Exercises in the Experimental: Ryan O'Neill's The Weight of a Human Heart

Review by Robert Goodman
Ryan O’Neill is a lover of words, and he knows how to use them. The Weight of a Human Heart, his new collection of short stories, contains a challenging, stylistically rich group of pieces, many of them previously published and a few award-winning. He is part of what many are seeing as a revival of the short story both in Australia and worldwide, led by award-winning collections such as Nam Le’s The Boat and short story novels such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
The first few stories of the book set out the main thematic concerns of the rest. ‘Collected Short Stories’ is a story of an obsessive writer who plunders her life for short story ideas and in the process estranges her daughter. The second, ‘The Cockroach’, is a heart-wrenching tale of a young Tutsi girl fleeing the 1994 massacre in Rwanda. In ‘English as a Foreign Language’ an English language teacher fails to communicate with his wife. And ‘Four Letter Words’ is an anglo-immigrant Australian family story, sprinkled with liberal doses of both swearing and etymology.
Africa features strongly in this collection and is the setting for two of O’Neill’s most powerful stories: ‘The Cockroach’ and ‘Africa was Children Crying’. The first, as mentioned above, is a retelling of the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 through the eyes of a young girl. The second is the story of a foreigner riding out a malaria attack in a tiny rural hotel. This story exhibits one of O’Neill’s key themes: misunderstanding across the cultural divide. Other stories such as ‘The Genocide’ and those set in Uganda (‘The Saved’), China (‘The Chinese Lesson’) and Lithuania (‘Understand, Understood, Understood’) explore this theme.
O’Neill knows how to use words and imagery and he often wields them to devastating effect. Just one of many examples from the collection is this passage from ‘Last Words’:

Opposite his house was a decaying corner shop where years ago he used to get his morning paper. A placard beneath one of the broken windows proclaimed a ten-year-old headline that was as unchanging as a tombstone. The walls of the shop were a palimpsest of graffiti. A decaying building’s last words were always curses, Auld thought.

Many of O’Neill’s characters, in fact almost all of them, love words almost as much as he does – there are the etymologist, short-story writer and language teacher in the stories mentioned above, but there are also journalists, academics, crossword fans and book reviewers. While many of these characters love language, many of the stories turn on their inability to understand other people and the world around them. While this aspect of his characters affords O’Neill the freedom of linguistic experimentation that gives many of these stories their flair, it also results in a sense of sameness to the characters and hence to the stories as a collection.
This is part of the danger in collecting short stories. While individually these stories are inventive and experimental, when brought together they start to appear more like a series of creative writing exercises. Many of the stories retell what is essentially the same story in different styles. The themes, characters and plot lines become repetitive and lose some of their impact, so that towards the end of the collection what should otherwise have been surprising plot twists and character reveals have become predictable progressions to similar ends.
In this respect, the four initial stories discussed above don’t only set the out the thematic concerns of the collection, they form a narrative template for many of the stories that follow. Interestingly, this approach is echoed in the story ‘Collected Short Stories’ in which the mother of the narrator continually reuses the events from her life in different guises in her short stories, as the narrator complains:

In my third year at uni after I had read my mother’s latest story (in which I lost my virginity yet again, and my father died once more), I decided to get a tattoo.

Overall, The Weight of a Human Heart is an impressive collection of stories. The range of styles and use of language is engaging and effective, and if you are at all interested in the future of the short story as a literary form, both in Australia and internationally, then this book should be on your list. As a collection, however, the stories tend to lose their power. Given this, the best way to appreciate these stories is to savour them, slowly and individually.
The Weight of a Human Heart
Ryan O’Neill
Black Inc, 2012
225 pages, $27.95