Sex and Other Mysteries in ‘The Empty Family’

At the very end of Colm Toibin’s stunning new collection of stories, The Empty Family, two men brush against each other, though they both know that “they should do that only once or twice, and only when no one [is] watching them.” This quiet description of forbidden love could refer to a host of characters in Toibin’s stories–men and women who flay themselves, who endure emotional and sometimes physical torture to preserve their romantic relationships.

In “The Pearl Fishers”, a gay man recalls his furtive affair with a friend, now married and living a placid life far away. In “Silence”, the Irish playwright Lady Gregory risks the loss of her reputation to spend her afternoons with a married poet. And in “The Street”, this collection’s show-stopping final story, two Pakistani men endanger their own lives to be together. Throughout these unforgettable tales, Toibin pays close attention to the precariousness of all relationships, the ways in which a person’s identity can suddenly and permanently change, and the difficulty of knowing another human being. He is always showing, not telling, and as you read, you feel as if actual events were unfolding in front of you–as if you were in the room with these modest yet riveting characters.

The narrator of “The Pearl Fishers” wants to maintain his own, narrow view of the way the world works. He writes somewhat trashy novels, has occasional flings via Gaydar, and becomes short-tempered whenever anyone talks to him about his faith. When a figure from his past, Grainne, emerges, the narrator discourages her from discussing her religious beliefs by making snide, dismissive remarks. Grainne persists, however, and soon the narrator must tiptoe toward the threshold of admitting weakness or having a feeling. He begins to recall his torrid affair with Grainne’s husband–think of two schoolboys, one administering a rim job while the other performs oral sex–and he becomes unnerved by thoughts of the way he has changed and the things he does not understand. When Grainne makes a revelation about her past–a revelation that involves the narrator almost as much as it involves Grainne–we are left to wonder if the narrator’s worldview is merely a fragile shell, a mess he will need to acknowledge and correct in the very near future.

On the same note, in “Silence”, Lady Gregory is troubled by flashes from her scandalous and deeply buried past. At a dinner party with Henry James, Lady Gregory silently recalls the many afternoons she spent in the arms of a poet–a writer far less gifted than Lady Gregory herself. Did the affair need to end when it ended? Would Lady Gregory have ensured her own social ruin if she had fought to continue seeing this poet? As Lady Gregory sits with her discomfort, she begins to make a story–a slightly slanted version of the things that actually happened, a small work of art that conveys the truth more easily than the truth itself. In storytelling, she finds a brief respite from her pain.

“The Street”, by contrast, has very little room for reticence. Two male Pakistani laborers in Spain find themselves alone together in a dark shop:

At first Abdul let his arms hang loose by his side, but slowly he began to put his hands on Malik’s head, touching his ears and his face, lingering there, and then gripping his head, urging him to allow his penis in and out of his mouth, speaking only when he told him not to put his tongue too much against the top of the penis as it was making him too excited, just move his mouth up and down as he had done before. Malik did as he was asked.

Soon, the men recognize that they are endangering their own lives. A third worker appears and beats them severely. Malik learns that Abdul has a wife and children at home, and it’s unclear how the lovers–and you will have no doubt that you are reading about real, deep, hopeless love–will make a future for themselves. Toibin leaves them walking happily, side by side, enjoying a peaceful moment–an image made almost unbearably powerful by our awareness of its fragility.

Gay male readers, in particular, will admire and closely identify with several characters in this book. There is the dutiful, gay nephew who imagines that he has a fully loving relationship with his senile aunt–and who learns, in an unguarded moment, that his aunt thinks he has fallen in with “the wrong crowd”. There is the young gay student in Spain who becomes involved in a kind of orgy, and whose sense of life’s possibilities permanently and shockingly expands over the course of a few short weeks. There is the middle-aged man who finds solace in text messages from former boyfriends during a difficult week. It’s nice to have a writer who, like Alan Hollinghurst, puts gay male experiences front and center, and who has the narrative control of William Trevor or Alice Munro.

Toibin has an especially strong awareness of the way people suddenly change, behave irrationally, and leave others to guess things that should be plainly stated. A young woman spends an evening with two men, uncertain whom she will seduce, and when one of the men tilts his head in a slightly vain way, the woman very quickly and emphatically decides that she will not go home with him. In “The Street”, Abdul’s motives are consistently a mystery to Malik: Malik cannot begin to guess why Abdul swiftly and repeatedly moves back and forth from hostility to the kind of tenderness we see in this beautiful passage:

As the crowd shifted, Abdul pulled Malik closer until he found a way of standing in front of Abdul, keeping his head to the side. This, he realized, was what he had waited in the apartment for, and why he had come to the square. It was like being alone because no one noticed them, and maybe, Malik thought, it was better than being alone because they could concentrate on the music as Abdul began to pull Malik against him, putting his arms around him and letting them loose again.

People expect their lovers to behave in a rational and consistent way, and of course, they do not; they leave a trail of questions and hurt feelings wherever they go. Lady Gregory’s lover rather abruptly and brutally loses interest in her, and Lady Gregory must piece together the realization that many women come and go from this poet’s “study”. A tough-talking, highly-accomplished elderly woman recalls her passionate affair with an actor–a kind man who, after a while, simply stopped appearing when and where he was needed. (This story, “Two Women”, is a stand-out for its subtle depiction of shifting fortunes and its compassion for human weakness.) A torrid affair reaches a turning point simply because one half would like to watch the second act of an opera, while the other half would like to go and get a burger.

Lesser writers might underline, emphasize, and foreshadow throughout their stories, but in Toibin’s work, there’s a lovely sense of drifting, and bouncing, and sometimes hurtling randomly through life; there’s a sense that events are happening spontaneously, surprisingly, as they do actually happen in the world. Toibin chooses very simple words–there is rarely anything flashy in this volume–and yet his conclusions have the power to devastate you. As you finish the book, you have the sense that these men and women will linger in your thoughts for days and weeks–as if you have just spent several hours with people you know and love, and you’re both satisfied and sorry to see them go.

RATING 8 / 10