The Language of Sharks by Pat MacEnulty

These times can’t add up
Yr life is such a mess
Forget the past, and just say yes.
— Sonic Youth, “Hey Joni”

“Are there sharks out here?” asks a character in the title story of this new collection from Pat MacEnulty. “Sure,” comes the reply, “There are sharks everywhere.” MacEnulty’s stories explore the allegorical implications of this exchange. A woman asks the question, a man responds, and we’re in a world of barely suppressed violence where cruelty, abuse, suffering and despair hiss in the background like a half-audible soundtrack. MacEnulty’s worlds contain helpless low-lifes, reluctant victims, resigned objects of hatred, defeated people — all struggling to achieve some kind of betterment, some notional satisfaction amid the wreckage of their lives.

Elements of these stories sometimes repeat themselves, seeming to cohere into something rather grander than a short story collection. In “Purple Haze,” a young woman, on the run, visits a rock festival in Georgia where, through a blur of acid, she sees Jimi Hendrix perform, and is raped, all in one night. “Pills, beauty and death – they all fell together like pieces of a child’s wooden puzzle,” she comments, cementing the connection between innocence, experience and corruption that is MacEnulty’s overriding theme in this book. Those characters trapped in the loop are beriddled by the puzzle, finding bits but rarely the whole.

On the last page of the book, we’re told that “Hendrix was my era. Not only my era but my place in the universe,” and that “I had seen him in person when I was 14.” These stories might be different versions of the same narrative, a fictional autobiography repeatedly trying to make sense of a life of devastating pointlessness. Liz, in “Like Someone in a Coma,” contains within herself “an emptiness as wide as the universe,” while Frankie, in “Singing in the Free World,” concludes her narrative with the memory of her friend’s singing, and her “feeling that it would always be there — even when all I could hear was a silence as vast as the universe.”

Characters pine for conventionality while their difference marks them for life. One “looks like someone you would want to take home to meet your folks — as long as she wears her sleeves long” (thereby hiding the tracks of her addiction); later, the married narrator of “Inside Out” comfortingly reassures us that “I was the kind of woman you could take to dinner with your parents,” before sleeping with a former lover to comfort him after the sudden death of his wife. Such sudden acts of genuine love, rare and intense, remind us that any depravity in these characters is usually enforced, imposed by forces beyond their control.

MacEnulty is a touch less convincing when railing directly against the uncontrolled forces of postmodern American society. She sometimes offers a pure, comical, misanthropy — the narrator of “Suburban Hunger” asserts that “having too many friends is a major pain in the ass. They always want you to do things with them or for them. They give you presents for your birthday and then you have to remember their birthdays. Or they get cancer and break your friggin’ heart.” In “The End,” we’re subjected to a long paragraph of things wrong with the modern world (mainly to do with noise), before the narrator concludes:

There’s another place in town, a quaintly-decorated place with baskets hanging from the ceiling, but in the middle of the room is this large black monolith with television screens facing in all directions. Stanley says it looks like 2001. He expects people to pick up their knives and forks and start dancing around the monolith. I’m reminded more of Orwell, who had the right idea but had it backwards. We don’t need to be watched all the time to stay out of trouble because we’re all hypnotized by what we’re watching.

Kubrick and 2001 take us back to Hendrix, the late ’60s and a notional counter-culture. Orwell, more apposite, still seems a bit outmoded, a bit pre-Baudrillard as a socially diagnostic reference point.

The stories in The Language of Sharks wear their pop culture on their sleeves, critically contrasting with the existential longings expressed by the various characters. Television science fiction (“Just like Star Trek characters dissolving into molecular patterns on the transport pad”) and popular rock (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pearl Jam, Supertramp) produce a cultural fabric shot through at different levels. There’s occasional high culture allusion in the same flip style (“He and I got into this long-winded argument about Nietzsche and that whole Dionysus versus Apollo thing”) suggesting a weary (or wearying) over-familiarity with the inadequacies of the popular as a form of escape, the high as a form of understanding.

It’s ultimately a conflict between escape and understanding that hamstrings the characters of MacEnulty’s stories. “I didn’t want to be set free,” laments one; “Life had nothing to do with happiness,” recognises another. At best, what’s available is a kind of mythical but familiar “lighting out for the territory” that situates MacEnulty in the very best of American literary company:

Later that day I sold or pawned all my wedding presents, I left a note for my mother on her office desk, telling her I had gone to seek my fortune. I told her I would write when I had an address. I signed the divorce papers and left them there, too. Unfairly or not, my mother had won another war. Then I got in my car and drove off. I pulled onto the interstate and headed west.”

Otherwise, for most of the characters here, it’s more of the same, the numbing, self-annihilating grind of human existence: “I watched the world before me for a long time. I watched until I couldn’t remember the name of anything.”