The order in which we read the short stories in a collection makes a difference. Our hopping and skipping out of sequence can often disturb the lines or blunt the point of a special arrangement, lose us the pleasure of seeing large intentions emerge. Jumping to the end of Joyce's Dubliners to get at 'The Dead', for a familiar instance, would considerably obscure the generous force in that story's sympathetic pressing of its attention beyond and away from the social medium of public occasions on which its first half, like the three preceding stories, works - and into a tenderer, more private world. A successful sequence can build up different sorts of unity and we need to be careful not to run the pieces together into a single work like the chapters of a novel, and at the same time, in the case of a single author, to look out for the coherence of a sensibility, the various achievements of a style. A Nails on the Head, a first collection of stories by the Irish writer, Clare Boylan, whose admirable first novel, Holy Pictures, came out in February, satisfyingly gives us a dramatic logic of sequence without renouncing the particularity of each of its 15 elements: patterns of recurrence and variation set up a creative tension. For example, when it creeps up on the reader that the stories are beginning to have mad central characters, the exciting sense that each tale is a fresh start is enjoyably qualified by an ominous suspense. A great deal of one's pleasure in such a collection, and such a connection, comes from the way in which its inter-relatedness renders a critical interest over and above that of the sum of parts we are permitted formally to count on.
LRB 21 July 1983 | PDF Download