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Daphne Merkin

Roddy Doyle's Stories of Life in Lockdown

This article appeared in the New York Times.

LIFE WITHOUT CHILDREN

Stories

By Roddy Doyle


The act of pulling off good sentences, one after another, with apparent ease, is trickier than it looks — and is the envy of every writer who has sweated over a keyboard trying to come up with the perfect adjective. The Irish writer Roddy Doyle has always struck me as someone who sits down to write and whoosh! — out it comes, like water from a geyser.

This may be, for all I know, a complete fantasy or projection, but the guy certainly seems to have a facility for creating characters out of thin air and making them stick. Not to mention the sly humor, the ability to hew to the fine line between pathos and bathos and write unsentimentally about sad people and situations, and the gift for quicksilver dialogue that can sound like a poetic form of vernacular speech, with its frequent use of “eejit” and “mammy.” When you put these together with Doyle’s broad range, which includes depictions of rough-and-tumble Dublin teenagers (“The Commitments”); a 10-year-old Dublin boy who wanders around, making up the world as he sees it circa 1964 (the 1993 Booker Prize winner “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha”); a battered wife (“The Woman Who Walked Into Doors”); and an I.R.A. volunteer who fights in the 1916 Easter Rebellion (“A Star Called Henry”), you’re left feeling close to dazzled. One might well wonder: Where does Doyle’s prolific imaginative energy come from and where will it take him next?


Doyle’s latest work, “Life Without Children,” is a collection of 10 stories set during the recent lockdowns. The book is small-boned and quiet, lacking some of the life force of Doyle’s other writing, but its atmosphere of desolation has its own kind of dark power, and the resilient wit of the Irish is everywhere. It describes a group of male characters who all seem to have lost whatever limited sense of surety they once had about their lives. The prose proceeds without fanfare, as is Doyle’s way (the first story, “Box Sets,” begins plainly, “There’d nearly been a fight”), but is infused with unexpressed or diverted emotion that lends it an accumulated charge. Scattered throughout the minimalist narratives are references to current TV shows like “Succession,” Ottolenghi cookbooks, noncompliant cellphones, Skyping and phrases like “gender identity” and “the glass ceiling,” which help place the muted, worn-out marriages and downcast men who look at the sun as “a lump sinking behind the city” in a larger context than solely local or subjective ones.


The act of pulling off good sentences, one after another, with apparent ease, is trickier than it looks — and is the envy of every writer who has sweated over a keyboard trying to come up with the perfect adjective. The Irish writer Roddy Doyle has always struck me as someone who sits down to write and whoosh! — out it comes, like water from a geyser.

This may be, for all I know, a complete fantasy or projection, but the guy certainly seems to have a facility for creating characters out of thin air and making them stick. Not to mention the sly humor, the ability to hew to the fine line between pathos and bathos and write unsentimentally about sad people and situations, and the gift for quicksilver dialogue that can sound like a poetic form of vernacular speech, with its frequent use of “eejit” and “mammy.” When you put these together with Doyle’s broad range, which includes depictions of rough-and-tumble Dublin teenagers (“The Commitments”); a 10-year-old Dublin boy who wanders around, making up the world as he sees it circa 1964 (the 1993 Booker Prize winner “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha”); a battered wife (“The Woman Who Walked Into Doors”); and an I.R.A. volunteer who fights in the 1916 Easter Rebellion (“A Star Called Henry”), you’re left feeling close to dazzled. One might well wonder: Where does Doyle’s prolific imaginative energy come from and where will it take him next?


Doyle’s latest work, “Life Without Children,” is a collection of 10 stories set during the recent lockdowns. The book is small-boned and quiet, lacking some of the life force of Doyle’s other writing, but its atmosphere of desolation has its own kind of dark power, and the resilient wit of the Irish is everywhere. It describes a group of male characters who all seem to have lost whatever limited sense of surety they once had about their lives. The prose proceeds without fanfare, as is Doyle’s way (the first story, “Box Sets,” begins plainly, “There’d nearly been a fight”), but is infused with unexpressed or diverted emotion that lends it an accumulated charge. Scattered throughout the minimalist narratives are references to current TV shows like “Succession,” Ottolenghi cookbooks, noncompliant cellphones, Skyping and phrases like “gender identity” and “the glass ceiling,” which help place the muted, worn-out marriages and downcast men who look at the sun as “a lump sinking behind the city” in a larger context than solely local or subjective ones.


“The Curfew” takes place as “ex-Hurricane Ophelia” is heading toward Dublin. Its unnamed protagonist, on the far side of middle age, has a sense of incongruity that floats above the prosaic and besetting facts of his existence: “He liked the word — curfew. He liked the daft importance of it.” He has recently been diagnosed with coronary artery disease and asks the doctor whether he can Google “stents,” after she has told him not to Google. “You can,” she answers, “but leave it at that.” He notices a teddy bear — or is it a baby? — in a woman’s sling and is immediately reminded of his children, who are grown and out of the house but were once shuttled in a similar way: “He’d hated the backpack, six or seven years of having that thing on his back, not being able to see the baby as he walked.” He recalls a day when he imagined that one of his daughters, 8-month-old Ciara, had died in the backpack as he took a walk along the beach. “The mad logic of parenthood,” he thinks.


Nothing much else happens except for his studying the boxes of pills he’s been given — “He picked up the biggest one. Rosuvastatin Teva Pharma. It sounded like a star or a planet. 40 milligrams. The maximum dose, the cardiologist had said. That fact had impressed him.” He falls asleep midday waiting for his wife to come home: “He turned, into whiteness and nothing — no thoughts or things.” When he wakes, she is sitting on the bed and they talk in the desultory way of long-married couples. At the end of the story, just when we think it will leave us in a predictable if not entirely contented place, he suddenly tells his wife he misses his kids and starts to cry, exposing the sorrow he has been feeling all along. The title story is a complex weave of past and present, interlaced with the narrator’s wish to escape his circumstances. Alan, a Dubliner who feels he is a “62-year-old bachelor” married to a “60-year-old spinster,” has taken a trip to England for a couple of days (it’s not clear why), and although he’s dutifully in touch with his wife, Sinead, he’s tempted by the impulse to disappear: “Be the man with no children. No country. The man with nothing at all.” In an act of protest he throws his phone into a rubbish bin — “It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done” — and makes plans to call Sinead on his iPad and regale her with the details of his modest adventures. “He’ll tell her he lost his phone. He’ll tell her his new flight details. He’ll tell her what he’s seen and heard tonight.” And then, after a pint and slice of spicy pizza in the BrewDog pub, he’ll go home.

All the stories in “Life Without Children” have a quality of suspended animation, as though the music has suddenly stopped and the characters are left, each alone, on the dance floor — except for a piece called “Worms,” in which a couple are literally connected by the songs they listen to on a pair of shared headphones, “a bud each, like teenage girls, their heads resting against each other. They listened to a version of ‘The Happy Wanderer’ that had been in ‘The Sopranos,’ sung by Frankie Yankovic. Joe had never felt more at home, or excited. Leaning against this woman who he’d discovered he’d been married to for more than 30 years.”

My favorite of the lot is “The Charger,” which is also the longest and the most developed. (A few of the other stories have a slightly dashed-off quality and can veer into cutesy moments or slightly pasted-on endings.) Mick is “stuck in a world he doesn’t understand,” including the logistics of cellphones. “He was the last man he knew to get a mobile” and he worries: “Could a charger dangling in water kill him — when he went to lift it out?” Meanwhile, his wife, Mary, keeps buying him new phones, the latest with “seven apps he can use and 200 he’s never tried.” Mick has decided that, with his four daughters gone (although they return home during the first months of the pandemic), his parents dead and the house paid for, he’s not “essential”: “There’s no one who needs him. … There was nothing that needed doing, no one to look after.” When the last of his “aunties” dies because of the virus, he doesn’t really grasp how it happened, even “after hours, probably days of experts and diagrams.” We eventually find out that Mick was an unloved child whose mother rejected him and who slept on the floors in “rooms full of cousins who didn’t want him there.” His salvation is his wife, who predicts “decades of bliss” ahead of them and loves him even if he refuses to love himself. “He doesn’t exist without her,” Doyle writes. “She’ll be grand without him.” Except that, for some reason unbeknown to him and us, this is whom Mary has chosen to be with. “You’re my man, Mick,” she says.


Admittedly, there is something thin about “Life Without Children,” a certain degree of repetitive emotions and scenarios — almost a quality of having been written at great speed before time runs out on all of us. But that very thinness seems suited in some way to the unimaginable period of isolation and confinement Doyle is writing about, a period to which he imparts a sense of poignancy and glimpses of happiness, of grief and loss and small moments of connection that make it less surreal and more a part of the daily vicissitudes through which we must make our way, or perish.