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.

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Trevor

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.

Betsy

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.

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By |2014-04-21T12:03:11+00:00April 7th, 2014|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Roddy Doyle|14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett April 8, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    I’ve updated the post above with my thoughts, such as they are. I hope if you feel differently you comment here to help me out.

  2. bagley April 9, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Can’t wait for the next Junot Diaz in TNY. These recent stories are beginning to get depressing.

  3. Trevor Berrett April 9, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    I can’t say that I agree with your choice of relief, bagley, but if we get a Diaz story soon I’ll be happy for you :-) .

  4. Trevor Berrett April 10, 2014 at 12:04 am

    This has been updated to include Betsy’s thoughts, which differ from mine considerably — I’m thrilled! Time to work up a suitable response . . . :-)

  5. Trevor Berrett April 10, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Okay, I’m having difficulty coming up with a suitable response, Betsy. But here goes nothing!

    I agree with you that all of those elements are in this story. They are not elements I’m insensitive to — I don’t think — so I can only think to explain it in terms of style. I feel that Doyle’s style remains on the surface and fails to delve into the issues he’s ostensibly exploring. In other words, it can be impressive that he gets a feeling right through his clipped dialogue, but, in my very limited experience with his work, it never feels he goes deeper, as if the project is over when a technique (or an image) alludes to something but then the story fails to follow up. That’s what I mean, I think, when I say it’s trite. I feel like it’s a cop out.

    That said, I have not reread this story in light of your post above, and I need to. I should go back and read his other stories like you did too. I trust you, even if right now I’m not seeing it.

  6. Roger April 12, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    This one puzzles me. Not because it is so bleak and depressing – we see plenty of short literary fiction that fits that description. But the logic of the story – where is it? Was Emer planning to leave Sam even before the fight? It seems as much, though Doyle is unclear. She claims to have seen “The Killing” but when Sam asks her when she’s seen it, she says she hasn’t. So she’s either lying to Sam or was lying to the group at the bar. What is the reader to make of this? It is also suggested that she leaves the house with an unidentified man – who may or may not be a cabdriver.

    If she was not already planning to leave before Sam’s meltdown, why does she? Because of an upset unemployed husband and a thrown mug (apparently not thrown at her, though that’s not completely clear)?

    When he comes home badly injured from the bicycle accident, she’s concerned enough to help him into bed, but not enough to take him to the hospital or call an ambulance?

    So count me as missing something on this one – if there is anything there….

  7. Larry Garvey April 13, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Roger, I think this story is a comment on the lack of intimacy between this couple, and maybe other couples, who also spend a lot of time watching box sets, and ignoring the very real life together they could be having. Watching TV/ box sets can be a substitute for really being together, sharing the reality of life that is always present, but largely ignored. or looked away from. Losing your job rocks your world, and Emer seems to have largely carried on with her way of life, while keeping Sam’s emptiness and pain at bay by seeing her friends, drinking, and keeping on the move socially. If I had lost my job I too would have a difficulty with what my role is now in society, which places so much importance on having work, and therefore an identity. Sam did not know what to say to the man who asked him what he did at the party. Emer is really saying to Sam to keep the pretense up by never really asking how life is for him now. The stock phrase is used-“they’d be fine”., the skating over the real effects on them both of Sam having no job. The bit about “The Killing” is like a betrayal. She stood up for this series in the argument as if she had seen it. Sam felt he did not know her at that time. Like she was a stranger. Notice too the stacatto way they talk to each other-What did you say? I mean, what do you mean? Well, he said. Why is it like that? Sorry-like what? it is all resistance to understanding the other, to peeking behind the surface. Maybe she had got fed up with Sam and his being down, and had started another relationship- it wasn’t a conversation-he couldn’t hear the wheels of her case. Someone has collected her and had taken her and he case away. He was deluded in thinking it was ever going back to how it was. It was over as it had been.

  8. Trevor Berrett April 13, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    I think this story is a comment on the lack of intimacy between this couple, and maybe other couples, who also spend a lot of time watching box sets, and ignoring the very real life together they could be having.

    I’m not sure I see this, Larry. I never got the sense the television was this couple’s problem, but rather just a way Sam deals with his time and emotions. I still haven’t reread it, but from my first glimpse I thought Emer was attempting to be very supportive, trying to keep up the appearance that things would be fine so that she and Sam wouldn’t feel even worse about the situation.

  9. Betsy Pelz April 13, 2014 at 11:26 pm

    Well, it has been a week since I spent a day stalled in the Austin Airport reding about ten stories by Roddy Doyle.

    I re-read “Box Sets” tonight. I still have the same sense of the story. The great Irish recession is the topic; the man is ill-prepared for the crisis of losing his job; this is not the first time the couple has fought; and violence lurks just beneath the surface, not only on television, but also in Roddy Doyle’s characters. The title still reminds me of boxed ears and boxing and the set-to’s of a fight.

    I see that something about Doyle annoys some of you. i have had that experience with other writers. Doyle? I’m interested. After I read “Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me”, I was a convert.

    As for the light style – that’s a matter of taste, I think. The disconnect between the lurking violence and the quick takes of his dialogue and story telling works for me. Also, the fact that the Great Recession is the setting matters to me. Not enough fiction has dealt with it.

  10. avataram April 14, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Kind of loved the story, as it reminded me of our lives just after the 2008 crisis. I am with Betsy on this one.

    In our case, it was not Ireland, but Spain. After losing our jobs & visas in Spain, we moved back to India. But we were still in love with how we lived in Spain, so we never took to India. Instead, we watched box sets. Criminal Minds & CSI & Law & Order (Special Victims Unit) were our favorites, because big crimes were committed and resolved in an hour. Better than our lives, as it took us nearly three years to find jobs again. There was a community of expats similarly unwilling to engage with India, and there was a nice barter economy in box sets.

    In nearly 3 years of being jobless, we went through The Sopranos, Wire and the Danish version of The Killing and much else. Once in a while we emerged, bleary eyed, to negotiate the traffic in India.

    In our case, the box sets were just escapism – from our lives, our joblessness and the difficult task of living in India after many years overseas.

  11. danthelawyer April 14, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    I find myself much more on Betsy’s side on this one. But I guess that opinion should be taken with a grain of salt, as I’ve been a huge fan of Doyle’s since I read Paddy Clarke in the year it came out. I also loved the films of the Snapper and the Commitments, and very much enjoyed The Woman Who Walked into Doors (though I’m not sure one really “enjoys” that book) and A Star Called Henry. Also, his “Rover Adventure” stories for kids are great fun.

    The notion of Doyle as a feminist, or at least as a male write acutely aware of domestic violence, is certainly reinforced by considering The Woman Who Walked. . . ., which is entirely about the subject. If I recall correctly — it was 18 years ago that I read it), he handled it with great sensitivity.

    This story was not among his best works, but I think there are depths there that Trevor is not seeing. Though, again, maybe that’s just fanboy talk.

  12. Betsy Pelz April 14, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    Thank you, Avataram, for your honesty about how you got caught in the great Spanish economic collapse. I am sorry to hear about it and am at a loss for words. Catastrophe is not a simple event..

    You comment that you enjoyed those videos that “resolved in an hour”, unlike life. I hear you. I was interested to hear that you didn’t think Doyle trivialized a very real disaster.

    That said, I do think Doyle may be a particular taste, just as is Junot Diaz. On that score, nice to hear from you, also, Dan. Thanks for all the titles, especially the “Rover Adventure” stories,

  13. danthelawyer April 16, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    By the way, I *love* the site’s new look

  14. ethan barker May 11, 2014 at 3:56 am

    Hello all, i am here for a moment; last I was here was about some big drama I won’t bring up again, unless someone has something new to report about it, that is c:

    I jumped on here to see what others had to say as to Emer’s affair, as I suspected it may be. And as i was reading Trevor’s post, I began to become optimistic about this story, that perhaps I had put my own thoughts into the possibility of Emer’s affair (this is where i’m at in my life, in a way, so seems like I could be pushing this onto everything, if this makes any sense at all). I thought it might be possible that Emer would be back in the morning and everything would be grand. But after reading Betsy’s post, I think i am correct in thinking Emer was having an affair.

    I am always suspicious of stories in the new yorker; they love affairs. Such a good and painful subject. Very close to home for many people, and now I’m among them. But I wanted to be careful in this and not let my own worries get into my reading of things, so here I am to confirm or deny my suspicions.

    I always want to qualify why TNY published a piece; I feel that if i didn’t get it, I am missing something. I would say, if nothing else, Doyle demonstrates great technique in this story. There is so much raised with such an economy of space. I find this impressive. The suggestion about where the mug is thrown. The suggestion that, if this mysterious man is not a cab driver, and Doyle does not recognize him as a neighbor or Emer’s friend, then clearly… These points, among the ones suggested above. I think maybe some of us are bothered because everything is suggested and then not explored. The idea of “box sets,” of TV as escape, of Emer’s lie.

    That said, I didn’t particularly enjoy it, good technique or not. I am sort of with Trevor, how he says the story “fails to follow up.” I think flash fiction, or anything a bit short like this one, reads more like an exercise, a preparation for a masterpiece that uses these techniques and DOES follow up on them. I am of the mind that insight makes for a good piece of literature. But I can totally see where others would disagree. Others might say that being able to suggest and raise questions is what makes good literature.

    Perhaps I enjoy these pieces less because I am not confident in my ability to find insight or answers to the questions they pose.

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