When you read a collection of stories like Sean O’Beirne’s A Couple of Things Before the End (Black Inc.), you can’t help feel their weight in the context of our times. Thrust into the past and lurching into the future, O’Beirne’s characters speak to us with an insight that only comes from a complete lack of pretension.
Earning praise from luminaries like Helen Garner and Christos Tsiolkas, this debut is laced with wry humour, melancholy and prescience. It documents an Australia that was, is, and worryingly, could be.
A Couple of Things Before the End is Melbourne author Sean O’Beirne’s strikingly original debut. An auspicious book for our times, it speaks in a myriad of Australian voices.
O’Beirne’s suite of stories come in a variety of formats and an array of voices. Kicking off with ‘Scout’ the world that the author creates — though cohesive throughout the book — takes some getting used to. The rambling account of a man’s ineptitude as a boy scout doesn’t feel like the unfurling of a grand narrative, but as you settle into the book’s idiosyncratic rhythms, you discover the real gems in the detail.
A completely separate voice is revealed in the despairing diary entries of a young actress who is falling in love with Barry Humphries on their journey to England via ship, “Even though I know I have been wrong about him and I know it didn’t mean anything – I knew what he was but I didn’t learn anything I didn’t know…“. It’s breathless and banal in one passage.
‘Jack’ takes on a sterner, documentarian style as an elderly man attempts to set the record straight after the death of his twin brother, remembering his childhood of rural poverty, “My father Daniel Vance O’Connell was the seventh child of seven, the only one of his four brothers never to make a good living, he never found his profession but knocked from job to job, his true profession was drinking…”
Within a few pages, you inhabit the world of a teenage boy, describing his mate’s mother, who is always plying him with junk food, “She wears these trackies, these bright yellow trackies, or really bright red, and when she comes towards you it’s like, woah, that is so much trackie.”
As the stories edge toward the present, the mode of delivery also changes. Longer, intimate and personal memoirs begin to give way the decidedly more public and abrupt forums of written communication we’ve become accustomed to. ‘The ANZAC Spirit’ takes us below the line, into the comments section, after a controversial article. ‘To Shel, Mostly About Mum’, is an endearing text-based conversation between two sisters about their ageing mother.
The poignancy of the aforementioned tales cannot be underestimated, but there are stories in which O’Beirne expert ratchets up the tension, holding a mirror up to the darker aspects of our national identity. There’s a heavily redacted report from ‘Nauru‘ where an officer is grappling the moral implications of offshore detention. The ugly, combative press conference detailed in ‘Leader‘ feels like a transcription from the pages of a newspaper in the near future.
When O’Beirne eventually does turn his eye to the future, things take on a dystopian colour. His rendering of a potentially bleak future, however, if far from gratuitous. ‘Missy’, for example, tells the story of a woman trying to secure safe passage from her Melbourne home — where temperatures have reached dangerous levels — to a gated community in the Macedon valley.
The gradual unravelling of this one-way email chain creates visceral suspense: it’s so relatable. The panic that results from unheeded messages and eventually, pleas, speaks to an age of disconnection. And as we now grapple with a crisis of such bewildering proportions, is it not the stabilising anchor of human acknowledgement that we need most?
So how do you begin to categorise A Couple of Things Before the End? It’s clearly not possible, or even relevant. O’Beirne conjures up these visions of Australia so clearly and tells the stories of his characters so intimately, that reading it feels like a vivid dream and reality at the same time.
A Couple of Things Before the End is out now via Black Inc.