From Show Them a Good Time
“Can I start over?” That question, asked repeatedly by Lucy, one of two college students at the centre of Irish author Nicole Flattery’s “Abortion, a Love Story,” could serve as the narrative’s thematic heart. The literal context for the query is an audition for a dramatic production being overseen by the school’s supercilious and authoritarian acting troupe. But the metaphorical context lands squarely on the ontological dilemma plaguing Lucy and her best friend, Natasha, who have been thrown together by circumstance and a shared antagonism toward the university administration and the societal structures that keep young women subservient and powerless.
As the unfortunate audition goes on, the acting troupe is at first confused, then appalled, then moved to laughter by Lucy’s apparent ineptitude onstage. Even Natasha is forced to admit consternation: “She was the worst actress Natasha had ever seen. It was distressing to witness this performance.” Lucy is attempting a monologue Natasha suggested to her, featuring a woman who is “delusional and unstable.” Natasha feels that the character’s instability is “perfect” for Lucy, who shares with Natasha a troubled personal history and a hatred for the institutional dictates that require women to behave in certain prescribed ways, usually for the benefit of powerful men.
The first time we encounter Lucy in the story, she has crashed a date that Natasha and her teacher, Professor Carr, are having in a low-price dinette. Professor Carr, a married, middle-aged academic who craves Natasha’s youth (and who, we are given to understand, is a serial philanderer with his female students), has been steadily losing interest in trying to impress Natasha, as evidenced from the decreasing fanciness of the restaurants he takes her to. An intellectual snob, the professor forces Natasha to watch highbrow foreign fare (such as the 1977 Luis Buñuel film That Obscure Object of Desire – which also happens to be about a doomed romance between a middle-aged man and a much younger woman), though she would prefer to watch Breast Implants Gone Wrong on television. “When Professor Carr discovered what a philistine Natasha actually was,” Flattery writes, “he dedicated himself to her general cultural education.” He mentions Ionesco, and she responds with a reference to the Road Runner.
It is Natasha who initially seduces the professor, for no more complicated reason than she understands it to be the done thing: “Natasha felt like she was involved in a transaction that was professional and centuries old. It was a history lesson.” For his part, Professor Carr succumbs to Natasha “after a protracted and fraught seduction he had feebly protested.” Every aspect of their relationship – from his feeble protestations to his foisting on her the great writers and philosophers of their time (all of them, naturally, men) – is calculated to remind Natasha of their relative social standing and to reinforce the power structure between them. Natasha, who has already been wounded by a failed love affair that ended in an unplanned pregnancy and abortion, is the perfect mark for the professor – wounded, unschooled, and able to stave off his fear of aging and stagnation.
Lucy, a theatre student, is also wounded. The victim of sexual violence in the past, she “had no idea where she came from,” except that it was a “black hole” – marginally more oppressive than the college, where the sky is “always a paralyzing grey.” She is a kleptomaniac whose ambition is to “shoplift from every major brand before she died.” She keeps a list of the things she steals in a notebook marked “Possessions,” which she tells a fellow student is a political statement: “It’s against capitalism.” She also sends pornographic pictures of herself to men online (including Professor Carr); these, along with intimate details of her sexual history, will be appropriated by a boyfriend for a theatrical performance using puppets, a betrayal that sends Lucy spiralling out of control on a trip to Spain meant to exorcise her demons.
While in Spain, Lucy composes a play called Abortion, a Love Story. This is the thing that, rewritten by Natasha, becomes the weapon the two use to get revenge on the college and all who have wronged them. That miserable audition becomes the catalyst for Natasha’s epiphany about the play’s conception: it is the pompous acting troupe’s laughter that gives Natasha the idea that Abortion, a Love Story would be far more effective if it were cast as a comedy. “But it’s about these two girls, sisters in misery,” Lucy protests. “Who could find all that funny?” Natasha responds by alluding to Ionesco – “Comedy is tragedy sped up” – thereby appropriating what she can use from the professor while applying his tutelage to a work explicitly meant to undermine his power and that of the school as a whole.
“Abortion, a Love Story” – Flattery’s narrative as opposed to the play within it – is indeed very funny. When Lucy asks Natasha if she is aware that Professor Carr is married, for example, the academic responds with, ”It’s a personal thing so I didn’t mention it.” Elsewhere, Lucy asks Natasha what she thinks of the college, to which she responds, “I feel every day … that I am in the process of losing a long and complicated bet, one that will carry on for several years, where I will end up down a huge amount of money.” Flattery’s humour is barbed and tied to her penchant for metaphor; in various instances, both the college and the women’s home lives are likened to prison.
At eighty-five pages, the story is long – some would call it a novella – and for most of its length it works well as a subversive comment about patriarchy and the contortions women are forced to undergo to play the required parts in a male-dominated society. (The theatrical milieu provides a natural metaphorical backdrop for this thematic material.) Only the final section, titled “Showtime,” fails to convince on the level of fiction. Shifting tenses from past to present, the final part is a description of the theatrical production Natasha and Lucy put on – for one night only, for an audience of ten people. Describing a play, rather than presenting the reader with the script directly, is difficult to pull off; it ends up being akin to watching someone else play a video game or having someone narrate what is going on onstage rather than being able to view it firsthand.
But more pressingly, the “Showtime” section dispenses with Flattery’s metaphorical approach in favour of something baldly expository. Natasha provides an extended monologue intended to illustrate the way society in general, and the college in particular, forces women into impossible situations in which they are damned no matter what they do or how they behave:
Stress your innocence, but not too loudly, because that makes people suspicious. … Don’t be caught anywhere you shouldn’t be. Spend a lot of time in the library. … Don’t linger near the sexual stuff. Lead a normal, daily life. Be seen living a normal, daily life. … Bury yourself but at the same time be reborn. They will find your worst insecurities and they will kill you with them, so don’t have any insecurities. Look after your family. Love all animals. Be respectful. Be seen to be respectful. … Change in every way, but don’t be seen to be doing so. Do you have any questions?
The shift from dramatic narrative to exposition is jarring and tends to undercut what has gone before. “To rouse themselves out of their creative stupor,” Flattery writes at an earlier point in the story, “they talked about what they were fighting against – earnestness of any kind, the dry, the humourless. Boredom …. Logic. Moral dictation.” In other words, precisely the qualities the “Showtime” section evinces. Whether this will appear as a narrative flaw or a manifestation of Natasha and Lucy’s – and by extension their creator’s – determination not to give their audience what they want or expect will depend on the individual reader. The retreat into an easy didacticism in the story’s final stages does at the very least seem like a minor misstep in an otherwise energetic evisceration of patriarchal oppression and institutional pomposity.