Shenanigans by Donal Scannell & Sarah Champion (eds.)

Usually I’m not too interested in anthologies containing the works of young and/or inexperienced authors, because (perhaps a trifle irrationally) I’m afraid that the writings of such authors might not be that good, and I’m too impatient to spend my time reading juvenile, perhaps immature fiction. I’m sure I miss a lot of good literature this way, and I’m also sure that it won’t be me who first discovers some new talent and brings him to everyone’s attention, but anyway, it’s not easy to get rid of my prejudices and maybe I don’t really want to get rid of all of them, either.

So I really don’t know what impulse made me buy this book. I noticed it lying around in a pile of books for sale at a very low price in a local bookstore, but I didn’t like its Hungarian title (which is a kind of pun on the Hungarian words for „suffer” and „night”), I liked its cover even less, I considered the blurb boisterous and ridiculous at once (I don’t see why the writers of this book need to be collectively compared to Joyce, Swift and Beckett just because they happen to be Irish), I didn’t know anything about any of the authors who appear in this book, and to top it all, the short stories were translated by the students of a literary translation course and not by professional translators – therefore I promptly left the book where I found it. But then a couple of days later I was wandering around in the same bookstore again, noticed this book again and on a sudden impulse I bought it despite all the above-mentioned deterrents. And actually this turned out to be a good decision, because Shenanigans, despite an ugly exterior, a couple of less than perfect stories and the sometimes clumsy translations is an excellent book.

The 19 short stories collected in the book all depict the dark side of modern Irish life. The stories are populated with drug-users, drug-dealers, alcoholics, unemployed people, jailbirds, party animals and all kinds of lost and unhappy young people who live chaotic and hopeless lives. Naturally, it’s not really possible to write sunny stories about such people, and in fact there isn’t a single story in this collection which would depict, for instance, the life of a drug-user as a never-ending chain of merry partying and fantastic mental experiences.

And as regards the atmosphere of these stories, it varies greatly on a scale which has „mildly melancholic” on one end, and „utterly, unbearably bitter” on the other. Still, some stories contain traces of some morbid humor, which is quite good as it helps protect the reader from sinking into sea-deep depression while reading this book.

For instance, my favorite funny story in the collection, „Goldfish” is about a drug-dealer whose house is raided by the police. The man and his girlfriend quickly get rid of all drug-related material, but the man suffers a sudden panic attack and he quickly eats a whole bunch of LSD-stamps with a goldfish picture on them, and afterwards he experiences brutally intense and life-like hallucinations. Of course, if you care to think about it, this is not too funny, but the way the author handles his material is so entertaining and the outcome of the story is so bizarre that I couldn’t help laughing at the protagonist.

Anyway, I felt that I had to enjoy the lighter pieces of the collection as much as I could, exactly because the majority of the stories is so dark and depressing. The story called „A Small Cut”, for instance, tells us about a nearly bankrupt university student who in a sudden (though understandable) fit of anger has herself fired from her job as a waitress. Immediately after this impulsive act she realizes that this way she managed to make herself virtually penniless. Fortunately she has a girlfriend who offers her an easy and well-paying job in exchange for a small percentage of her future income – and the rest, I guess, is easy to figure out. Of course I’ve read similar stories before, but still, I’m always driven to despair when a writer shows me how easy it can be for anyone to sink below the surface.

By the way, despite the similarities in terms of character types and themes, the stories of this collection are quite varied in form and content. There is a story told by a very unconventional narrator; there is one which is written is written as a diary and concentrates on small details and events as a diary would; and there is more than one in which we are offered a glimpse into some highly unstable and somewhat deranged minds.

Of course not every short story is a masterpiece in this book, but I didn’t react to this collection in the way I usually react to similar anthologies. I didn’t feel cheated and I didn’t feel that I had to read several bad, mediocre or boring stories just in order to find a couple of good ones and that perhaps it wasn’t worth my time. Instead, I felt that I had the pleasure to read a whole lot of good or excellent stories, and that I would be happy to read other works even by those writers whose stories were not that stupendously good.

And this is my only problem with this book: it made me interested in several writers whose works I may never come across again. Even though I learned from the short biographical notes at the end of the collection that a couple of the authors have other works published, but there are several others who simply seem to have disappeared entirely. For instance, I could find no information whatsoever about the author of my favorite story, „Canal Bank Walk”, a mysterious writer called DEX.357 and it’s quite possible that he didn’t publish anything else apart from this single story – which makes me quite sad. So I feel as if I had been offered a treat and after tasting several delicious meals I had been left there hungry for more but without the possibility to satisfy my appetite.

But of course I don’t regret reading this book at all, and I would highly recommend it to anyone in search of a literary ride through the dark side of contemporary Ireland.