The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O’Neill
When Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad was propelled into the literary stratosphere last year (helped along by a small prize called the Pulitzer), one chapter in particular seemed to crop up in all related conversations. That was, of course, the one in which Egan tells the story of a young girl and her brother Lincoln, who suffers from Asperger’s, through PowerPoint, a program more commonly seen in primary school projects or corporate boardrooms than on the pages of a novel. Yet, in all these discussions, the conclusion was almost revelatory, with many readers (myself included) expecting it to grate at first glance, yet finding it in the end to be one of the most heart-sore moments of the book.
Egan’s chapter is perhaps just a sideways glance into a much wider world of experimental fiction, headed up in the US the likes of Ben Marcus, Heidi Julavits, David Foster Wallace and co. While the genre may not have reached the same level of popular recognition here in Australia, we too have had our fair share of experimental writing, whose proponents include (depending on your definition) Marcus Clarke, Tom Cho, miles vertigan and, of course, Ryan O’Neill, whose short stories have long continued to push the envelope of what can and can’t be done with narrative form.
The Weight of a Human Heart contains its equal portion of realist prose, though rarely without a sly nod to language and the literary establishment. Of these, the opening piece in particular – which traces the complex relationship between a daughter and her novelist mother – is a brilliant reading of love and bitterness and its expression in art. Yet we also find stories that, for example, chart the breakdown of a marriage through a series of graphs and illustrations, or follow a relationship’s trusts and betrayals through exercises in an English Language textbook.
There are also those that play around with the ‘rules’ of writing itself, knowingly referencing a structure and form, and switching, chameleon-like, between anything from metafiction to haiku. O’Neill clearly relishes these quicksilver twists and irregularities of language, and uses them to great effect.
Yet the emotional weight of these stories does not rest in their cleverness. Rather, it is in the slow-reveal of a certain kind of sadness lying behind seemingly ordinary facts and figures, of simple statements betraying a wider meaning (in 1979, Helen reads Jane Eyre, while her future husband Ray loses his virginity and leaves school. We know before it has begun how this relationship will end).
This may be a collection that will elbow some out of their comfort zone, but it is also an inventive, reflective one that will reveal just as much about you as a reader as it does the conventions of storytelling itself.
Jessica Au is from Readings St Kilda and is the author of Cargo.