Modern Times: What Went Wrong?

I’ve got a new review up at Splice today, but I won’t lie: it pained me to write the damn thing. My subject is Modern Times, the début collection of short stories by Cathy Sweeney. I was very much looking forward to this book. I love Sweeney’s stories, and have done for a while:

To put a finger on what makes her stories so distinctly hers, I’m inclined to say that [Sweeney’s] method involves circling around characters bent out of shape by depravities of this sort — some exceptional squalor, some abhorrent inclination — and then probing the gap between their affliction and their ho-hum daily concerns. Although Sweeney’s grotesques invariably have some startling quality that seizes the reader’s attention, this quality is not the same as whatever quality makes them remarkable for Sweeney’s narrators. By playing up the difference between these two positions — these irreconcilable views on what makes someone’s story worth telling and what makes it worth reading about — Sweeney throws the gravity of her fictional world off-balance. The reader’s eyes are drawn towards something that is for the narrator only a peripheral concern, functionally inconsequential, so that the interests of the two parties never align and the work is pulled apart by antipodal priorities.

But Modern Times is finally a disappointment. I hope my review articulates some of the reasons why, without imputing that Sweeney’s body of work is without merit.

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