Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What We're Reading: The Empty Family by Colm Toibin


The Empty Family by Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin is a gay Irish writer, who doesn’t write only “gay” stories and novels, and who doesn’t set his stories invariably in Ireland. These may be self-conscious decisions, born of a desire not be compartmentalized by his subjects or limit his readership. On the other hand, this tendency to be universal and international may simply be organic to his notion of the writing craft. There are no borders he would not cross and no territory in which he fears to tread. Toibin thrives in the imaginative exercise of exploring the consciousness of both gay and heterosexual characters, male and female. He has extraordinary gifts of observation and empathy, and has often set stories in other countries and sub-cultures. His last much-acclaimed novel, Brooklyn (previously reviewed in this blog), was set in America in the 1950s and his protagonist was an artfully realized young female émigré from Ireland.

Not every writer is skilled in both writing novels and short stories, but Toibin’s work in both formats has been widely praised. The Empty Family is a collection of short stories, and like his previous collection, Mothers and Sons, it has a remarkable cohesion, something perhaps unusual in short story collections, which can often seem eclectic. It is much like an admired volume of poems from a single author, where similar themes are often reworked and revisited in each poem, and where each individual work is enhanced and made more resonant by its contrast or subtle variation with other poems in the collection. In this collection, the title story serves as an apt précis for the general feel and themes of the other stories, which, if a generalization might be made, share what I would call a pre-elegiac tone associated with late middle age. The photo by the Sicilian photographer Ferdinando Scianna used for the book jacket matches perfectly the themes and mood of the stories.

Toibin is said to write “literary” fiction. It is difficult to say exactly what that means. Perhaps most characteristically, as distinguished from more popular genres of fiction, this suggests that most of the “action” that goes on is interior to the lives of its characters, that the writing concerns itself with experience and the circumstantial recollections of experience that build subtly and slowly to certain self-realizations or changes in point of view. The “action” tends not to be sensational, diverting, or cathartic for the reader. The power of such stories comes from drawing in and engaging the reader in the interior drama of the characters. If you find Henry James or E.M. Forster ineffably boring, Toibin may not be for you. About half of the stories in this collection feature gay characters, and in some of the stories the sex is explicit, something some might find heroic about the writing and others might find offensive. But if you want to witness a master of contemporary fiction at work, you will enjoy Toibin. The Empty Family gives us a family of characters with whom we connect, who linger, and who will travel with us.

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