he returns. We learn, too, that the coffee mug has been broken where it’s been broken before.
While out on the walk, the man has cleared his head: his wife is probably right; he’s going to take her advice; he’s going to shape up. What he doesn’t realize is that it is probably too late. There is something odd in his clear thinking — as if threatening his wife had made him suddenly feel like “all’s right with the world.” It’s an epiphany, but it’s a cracked epiphany, like the cracked coffee mug, like people saying that television is where Dickens would be if he were alive today. (Is television where Jonathan Franzen is? Jeffrey Eugenides? Donna Tartt?)
The way the man feels relieved after threatening his wife reminds me of Charlo in “Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me,” the way Charlo beats Paula up and then expects her to take care of him.
Doyle enjoys the territory of marriages that are boxed sets; where one or both people are locked inside themselves, where violence is just beneath the surface, where miscommunication is the match to the tinder.
So, Trevor — you and I disagree on this one. There may be a generational difference here. Doyle’s concerns about men reflect quintessential twentieth century (feminist) pre-occupations. So they interest me. What I do like is Doyle’s interest in the way some men get locked in. It isn’t that Doyle is unsympathetic. “Bullfighting” is clear enough evidence of his empathy for men. Whether he fairly represents the weaknesses of women’s psychology, though, is really another discussion. Surely Paula, in “Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me” is deeply flawed.
I noted that you thought the writing was vapid. I see that possibility. I think there is more artistry than vapidity, though, and I think the vapidity is a device to allow the reader to consider the violence beneath. Reading the ten stories at a go makes me think that.