First, a confession: I’m not a huge fan of experimental literary forms. Nine times out of ten, as I see it, they come off cheap and gimmicky. Maybe that’s an unfair assessment, but many writers seem to play with form just so their work will stand out. To me, it seems like these writers are unsure of themselves. Maybe they feel their work isn’t capable of grabbing readers’ attentions on its own merits so they dress their stories up in clever framing devices. I know that sounds harsh; I’m sure there are writers out there whose only interests are in having fun and pushing boundaries, but these seem to be in the minority.
It’s not that I’m too conservative for experimental forms – I hope that isn’t how it comes across. Rather, I’m distrustful of gimmicks because I’m not interested in shallow writing. See, I’ve found that clever gimmicks often come at the expense of good character development. And since strong characters and narratives are the whole reason I like to read, the trade-off hardly seems worth it. I admit I could have fleeting intellectual appreciation for experimental forms, but I doubted I could ever become emotionally invested in a story that is presented in an obtuse way.
The point of this precursor? Ryan O’Neill is a writer who has developed a reputation for openly experimenting with literary forms. I thought it best to reveal the mindset I was in when I approached The Weight of a Human Heart, Ryan’s debut collection. Admittedly, I had read some of Ryan’s fiction before (in [untitled] and Best Australian Stories 2010), so I had some idea of what to expect. It was in his story ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’ that I first evidenced Ryan’s refreshingly original wit. In fact, ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’ (reproduced in this collection) stands as one of the best epistolary stories I’ve ever read. It’s what drew me to this collection – that, and Ryan’s developing reputation as one of the country’s seminal short story writers. I guess what I’m saying is that I sought The Weight of a Human Heart out despite Ryan’s widely documented experimental leanings. And I’m very glad I did.
Ryan O’Neill has a penchant for trickery, but there’s no hint of affectation in it. If there was, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to stomach it. Ryan, who I’ve never met, strikes me as less of a show-off and more someone wholeheartedly in love with language and literature. Case in point: The Weight of a Human Heart is overflowing with allusions to classic literature and knowing winks towards what some might consider arbitrary fictional conventions. It’s a love letter to literature in all its forms, and it’s not afraid to poke fun at the very thing it’s honouring.
‘Seventeen Rules for Writing a Short Story’, for instance, is a wild, rambunctious ride in which famous author quotes dictate the direction of the unfolding narrative. Similarly, ‘A Short Story’ delights precisely because the turns it takes are so unexpected. ‘A Marriage in Figures’ is what it sounds like: an analysis of the ideological differences between men and women, one made all the more interesting by its use of graphs, charts and other tactile examples. ‘Typography’ is another effortless visual affair, one that turns its namesake into a plaything. I expect Ryan and the design staff at Black Inc. had a lot of fun laying these stories out.
For a sudden change in direction, I’d like to air a minor grievance I had with a particular story. ‘The Examination’, I felt, though gloriously sub-textual, never really broke free from the shackles of its device. In this story, a disadvantaged African youth confesses his hopes and hardships within the response sections of a written examination. While far from a bad story, it’s a perfect example of everything I don’t like about experimental fiction: the form is limiting and the story too disconnected to offer any emotional resonance. The fact that it tries to be affecting, and succeeds in getting some of the way there, makes it all the more frustrating.
Of course, ‘The Examination’ is the exception, rather than the rule. For the most part, the experiments in The Weight of a Human Heart perfectly complement the stories they’re attached to. In some cases, they even enhance them.
Writers, publishers, or those aspiring to be either, will get an extra kick out of The Weight of a Human Heart. It’s a fun and stirring read, and has an accessible prose-style, but it does demand things from the reader: namely, a similar appreciation for language, literature and everything else it celebrates. It’s a bit like Ryan wrote this book for a secret, undefined sub-culture of literature nerds. While it isn’t completely inaccessible to others (i.e. people without an interest in publishing or with knowledge of literary tropes; people who just want an easy, ripping yarn), I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it to them. In short, the very thing that makes this book unique – its unrelenting cleverness – is also what will turn some away. A few of these stories – perhaps a quarter – are like little puzzles; the reader must read very closely to discern hidden meanings and gain a fuller appreciation. It’s never more work than it needs to be, but I feel it may deter those after a quick, simple read. (Different strokes n’ all, but gosh, the thought of someone turning this book away because it’s too challenging is very disheartening!)
I fear I’ve portrayed this book as some sort of self-aware comedy. It is, in parts, but it’s also much more. Ryan O’Neill shows great versatility in this collection. Juxtaposing his aforementioned experimental stories are some incredibly poignant reflections on loss, hardship and the infallibility of the human spirit. Ryan has spent time in Europe, Africa and Asia, and it’s clear that these places have influenced his work. Rwanda, for instance, is beautifully rendered in several stories – most notably in the sublime ‘Africa Was Crying Children’ and ‘The Cockroach’. Ryan’s keen observational eye brings these exotic locales to life. The Rwandan stories are powerful, affecting and, crucially, unsentimental. The child protagonist in superhero story ‘The Speeding Bullet’ (my personal standout) is as endearing as you could ever hope to find.
For a collection that prides itself on its willingness to experiment, it’s funny that the more traditional narratives seem to pack the most punch. Neither style would work as well without the other, though; a whole collection of lighter, experimental pieces could feel frivolous, while one with nothing but deep, stirring pieces might seem overwrought.
Excepting ‘The Examination’, the slight accessibility barrier and an over-reliance on the theme of adultery (seriously, at least seven of the stories feature it), I can not recommend this highly enough. Short story collections usually take me a good while to get through, but this I devoured. It’s thrilling being able to surrender to a writer, knowing full well that where they’re taking you is somewhere new and unexpected. The Weight of a Human Heart is full of such surprises. Its commitment to defying my expectations left me constantly smiling.
I genuinely can’t wait to see what Ryan O’Neill comes out with next.