Glimmer Train Fall 2014: “Speak to Me,” by Sean Padraic McCarthy

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I enjoy writing criticism of art because I enjoy reading and watching criticism of art. Doesn’t matter if it’s an essay on the homoerotic nature of Dracula or a “this movie sucks!” review from the Channel Awesome and Chez Apocalypse crowd. I love being a part of a discussion, with informed people, about mediums I love. This applies even if I’m not commenting or contributing to it much.

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the Channel Awesome bad movie reviews and vlogs. The phrases “If it had done (blank) this movie would’ve been fine” or “usually in this type of movie you have (blank) happen instead” encapsulate this trend. It’s a trend of critique that could prove damaging to the entire discourse of reviews. When reviewers say something like the phrases above, they usually suggest making an aspect of the movie or book more conventional, more of what they expect. And why would we want such a thing? I don’t want average literature or conventional literature; I want good and great literature. And that involves taking risks. I believe that bad works of art are closer to greatness than good works of art, simply because both great and bad works try something new and take risks (I’m not counting, of course, works that are bad because they’re boring, cliché, or trite— that an entirely different level of hell). Criticism should explore what art can be, not what it can’t be.

That said.

It’s not like I’m a child, dropping all critical faculties when a novelty appears. I’m drawn to the weird and flavorful, but I’m not out there dipping chocolate-covered grapes in ketchup and horseradish just because. Bad works are closer to greatness than good works, but they’re still bad works. And “Speak to Me” is a misfire on several levels, without having the decency to be even an enjoyable misfire.

Our tale, told in a confusing order for the first half of the story, centers around Jack. Jack’s brother Christopher is dying of cancer, and hopes to live long enough to spend Labor Day with the family in his current residence, the family’s rented lake house. He doesn’t make it. Jack’s immediate family decides to stay in his diseased brother’s lake house for the summer anyway, not wanting it to go to waste. Only the family starts noticing strange things over the summer, signs that perhaps Christopher is speaking to them from the grave…

Ghost stories are not new to Glimmer Train. Neither are stories with more explicit sexual content. But the types of sex-informed scenes in “Speak to Me” don’t make you grip the book tighter or understand the world more, they just make you scratch your head before you go back to struggling with more badly written sentences. Jack “playing the voyeur” to a young couple having sex next door to where his kids are playing? Doesn’t factor into anything! Jack’s wife Clarissa freaking out and shouting at her kids when they interrupt their parents having sex? Her motivations are never explained! The sexual aspects of this story are not important, meaningful, symbolic, or even sexy. All of this builds up a climate of frustration (and I guess sexual repression?) for Jack, a character that’s mostly reactionary. Maybe that’s the point, maybe he’s the vehicle that the audience uses to enter the story themselves. But you meet so many family members and spend so much time with Jack over the course of this story that none of the characters here make an impact. “Speak to Me” reads like a partway novelization of an adventure game— where the protagonist bumbles around, picking up objects and saying a few words before moving over to witness another puzzle piece for a mystery. This story would work much better as an adventure game, at least.

All of this frustrates me because I think the makings of a good ghost story are in here. When Christopher is passing away, the family gathered at his bedside is shouting their goodbyes and their “I love you”s while Chris dies. “A family usually quiet, reserved, now a chorus of grief” (McCarthy, 94), says the narrator. This is a chilling moment— it builds in intensity during a traumatic event. The ending is also scary, though I won’t spoil it here. But the ghost isn’t really the focus— the story spends most of the time on Jack and his uninteresting family. Maybe at novel length, with time to explain character motivation and have scenes come back to haunt characters later, this could have worked. I criticized the sexual aspects of this narrative possibly more than was needed, but that’s because they’re the only reason I’ll ever remember this story. I don’t want to flatten the edges of this tale by removing those points, I want those points to build up to something worthwhile. This tale could’ve been great. But that doesn’t stop it from being bad, even at its strangest points.

Sean Padraic McCarthy is actually a pretty accomplished writer, with his work appearing in The Ledge Fiction and Poetry Magazine and the Fifth Wednesday Journal among other places. Maybe his longer fiction is worth reading, but “Speak to Me” most definitely is not.

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