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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Box Sets" by Roddy Doyle

Issue Date: April 14, 2014

Roddy Doyle is one of those names that sounds way, way too familiar to me. It's a woman, right? No, no...a man? Wasn't she the "It" girl for twenty minutes in the late 80s? Was it the name of a co-worker at one of my first jobs? Maybe the fat kid from third grade who used to bring a book with him to recess? No. Wrong. None of the above. Roddy Doyle is, in fact, an Irish novelist and the author of the book The Commitments, which became the movie by the same title. Well, that solves that little mystery, I suppose. You live long enough and everything starts to remind you of something else.

Anyhoo...pretty short story here by Mr. Doyle, about an upper-middle class Irish couple -- Sam and Emer -- experiencing the emotional pressure that ensues when Sam gets laid off. Emer takes it all pretty well but Sam, on the other hand, feels a bit threatened by it all. Their survival doesn't seem threatened, per se, but Sam's sense of self and purpose seems in doubt. He recedes into drink and T.V. binge-watching ("Box Sets"), until an emotional outburst and an accident on the running path bring him back down to earth.

What Doyle does well in this story -- and, I'm guessing here, is his strong suit in general -- is to catalog the cultural details and the types of conversations people have in specific time and place in society. If anthropologists ever want to find out what upper-middle class Irish yuppies lived like and talked about during the mid-2010s this story would give them a pretty good idea.

The opening scene in which party-goers get into a fight about which T.V. series is "better", Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or House of Cards (well...duh...Mad Men...sheesh), is a picture perfect sketch of bourgeois conversation in the mid-2010s...especially when it's discovered that the person who was advocating House of Cards hasn't even seen the other T.V. series' in question. The character wants so badly to have his opinion heard and respected and vindicated as "right," that he doesn't care that his argument is, by nature, ludicrous.

Here Doyle is highlighting the societal virus that seems to have become particularly insidious in the internet age: the importance of being "right". That is, the importance of having one's opinion deemed more valid in a group of people at any one time. The internet has made everyone an expert on everything, and brand- and cultural-identification have become more important than religion. "What you like SUCKS...what I watch is BETTER..." that kind of thing. We live in an age when consummate and discerning consumerism is viewed as an achievement, something to be aspired to...and I think Doyle is shining a gentle light on this aspect of modern adult life.

Roddy Doyle
He also manages to work-in some interesting conversations about the economic downturn which beset Ireland (and the whole world in the past five or so years) and which everyone hopes against hope may soon be getting better.

Sam's "accident" on the running path seem to bring him back to reality. After binge-ing on T.V. and self-pity for most of his un-employment period, it takes a life-threatening (and yet life-affirming) event to make him realize that ultimately he will get things figured out and everything will -- like his wife has been telling him -- turn out okay.

The stakes aren't very high here, and Doyle seems to get too wrapped up in the nuances of conversation and cultural observation to spend the necessary amount of time developing Sam's character. This story would surely fade into the mists of NYer Short Fiction History if it weren't for it's references to the "Golden Age of Television." Specific cultural references, when used improperly, can be really off-putting, but Doyle shows here (and I'm sure in other places) that he knows how to do it using those references in an ironic way: even the characters in the story aren't sure if they are using the references correctly.

Intertextuality Watch: At one point, when Emer tells Sam they are going to a friend's house for some Friday night revelry, he responds: "I'd prefer not to." That famous line comes from the Herman Melville story "Bartleby," a darkly humorous tale of intractable corporate insolence. How does that tie into this story on a deeper level? Not sure. Sam seems to be quite a bit more self-aware and cooperative than Bartleby. Maybe it was just a convenient place to use the line.


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