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Theatres of Intimacy in Lucy Caldwell’s and Jan Carson’s Short Fiction

Théâtres de l’intime dans les nouvelles de Lucy Caldwell et Jan Carson
Lea Sinoimeri


Cet article propose une lecture comparée des nouvelles des auteures nord-irlandaises Lucy Caldwell et Jan Carson. On s’attache à montrer que Caldwell et Carson repensent la nouvelle comme un art profondément relationnel, en élargissant les qualités dramatiques de la forme et en brouillant constamment les frontières entre écriture narrative et écriture dramatique. Se concentrant sur les formes paradoxales d'intimité que Caldwell et Carson explorent dans leurs textes, cet article examine, d'abord, les espaces physiques de leurs nouvelles comme lieux liminaux et scènes théâtrales de l’intime. Il aborde ensuite la théâtralité des monologues intérieurs qui sont mis en scène dans ces espaces, en établissant d'une part, un parallèle avec les usages de la forme monologique dans l'art radiophonique et, d'autre part, en analysant les effets performatifs de l'usage du pronom de deuxième personne. Il conclut en attirant l'attention sur les manières complexes dont Caldwell et Carson créent des liens intimes entre texte et lecteurs, tout en brouillant les frontières entre lecture et écoute.

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  • 1 ‘What makes a writer Irish? is the question that has enervated and energised me for the whole of my (...)

1To compare the work of Lucy Caldwell and Jan Carson is a stimulating, yet difficult task. Born in the early 1980s, in Belfast (Caldwell) and Ballymena (Carson), they belong to the same generation of Northern Irish authors, but their reciprocal histories shape and define their poetics in many distinctive ways. London-based, Caldwell divides herself between her adopted and her natal city mirroring in her work her constant dialogue with her multiple identities and plural belongings.1 After living for more than ten years in the United States, Carson is now back in Northern Ireland, Belfast, where she is actively engaged in the community life of the city as a writer as well as a community arts facilitator. She defines herself as a magic realist (Carson 2022) whose work is grounded in an historical, social and psychological portrayal of the Protestant community of Belfast.

2However, beyond these obvious differences, Caldwell and Carson share a common interest in the possibilities of literary and generic experimentation as the extreme variety of literary forms and media in which they create testifies. The authors of several novels and short story collections, they also write for the stage and for radio and Caldwell’s two short story collections Multitudes (2016) and Intimacies (2021) and Carson’s Children’s Children (2016) and The Last Resort (2021) can be read, as it will be suggested here, as hybrid and liminal works that challenge the reader’s perception of generic identity and demonstrate the authors’ far-reaching intertextual and intermedial aspect of writing. Some of their short stories literally stand in-between radioplays and short fictions having as they do a twofold body both on air and on the page. Written during lockdown in 2020, Carson’s The Last Resort was first broadcast on BBC 4 as a ten-episode series, before being published as a short fiction collection. Similarly, Caldwell’s Mayday was first broadcast as a radioplay on BBC 4, in 2018 to be later included, in a revisited version, into her last collection Intimacies. Finally, many of their other short stories have been adapted for radio and produced by the BBC.

  • 2 This emphasis is interesting for it reveals an urge to redefine and reframe the short story canon i (...)

3An evidence of Carson’s and Caldwell’s commitment to exploring the fault lines between the short story and other literary forms is to be found in their non-fictional work where they critically reflect on their relationship to the form of the short story. Although they both conceive of the novel as their most congenial genre, they insist on the inherent power and possibilities of the short story as a highly experimental form. Interestingly enough, they establish a similarity between the short story and drama, insisting on the versatility of the form and on its theatrical effects.2 According to Carson, the short story better sustains the fantastical elements of the text than the novel (Caldwell, Carson and Ge 2021, 12’33”–13’08”), while for Caldwell, the foundational ingredients of the genre—its unity of effect, condensation and compression—make it formally akin to the play: ‘There is something heightened, more akin to a poetry or more akin to a play. . . . In a short story, something can be both things at once, both ghost and memory and either, like in a play’ (Caldwell, Carson and Ge 2021, 15’55”–16’48”).

4Not only do Caldwell and Carson share a metafictional interest in the experimental form of the short story, they also unite their writing in a complex net of echoes and intertextual references through common thematic choices. All of their short fictions deal with themes of intimacy—both sexual and non-sexual intimacies—, such as familial relationships or particular states, like dementia, death, illness or grief. The title of Caldwell’s last collection, Intimacies, speaks out this crucial interest in private and intimate life. Writing about her collection of stories Caldwell states:

To intimate means to imply, to communicate something urgent or delicate or otherwise impossible to articulate with the most sparing of signs: and this seemed as good a definition as any of what these short stories were trying to do, this form where every sentence, every word, every punctuation mark needs to be pulling its weight, playing its part; this art of conjuring into being something greater than itself. (Caldwell in Magennis 2021, 176)

5The short story is this time defined as the most intimate of forms; its elusion and implicitness, its brevity and condensation as the elements that constitute it as an ideally private art. However, as Lauren Berlant has argued: ‘To intimate is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures, and at its root intimacy has the quality of eloquence and brevity. But intimacy also involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way’ (Berlant 1998, 1). The inwardness of the intimate is thus always met by a corresponding public dimension and Caldwell’s reflection on the short form as being both a dramatic and an intimate art, ask for an analysis of the ways in which these texts insist on the blurring of the public and the private and the collapsing borders between the body and the text.

  • 3 For a discussion of the relational dimension of the contemporary Irish short story which revisits a (...)

6Caroline Magennis has recently argued that there has been a remarkable flourishing of representations of intimate life in Northern Irish Writing after the Troubles which marks a shift from a focus on violence and traumatic ruptures to a focus on connection and on the transformative powers of intimacy on both individuals and societies (Magennis 2021, 1–18). Therefore, to investigate the dramatic qualities of Caldwell’s and Carson’s short stories means to read them inside the larger context of contemporary Northern Irish literature and its interest in the political and aesthetic significance of literary representations of intimacy. More particularly, it means to explore the ways in which these authors rethink the short story as a profoundly relational art inside the literary tradition of the Irish short fiction, challenging traditional associations of the form with loneliness, alienation and the lyrical.3

7Caldwell and Carson, I would like to suggest, highlight the multiple fractures and fault lines of Northern Irish reality while imagining new, liminal and relational modes of being and belonging in Northern Ireland. In their short stories, they explore the paradoxical forms of intimacy, those intimate encounters with strangers that alter the shape and experience of one’s own existing intimacies and they do so by expanding the dramatic qualities of the form of the short story and by constantly blurring the lines between narrative and dramatic writing and between reading and listening. This is very poignant in the stories that were written and first aired on the radio during lockdown. In 2020, when our lives came suddenly at a halt and we experienced the violence of physical disconnection, radio, the most intimate and private ‘mass medium’, with its paradox of privacy despite spatial distance, offered creative and liberating ways of maintaining creative voices alive and fostering connections between artists and audiences.

8Carson’s and Caldwell’s short stories mirror these paradoxes in their narrative structure and style and owe much of their form and effect to the context of their writing. They hinge on connection and relationality, while staging the historical, social and psychological fractures that tear individuals and communities apart. Split between their past and present selves and between their inner and outer voices, the narrators of Caldwell’s and Carson’s stories narrate their intimate, dramatic ruptures, losses and dislocations in and out of Northern Ireland. However, despite the alienating effect of this fractured narration, each collection weaves the different stories together through thematic echoes and multiple, intratextual connections imagining collective and plural ways of overcoming the dramatic fractures of past and present times.

9The first section of the article examines the physical spaces of Caldwell’s and Carson’s short stories as liminal and dramatic settings of their characters’ intimacies. The second section discusses the dramatic quality of the inner monologues that are staged in these spaces, first, by establishing a parallel with uses of the monological form in radiophonic art and second, by scrutinising the performative effects of the use of the second-person pronoun. Finally, the last section draws attention to the complex ways in which Caldwell and Carson foster intimacy with their reader by blurring the lines between reading and listening.

Liminal Spaces

10With very few exceptions, the physical spaces where Caldwell and Carson set their stories are liminal and transitory places. Planes, airports, cars, caravans, restaurants and cafés feature predominantly in the four collections. It’s the case of Carson’s ‘Shopping’ from Children’s Children, a tragicomic portrayal of desire inside marriage and family life which begins as follows: ‘In October I began a love affair with a man named either John or Paul. We met once a week on Tuesdays by arranged accident in Knocknagoney Tesco’ (Carson 2016, 145), or of her ‘Alternative Units’, from the same collection, which deals with child death and mourning in a scene set during a restaurant dinner. ‘Here We are’, a short story from Caldwell’s Multitudes, centers around a love story between two young girls and the memory of their meetings in a student café in South Belfast called The Other Place. As she remembers and reconstructs a detailed image of the café, the narrator of the short story states: ‘It seemed a stage set that had been waiting our whole lives for us and at last we were here’ (Caldwell 2016, 118, emphasis added). ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’, from Caldwell’s Intimacies, deals with mourning and desire in the enclosed space of an international flight from Montreal to London where ‘a bizarre intimacy’ (Caldwell 2021, 120) comes into being between the narrator and the man sitting close to her.

11In each case, these collective intimate places function as dramatic settings of their characters’ intimacies, outer stages which disrupt the oppressive geographies of domestic and familiar spaces. Likewise, the events that these stories narrate are frequently set out of a linear narrative frame into a perpetual present tense. In several stories, the use of the present tense constitutes a breach in the narrative sequence, re-enacting a memorial scene, as in Caldwell’s ‘Inextinguishable’: ‘Three days before my daughter died she comes running into the kitchen, Mummy, Mummy, you have to listen to this piece of music’ (Caldwell 2016, 136; emphasis added). Elsewhere, the narrative voice offers a detailed description of the liminal places where the stories are set, imitating the form of dramatic scripts as in Caldwell’s ‘Like This’ and ‘Night Waking’:

It’s a Tuesday or Wednesday, one of those amorphous midweek days not quite the weekend, but at least not Monday.

(Caldwell 2021, 1)

OUT OF NOWHERE you are suddenly awake, heart pounding.
Nothing. The baby is next to you in the bed, asleep. In the orange glow of the salt lamp, the room’s shadows are still.
There is no noise from your son’s room.
(Caldwell 2021, 76)

12These opening paragraphs immediately plunge the reader inside intimate scenes from the narrators’ quotidian, regardless of any other temporal or spatial reference. The sentences in capital letters function as imperative clauses which lift the curtain on an accurately described stage summoning the reader to represent the scenes in her mind’s eye.

13Carson uses a similar technique in The Last Resort where ten monologues make each character’s inner thoughts overlap with a description of the events in their making. The collection opens in medias res with the inner monologue of Pete, the first of Carson’s ten narrators-spectators who invites his listeners/readers into a scene from his daily life at the caravan park:

Frankie’s rallied the troops. They’re eager to get the show on the road. Frankie says he thinks the rain’s for lifting. They all nod optimistically, though every one of them’s dressed for a downpour. ‘Happy’ Trevor’s in his wellies. The ladies are sporting Dunnes anoraks, hooded and zipped to the chin. They’d put you in mind of Teletubbies. But you wouldn’t want to tell them that. (Carson 2021, 1)

  • 4 For an analysis of the oral origins of the Irish short story see Cardin 2014, 1–6.

14In the ten episodes/short stories of The Last Resort, each character narrates—or more precisely re-stages—his or her own version and vision of the facts, blending outer and inner landscapes, ventriloquising the other characters’ voices. The ten monologues insist on addressing the reader and the listener alike by adopting a conversational style, replete with storytelling devices such as the ‘you’ address, the multiple repetitions, the broken syntax and informal register, typical of spoken speech. The ample use of the deictics ‘here’, ‘this’, ‘now’ along with the use of the present tense insist on the here and now of dramatic performance, echoing and reviving oral storytelling traditions and deepening the communication between readers and characters, listeners and storytellers.4

15In other stories, liminal spaces and suspended temporality offer a privileged perspective over the historical past, combining the question of interpersonal intimacy with that of political trauma in Northern Ireland. ‘Ally Ally O’, the opening story of Caldwell’s collection Multitudes, explores mother-daughter relations. It is set in a car where a mother and her three daughters play the ‘Getting Lost Game’ in which the mother drives the car following her daughters’ random instructions. During this brief interval ‘[f]amiliar places appear at unexpected times, as if distances have somehow gone wrong’ (Caldwell 2016, 1). Not only does the game turn the familiar geography of the four characters into an uncanny, disjointed dimension, it also disrupts the temporal and spatial dimension of their own domestic space: ‘she was right in the middle of the ironing, huge drifts of still-damp bedsheets, a cassoulet half-done on the stove and the radio droning when she said, I need to get out of here’ (Caldwell 2016, 2).

16Stepping out of their domestic space-time, the four characters enter the enclosed space of the car until they join the top of a hill overlooking the city of Belfast. As the mother enumerates the different parts of the city, eye-travelling from the Protestant neighbourhoods of Belfast to the Catholic ones, the geography of the divided city displays itself and the violence of the conflict is embedded in the text, although only intimated to characters and readers alike, as shown in this passage:

—The Black Mountain, your youngest sister says. Have I ever been there?
—No, says your mum. No, you haven’t.
—Why not?
—Well, says your mum, I don’t know my way around that part of the city.
—Can we go there one day, but?
—One day, says your mum.
. . .
—She doesn’t know that ‘one day’ means not ever. She doesn’t know that there are places that you never go, not on purpose and not even by accident. One wrong turn, one wrong consonant; that’s all it takes.
 (Caldwell 2016, 7–8)

17Caldwell’s The Last Resort adopts a similar, detached perspective from the city and from linear temporality. The ten short stories that compose the collection are all set in a caravan park on the Northern Irish coast where a few static caravans teeter on an eroding cliff-edge overlooking the ocean. The stories can be read individually, each of them being a separate monologue by each of the holidaymakers that occupy the static caravans, but they are also interconnected by a common plot. The place was the scene of a murder during the Troubles when Lynette, the daughter of Frankie, an ex-member of the RUC and resident of the park, was killed by an IRA bomb. Carson builds the collection as a Whodunit play whose core mystery is Lynette’s ghost who returns to haunt the park. Stealing personal objects from the residents of the park, she forces them to come together in order to find their missing belongings and face the haunting presences of their respective lives.

18Like their oxymoronic static caravans, the characters of The Last Resort are ‘perpetually stuck’ (Carson 2021, 13) between their pasts and their future, all of them struggling to move forward and get away from the burden of the past and the influence of strong, authoritarian family figures. The crumpled temporality of the collection displays the synchronicity of the multiple fractures and fault-lines that have marked the historical past in Northern Ireland in both older and most recent times. It highlights its multi-layered legacies that still shape the present of the country. Steeped in a post-Troubles, post-Celtic Tiger crisis and post-Brexit context, the innermost desires, projections and individual trajectories of the ten characters are inextricably woven into these plural pasts. Rather than resolving mysteries and disclosing revelations, the dramatic tension of the collection is significantly embedded in the motif and metaphor of suspension. The Last Resort ends with the emblematic image of the old caravan suspended over the void as the residents ‘lift their hands. Solemnly. Reverently. Silently. They step away from the caravan. They are choosing to let go’ (Carson 2021, 97). Like Caldwell’s intimate spaces that resemble stage sets where characters unfold their intimate memorial fragments, Carson’s haunted caravan park functions thus as an interstitial gap between narration and performance, a site of individual and collective memory where the uncanny presence of the past is revisited and reshaped.

Theatres of the Mind

19Stepping out of time and space, into a suspended dimension, the characters of Caldwell’s and Carson’s short stories turn these liminal and transitory places into intimate, confessional spaces where they intone their internal monologues. Both Caldwell and Carson choose the monologue as their favourite form and many of their short stories function as one act radioplays, theatres of the mind where multiple spatial and temporal dimensions overlap.

  • 5 In two different studies, Angela Frattarola (2009) and Todd Avery (2018) show that Tyrone Guthrie’s (...)

20Radiodrama’s potential for staging the inner workings of the mind have nurtured the history of the genre since its very first modernist experiments5 and the dramatic qualities of the monologic form have been at the core of radiodrama theory from the outset. Early radio theorist Rudolf Arnheim considered, for instance, that the aural was more conducive to dramatic action than the visual. A privileged site for staging the characters’ inner dramatic conflicts, Arnheim conceived of the monologue as the ideal and most natural form for the blind medium:

So if a conflict is waged in the soul of a dramatic figure, that soul begins to speak. And therefore the monologue is a natural form of expression for drama, because inner conflicts which a man fights out alone are as frequent in life as in drama, and are in general perhaps the most important of all dramatic events. So the monologue is the simplest and most natural precipitate, in the medium of words, of an important spiritual experience. (Arnheim 1936, 177)

  • 6 The American podcasts Love + Radio, and The Heart, whose 2015 episode ‘Movies in your Head’ won the (...)

21Interestingly, contemporary audioart is taking up this experimental tradition of the early avant-garde with a great number of recent podcasts and audioplays that explore the intimate dialogues between narrators and the multiple voices inside their heads.6 Caldwell’s and Carson’s experimentation with the monological form in their short stories seems to grow on similar grounds, exploring as they do the deeply dramatic and dialogical possibilities of the monologue. An evidence of this is their common interest in the use of the second person as both narrator and addressee of their stories. Ten out of the twenty-two short stories contained in Caldwell’s two collections have a second-person narrator, and although Carson uses the second person only twice in Children’s Children, she uses it in The Last Resort, in the form of the common place address to the audience of the dramatic monologue and has been experimenting with ‘you’ narrative in her recent writing.

  • 7 Carson’s use of the second person as a means of female expressiveness can also be read in terms of (...)

22In a conversation with Katharina Rennhak, for the EFACIS podcast series, Carson discusses the distance that the second-person pronoun establishes between a character and herself, seeing it as being closely linked to the experience of a strong, traumatic event (Carson, Rennhak 2021 18’00”–19’45”). Carson’s idea of the ‘you’ address as a means of performing a self with whom to converse and articulate the traumatic experience while at the same time holding at bay this experience from the subject chimes with recent studies on the form. Recent studies in trauma literature have scrutinised the concept of performing vulnerability (Ganteau 2015, Onega and Ganteau 2018) arguing that contemporary novels ‘dramatise and perform’ trauma (Ganteau 2015, 17) rather than simply representing and describing traumatic experiences. Building on these studies, Sandrine Sorlin adopts a pragmatic perspective to explore the role of ‘you’ in the writing of traumatic events (Sorlin 2022) showing that the dramatisation of the enunciation that the second-person pronoun performs allows the narrators to address the ungraspable traumatic ordeals of their life (Sorlin 2022, 92–93).7

23Cadwell also reflects on the use of ‘you’ in her stories, in a brief lecture on the use of the form in contemporary literature in English, where she insists on the dramatic qualities of the form (Caldwell 2021b). She highlights the workings of the second-person narrator as a form of dissociation and disbelief which creates a tension between the narrators and the tiny voices inside their heads (Caldwell 2021b, 4’09”). Caldwell insists on the idea that not only does the second-person pronoun display the fundamental split of the speaking subject, but that it allows the writing of the short story as an intimate dialogue between the characters and their past, present or future selves (Caldwell 2021b, 5’10”).

24Two examples from Carson’s and Caldwell’s short fictions illustrate the way in which these authors use the ‘you’ pronoun to ventriloquise the first-person narrator and to dramatise a conflict between real and imagined or hallucinated selves. In Carson’s ‘Alternative Units’ a first-person narrator addresses a ‘you’, her husband, as they have dinner in a restaurant. The story follows a contrapuntal structure, alternating the real dialogue with ‘you’ in the restaurant with the alternative pseudo-dialogue with ‘you’ that takes place in the narrator’s head as the opening paragraph illustrates:

‘Hey Liz,’ you say, ‘did you see the house is up for sale again?’
You have purposefully waited till my mouth is full of sandwich to say this.
‘Hrmmm,’ I say through bacon, lettuce, tomato and artisan rye. Bread is not a quick chew, like rice or pasta. You have at least ninety seconds of my silence in which to present your argument.
 (Carson 2016, 153)

25While the argument in the restaurant enfolds around the husband’s wish to sell their house and move into his childhood home, the imagined dialogue in her head deals with the loss of their son Freddy and the impossible mourning of his death. The short story unfolds thus as an episode of purple dramatic irony, but the two split threads of the narrative are permeable and blur together, both voiced out without solution of continuity in the consistency of the ‘I’ addressing the ‘you’ of her narrative:

‘I was happy in that house,’ you say. ‘I think we could be happy in that house again.’
I ignore you every time you talk about happiness. Your idea of happiness is like the outline of a circle. My idea of happiness is all the parts huddled together in the middle.
 (Carson 2016, 154)

26Physical and temporal spaces therefore function as proper soundscapes in this short story, giving concrete presence to absent voices and bodies and disrupting the binary opposition between presence and absence, and between outer and inner dimensions. This allows for Freddy’s presence to be perceived as being as real as that of the other two characters of the story. From the outset, the narrative voice presents him to the reader: ‘Freddy is with us. He is here beneath the tablecloth, twisting himself round the legs of the restaurant chairs’ (Carson 2016, 153). She goes on to describe the physical sensations that Freddy’s presence creates: ‘the heat of his small body sweating against [her] shins’ (153), ‘the brush of him’ (153), Freddy smiling back at her (153).

27The two ‘alternative units’ of narrative collapse gradually into each other only halfway through the story when the death of Freddy is explicitly mentioned, revealing his presence as that of a ghost child. The dramatic tension of the story is thus produced by the abrupt passages from one narrative thread to the other, while Freddy’s embodied presence, moving in and out of the two threads, literally performs the narrator’s ‘both/and’ logic when she states: ‘I know Freddy’s dead. We’ve been over this a hundred times. He’s still here though. Look under the table, John. See for yourself’ (Carson 2016, 158).

28Conversely, Lucy Caldwell’s ‘Like This’ takes place in a young mother’s routine day, as she takes her toddler and her six-month-old baby for a walk and stops in a café to shelter from the rain before returning home at the end of the day. However, the eventless morning is counterbalanced by a traumatic event that takes place in her mind and lasts only ‘a second’s split shiver of thought’ (Caldwell 2021, 3): the time of leaving her baby with a woman sitting close to her to accompany her little boy to the toilet. In the brief interval, the intimate fear of losing her baby materialises and takes the shape of several scenarios where she imagines her own and her family’s future life crumble under the burden of guilt and grief for her lost daughter.

29The story is told in the second person which functions here as a ‘voice-over’ narrator that both addresses the character as her own divided self and speaks about her:

Into Frankie’s, order at the counter, today’s lotto of foods that will or won’t be eaten, choosing a table, wrestling with a stack of recalcitrant highchairs, highchair rejected, menu, crayons, layers of nursing vests and stubborn clips of nursing bras and the howling baby finally latched on. (Caldwell 2021, 2–3)

30Animated under the performative power of the narrative voice, the whole scene inside the café is re-enacted in the very moment of its making until the moment when the narrator-character returns to her table and the lady to whom she has left her baby is not there anymore. The hallucinated scenarios are then introduced abruptly into this scene-making activity, collapsing the barrier between real and imaginary worlds. The two typographic blank spaces that separate the paragraphs which contain the imagined scenarios of the loss of her daughter are the only markers of a narrative gap in the text, but at a first reading, they can be interpreted as a lapse in time, the first of these paragraphs starting with: ‘They never find the woman, or the baby. CCTV, Newsnight, the front page of the Evening Standard: nothing’ (Caldwell 2021, 6). In the following paragraphs, as the narrative voice addresses her split self and keeps juxtaposing different and contradictory scenarios, their mental nature is thus gradually revealed to the reader until the second blank signals the return to the scene of the café. Like Carson’s ‘Alternative Units’, Caldwell’s ‘Like This’ overlaps real and virtual scenarios by dramatising and weaving the unheard voices of their narrators into the narrative fabric.

Strange Intimacies

31The way in which these texts deeply disorient the reading process further complicates the intimate position that they also require the reader to adopt. As monological narratives set in stage-like liminal spaces and in a perpetual present tense, Carson’s and Caldwell’s short fictions mimic the theatrical subtlety of stage monologues. According to Hans-Thies Lehmann, the inner theatricality of stage monologues lies precisely in the power of the form to actualise the latent split of theatre between the imaginary dramatic universe and the real theatrical situation, where an actor addresses an audience. Lehman goes so far as to affirm that, compared to the dialogical form, the monologue intensifies communication:

From the point of view of theatre aesthetics, it could be claimed that, conversely, only in the system of dialogue does the failure of speaking as communication between people become visible, while a monologue as a speech that has the audience as its addressee intensifies communication—namely the communication taking place in the here and now of theatre. (Lehman 2006, 128)

32This intensified form of communication is further heightened in Carson’s and Caldwell’s short stories by the use of the relational pronoun which calls for the readers’ empathy and compassion in much more intensive and explicit ways than other narratives do (Sorlin 2022, 23). Interestingly, the ways in which ‘you’ narratives engage the readers in an intimate and immersive reading experience are similar to radiophonic and podcasting constructions of intimacy with the listener. The idea of radio as the most intimate and private ‘mass medium’, and of its paradox of privacy, despite spatial distance and the public mode of its communication, is often seen as depending on the second-person mode of address. A telling example is Andrew’s Crisell’s Understanding Radio, one of the first radio textbooks in the English language which defines radio intimacy as follows:

[T]here is the paradox that while radio is a long-distance mode of communication it is also an inward, intimate medium, and so integral does the imagination seem to be to the way in which we decode virtually all its messages, whether factual or fictional, that when we speak of its ‘appeal to the imagination’ we mean in effect its basic ability to communicate. . . . The listenership is reached as a mass, but through a second-person mode of address which is informal, intimate, ostensibly directed at a single individual. (Crisell 1994, 11, 68; emphasis added)

33Creating the illusion of a communication taking place in the here and now of theatre, Caldwell’s and Carson’s texts intensify the reader-character communication, specifically reflecting on the subtle line between intimacy and communality. Expanding the dialogical and dramatic possibilities of the inner monologue, they position the reader in a liminal locus, similar to that of a podcast or audioplay listener. Especially in the stories that employ a ‘you’ narrator or addressee the reader becomes an eavesdropper on the intimate dialogues that the characters hold with their distanced selves or distanced loved ones. As in immersive theatrical experiences with binaural sound where audiences experience a multi-layered sound performance, and sound is perceived as coming from both outside and inside the listeners’ heads, in Caldwell’s and Carson’s short stories readers stand in a position of a simultaneous closeness and distance from the narrated events.

34This is evident in two brief passages from two short stories, written as confessional monologues that explore the struggles and contradictions of motherhood and maternal love. In Caldwell’s ‘Intimacies’, from the eponymous collection, a mother addresses her yet-to-be-born daughter. The opening lines explicitly invite the reader to settle in-between the two characters:

IMAGINE THIS. I am at an airport, flying somewhere with your brother—or trying to: for some reason flights are delayed and all is chaos. Your brother is not yet your brother, nor yet in any tangible sense, are you you, though I sometimes seem to catch glimpses of you, at the edge of my mind as I’m falling asleep, or a moment before waking. (Caldwell 2021, 145)

35The radiophonic imperative that opens the passage draws the readers into the making of the memorial fragment. The singular memory is dislocated from singular time and space, and projected into undetermined place: an airport and flying somewhere which call for shared, familiar, but impersonal settings. Yet, the employ of ‘you’ stimulates idiosyncratic mental images so that the reader/listener is never perfectly aligned with either of the two characters’ perspectives, but constantly floating between the two.

36Another poignant example is Carson’s ‘Floater’. Differently from ‘Intimacies’, though, ‘Floater’ does not call for a communality of experience with the reader. It imagines a mother talking to her gravity-less, floating daughter who was born from an abusive sexual encounter in an airplane toilet with a much older man than her. In a crucial passage, at the heart of the story, Carson lets the reader become a discrete witness to one of the most private and most common moments of a mother’s life:

At night, in your sleep, smile firmly fixed, you hum love songs to the higher clouds, the thin places which coast above the rain. Perhaps you think I can’t hear, but the walls in this house are exceptionally thin.
I love you.
I tell you this. ‘I love you,’ I say, speaking firmly over the hissing water, each and every time I wrestle you under the showerhead. (Carson 2016, 123)

37Softly whispered and almost lost at the very moment in which it is pronounced, ‘I love you’ hovers in-between the mother and her child. The mother and daughter difficult love and attachment are ‘made audible’ under the form of an intimate, but distant communication, where the love messages that the two characters send to each other are always in danger of being ill-heard, ill-received or even dissipated in the distance that separates the two of them. As readers, we are invited to re-enact this aural, embodied experience while remaining consistently conscious of our own foreign, almost parasitic presence in the scene.

  • 8 For a feminist epistemology of knowledge see Haraway 1988, 575 599. ‘The knowing self is partial in (...)

38I would like to conclude on this idea of the reader as an intimate, but distant listener, which perfectly translates Carson’s and Caldwell’s preoccupation with the complexities of intimate communications and the blurring of the public and the private. Insisting on and expanding the dramatic qualities of the monologic form, Carson and Caldwell stage intimate conversations between the lonely voices of their stories and the multiple others that surround them and between readers and characters. Split between their past and their future, the narrators of Carson’s and Caldwell’s short stories adopt the suspended posture of the dramatic hero. They turn their monologues into polyphonic conversations where characters and readers/listeners alike are engaged into a collective memorial process as they struggle to move forward and get away from the burden of the past. Many of the open and suspended endings of their short stories resound with hope and invite the readers to critically envision a future where understanding and recollecting the past are paramount in order to be able to overcome individual and collective fractures. However, by positioning the reader in a liminal locus at a simultaneous closeness and distance from the narrated events, they insist on the readers’ critical position and ethical responsibility, highlighting the partial and imperfect nature of all forms of connection and understanding8 and rethinking the short story as a profoundly relational art.

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1 ‘What makes a writer Irish? is the question that has enervated and energised me for the whole of my writing life. . . . This anthology, and many of its individual stories, ask, again and again, questions about contemporary Irishness which, like those I ask on a personal level, cannot be answered but further complicated’ (Caldwell 2019, 3–6).

2 This emphasis is interesting for it reveals an urge to redefine and reframe the short story canon in line with recent studies that explore the dramatic effects of the genre. See, for example, Collins 2016 and the seminal studies published in the special issue ‘Theatricality in the Short Story in English’ of The Journal of the Short Story in English, in particular, Besnault-Levita 2008, 2.

3 For a discussion of the relational dimension of the contemporary Irish short story which revisits and questions O’Connor’s influential legacy on the making of the short story canon see D’Hoker and Eggermont 2015, 1–17.

4 For an analysis of the oral origins of the Irish short story see Cardin 2014, 1–6.

5 In two different studies, Angela Frattarola (2009) and Todd Avery (2018) show that Tyrone Guthrie’s ‘microphone plays’ of the early ’30s were conceived of as ‘dramas of the mind’ which share many of the formal innovations typically associated with modernist writing.

6 The American podcasts Love + Radio, and The Heart, whose 2015 episode ‘Movies in your Head’ won the Prix Italia or David Byrnes’s recent immersive show ‘Theatre of the Mind’ are but a few examples.

7 Carson’s use of the second person as a means of female expressiveness can also be read in terms of a hallucinatory performance of the self in conversational tones, following Tony Morrison’s memorable use of ‘you’ in the closing chapter of The Bluest Eye and her explanation in the novel’s Afterword: ‘She is not seen by herself until she hallucinates a self. And the fact of her hallucination becomes a kind of outside-the-the-book conversation’ (Morrison 1970, 215).

8 For a feminist epistemology of knowledge see Haraway 1988, 575 599. ‘The knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly, and therefore able to join with another, to see together without claiming to be another’ (586).

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Lea Sinoimeri, « Theatres of Intimacy in Lucy Caldwell’s and Jan Carson’s Short Fiction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 64 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Lea Sinoimeri

Lea Sinoimeri is a Lecturer in English (PRAG) at the Department of Foreign Languages (UFR EILA) of the Université Paris Cité. Her research interests lie in Irish Studies, particularly in the Irish literature of the 20th and 21st centuries, in comparative literature, and in intercultural and intermedial studies. Her PhD thesis, awarded at Università La Sapienza of Rome, was an investigation of Samuel Beckett’s bilingual and intermedial aesthetics. She has published several articles on Samuel Beckett and other modernist authors with a focus on multilingualism, liminality and aurality. Her recent research draws together her interest in literary and intercultural studies analysing the relationship between language, memory and migration in contemporary literature in English.

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