The Burning Ground, by Adam O’Riordan
It’s hard to escape the feeling that Adam O’Riordan is flirting with the Joycean in his debut short story collection, The Burning Ground. It’s not just that all of O’Riordan’s stories are set in the one city — LA. Rather, O’Riordan’s first collection of short stories shares something deeper, more elemental with Joyce’s only collection of short stories, something in the DNA of the two books. In ‘The Sisters,’ one of Joyce’s more precocious child narrators says something quite mysterious: “Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism.” Taken on its own, this might be a child revelling over the strange sound of exotic words tripping off the tongue. But those three words, paralysis, gnomon, and simony come to define Joyce’s Dublin, Joyce’s Dubliners, and Joyce’s Dubliners.
They are also words that come to define O’Riordan’s work, over a century later. Paralysis is an existential state in The Burning Ground‘s LA, in spite of the city’s Ballardian obsession with the freeway. O’Riordan’s city is full of elegies for things left unsaid and undone. The story, ‘Wave-Riding Giants’ is probably the most openly mournful story of the lot — the ageing McCauley looks back over a life spent watching, but never acting. He spent the war in the Pacific, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the fighting before he could be deployed. He drifted around the West Coast, finally discovering a talent for woodwork and setting up shop making surfboards he could never use — McCauley had never learnt to swim.
Likewise, gnomon. A gnomon is the bit of the sundial that casts a shadow by which we tell time — in other words, the pointy bit. It’s also synecdoche for all those things left unsaid, but where silence is more eloquent than words could ever be. “You did good, son, real good,” Randall says to his estranged son, Joey, at the end of ‘Black Bear in the Snow’. They’re on a hunting trip, tracing a route that Randall’s own father took him on when he was a boy Joey’s age, and Joey has just killed a bear with a single textbook shot. Those six words speak to the gulf that has opened up between father and son, and they carry more weight than a lengthy speech might.
LA is full of simoniacs, one way or another. Buying and selling choice ecclesiastical goodies might well seem like an idea that had its time, a long time ago, but The Burning Ground is full of people trying to buy their way into redemption one way or another — from Randall’s attempt to redeem lost time by shooting at megafauna in ‘Black Bear in the Snow’ to a mutual, and failed, attempt to rekindle a lost fling in ‘A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica,’ and Harvey’s acceptance that his rom-com rush half-way across the world to an old lover might not bring back the past.
O’Riordan is best known as a poet, and he is a fine poet with a knack for weighing words carefully, and making them do strange and new things. In ‘Oysters,’ the consumption of raw, cold sea-snot is imbued with a sense of quickness, of danger, of violence, but also of holiness, sanctity and ritual. To open an oyster, “you twist a blunt blade and the adductor severs || and light moves in the darkened chamber. | Naked on its bed of bone, you offer it: vulviform, raw, exposed.”
Contrast this with his description of an aeroplane taking off. “The focused quiet of an exam hall as passengers concentrated on keeping calm and pretending what was happening was perfectly normal.” This is a far cry from O’Riordan’s holy vulviform oysters. It’s big, it’s clunky, and, its greatest sin is that it’s obvious. It’s unreasonable to ask O’Riordan to write stories like Joyce. It’s just a pity he couldn’t write stories a little bit more like himself.
Bloomsbury kindly provided me with a copy of The Burning Ground for review.