What I remember from reading two of Roddy Doyle’s novels (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which won the Booker in 1993, and The Woman Who Walked into Doors) is that his prose is eminently swift and readable. “Box Sets” is no different.
It’s always a little jarring to bring something modern and perhaps relatively short-lived into a work of written fiction. In this case, Doyle’s mention of current popular TV shows, e.g. “The Killing,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Mad Men” seems a bit risky to me. Sure, they mean something now, but will they two decades later? Or does it not matter about the actual content of the shows and their cultural resonance if we simply know that they are indeed popular TV shows of a certain era? After all, there is nothing about these particular “box sets” that is necessarily relevant to the story except that they exist and that the characters watched or didn’t watch them, separately.
But following that line of reasoning, the construct of the box sets seems a bit arbitrary and meaningless. Tacked on, rather, perhaps to add more cohesion to the story, an extra circumscription that it didn’t actually need. It may have been the genesis of the narrative in Doyle’s mind, but I would have discarded it in a subsequent edit; it is the least interesting aspect of his story.
I see that Doyle has a tendency I share to fall into lengthy passages of dialogue. They are reasonably verisimilitudinous (which I can’t say for mine), but are they altogether necessary? I’ve been reading some Raymond Carver stories lately and have been admiring his dialogue. Carver certainly employs a lot of it, but it all feels boiled down and essential. With Doyle we are just running through a conversation. Maybe it does play out that way in real life, but he hasn’t done the work to pare out the random flotsam of actual human speech to give us only what we need to know. It’s not so bad a flaw, I admit, but now that I’m trying to pare down my own, I notice it.
And then there is the matter of the wife’s supposed departure at the end. It’s not quite clear if she has left, but the intention to leave is there, judging by the “case” by the door when Chester (the protagonist) returns from his accident with the bicyclist. It feels sudden to me. As does the mug crashing against the wall. Chester and his wife Emer seem like two reasonable people, and suddenly this outbreak of rage. Rage is difficult to write about in a way that isn’t trite. I’ve tried to in a series of my stories featuring the perpetrator and victim of domestic violence, and my husband has always been dissatisfied with the result. Those of us who have experienced rage (either personally or as its object) know that it is sudden and inexplicable. In our stories, we attempt to render it that way. And yet it rarely feels believable. I don’t think “Box Sets” is an exception, but neither can I think of how he could have better represented it. And does the case by the door mean that this isn’t the first time he has broken out like this? Yet there is no hint of precedence. It all feels emotionally confusing, and not in a good way.
I’ve always felt that Roddy Doyle’s writing was so-so. “Box Sets” doesn’t change my mind. My friend and I have a way of (perhaps unfairly) disparaging writers: we say, “I could probably write a story like this, someday.” What we mean is, “We do not admire you overly much.” Indeed I can imagine myself–in a future, more practiced time–writing something not so different in breadth and spirit than this story. But it’s not what I aim for.
Read “Box Sets” online for free at The New Yorker website.