Conor Dawson reviews O’Callaghan’s debut novel, an uncanny reincarnation of the Gothic for the contemporary reader.
Conor O’Callaghan, Nothing on Earth (Doubleday Ireland, 2016) 176pp.
In a key scene from Conor O’Callaghan’s eerie debut novel, Nothing on Earth, one of the novel’s doubled father figures struggles to investigate a half-seen trespasser in the night: ‘Paul was at the patio door, trying to peer through his own reflection, flicking the switch of the outside patio light.’ There’s more than gothic atmospherics at play here; the nothing of the novel’s title threatens from the darkness. Paul panics – seizes a hammer – and takes to the darkness to investigate. The scene is effectively unnerving as we anticipate another apparition of the half-seen trespasser. But when Paul returns, defeated, exclaiming, ‘I wanted to find something. Someone’ – and the dread momentarily dissipates – the narrator muses, ‘Did he mean that nothing there, and nothing there repeatedly was the biggest fear of all?’ The question lingers in the summer darkness. Thus we join a family on the verge of uncovering some kind of perpetrator in the night, as the narrator himself attempts to peer past his own flickering reflection.
O’Callaghan successfully takes the uncanny architecture of a gothic novel and turns it into something rich and strange to the contemporary reader. The frame structure of the novel lays a sense of dread from the foundation: the novel opens with ‘the girl,’ the sole remnant of the family, banging at the narrator’s door. She enters, her skin a scribble of sun-burn and blue ink. ‘My papa is gone too,’ she says, her abject appearance rendered precisely by O’Callaghan’s prose. The next chapter opens analeptically as we return to the scene of the crime, dread mounting as the inevitability of the girl’s family’s disappearance unfolds, mediated by our narrator, his reflection ever flickering in the background. After ten years abroad, we learn, the family had recently returned to small-town Ireland. A summer heatwave spent in the shade of a show house in an empty ghost estate turns otherworldly. As mysterious as their sudden return ‘from foreign parts’ to Ireland, the narrator recounts the family’s disappearance – one by one – as related to him by ‘the girl.’ The careful balance of returns and departures haunts the novel’s central chapters and is consistently engaging, properly uncanny.
O’Callaghan manages his gothic grammar deftly, articulating the unease of contemporary Ireland – the collapse of material wealth (Ireland’s housing bubble) and spiritual backbone (the lapsed Catholic Church), unlikely spectres at what might seem a purely family affair. Recent history is the nightmare we are attempting to awake from here. At a glance, these themes are perhaps a shade specific for an international audience, but ‘in the particular contains the universal,’ says Joyce’s ghost.
O’Callaghan’s background as a poet shines through in his ability with imagery. Images pattern themselves throughout the novel, many subtle and deserving revisit – the flickering lights of Paul’s investigation return later as a neighbour beckons him with a flash of his headlights: ‘Paul and the girl were sitting at the flicker of their flat screen. The room lit and blackened and lit again in a few short jabs, like sheet lightning minus thunder.’ Just as we strain to see things clearly in the strobing nightscape of the novel, so we struggle to breathe through the dust of the ghost estate: ‘The road up through the close was pure dust,’ the dust every bit as invasive and effective as the sand of Kōbō Abe’s The Woman of the Dunes. O’Callaghan’s dexterity with rendering sensory experience extends beyond the visuals of verbal chiaroscuro and clouds of dust; there is an impressively textured gustatory scene as centrepiece to the novel’s midsection, concerning the dwindling family’s dinner with their eccentric neighbours.
But after the dust clears and dawn greys into view, we are left with more questions than we started with. There’s no Sherlock Holmes to unlock this unheimlich mystery. Towards the end of what becomes increasingly the narrator’s story – wavering between confession and defence – he muses on the interminable nature of his narrative: ‘Every now and then I make amendments: prune something, plant elsewhere … But some fresh thing reveals itself and the story alters.’ The final chapter sees O’Callaghan vacate his neo-gothic landscape of dust-choked ghost estates and winding country roads for fresh territory as the story becomes a self-reflective meditation. We leave the influence of anxiety for the anxiety of influence as O’Callaghan’s novel enters the landscape of John Banville’s solipsistic, tortured confessions – the shadows of Birchwood, The Book Of Evidence, and, indeed, Ghosts, curve along the last turn of the ghost estate– but O’Callaghan makes the territory his own, articulating a disturbed inner world which elicits a confusion of sympathy and disgrace, pity and suspicion.
As I read the book I considered my own trip back to Ireland, and felt unsettled, somehow. I skimmed around online, and found a comment in an interview O’Callaghan gave on the subject of exile in Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. ‘The point, it seemed to me, was that there is never any way back, never any return route. The life you leave vanishes in your wake.’ An insight he perhaps took as a starting point to his own work here – in the same interview the poet mentions struggling with a novel. In any case, the insight is developed carefully and made eerie in Nothing on Earth; here, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the novel, is the specific made universal. Anyone who has left the comforts of home to return a stranger will know what O’Callaghan’s characters are suffering from at heart.
O’Callaghan’s Nothing on Earth is an effective blend of gothic dread, social critique, and clever structure. Impressive in a novel so slim.
Conor Dawson lives in Hong Kong, where he teaches English literature. He has published literary criticism in Critique.