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Catherine McNamara is a master of the flash fiction form. As Christopher James, editor of Jellyfish Review, stated, “She can do more in two hundred words than most writers can do in two hundred pages.” Her latest collection, Love Stories for Hectic People, published by Reflex Press, is testament to that assertion. Clocking in at a slender 99 pages, the 33 stories are an exercise in artistic agility and precision, the work of one who has climbed inside the confines of love in all its manifestations – tangible and metaphysical, erotic and ethereal, faithful and duplicitous – and waged war with its boundaries, ultimately making peace with its complexities. Per the blurb on the book’s back cover, in Love Stories for Hectic People, “there is love that is vulgar, love that knows no reason; there is love that cradles the act of living, love that springs through the cracks; love that is slaughtered. These tales take place from Italy to Ghana to Greece and London and Tokyo, in grainy cities and muted hotel rooms; there is a Mafia murder, an ambulance rescue worker and a woman whose husband falls off a mountain. There is unchaste attraction and slippery, nuanced love; police violence and porn, and fishing too.” Mostly, though, there is the unmistakable integrity and sincerity of a storyteller at her peak.
The collection begins with “As Simple as Water,” in which a couple, Vasilis and Marj, are embracing at an Athens train station before Marj collapses in her married lover’s arms, complicating what had been a facile affair. The story incorporates many of the themes and motifs in the book, such as travel and movement, infidelity, and sex as both sustenance and deprivation. As the collection’s title implies, these are hectic people who spend much of their time en route to other locales in search of or escape from love and who often wind up in limbo as a result, neither lost nor found, engaging in fervid (and sometimes violent) sex in hotel rooms, way stations in the middle of some of the world’s most romantic cities.
In fact, McNamara’s writing is often at its most sensual when describing these cities. For example, in “Asunder,” set in another train station, in Italy, a man waits in his car for his lover, who has gone into the station to change their tickets, and reflects on their time in the “unchecked sensuality of the Baroque city”: “He thinks of the sculpted effigies on top of buildings (mostly naked males) and how these posed bodies seemed to be pondering, absorbed by all but the urban fray below. It was sublime what they could do with stone here. It seemed that for centuries men had stared into unhewn blocks and seen glorious bodies to be retrieved.” In “In Venice,” a couple decides to spend the day in bed in their hotel room, exploring sexual boundaries they’d heretofore deemed taboo, and the description of the setting – “the arousing city surrounding them, immersed in the sultry lagoon” – enhances the titillating atmosphere and tension of the story.
The writing is just as organic in “The Mafia Boss Who Shot His Gay Son on a Beach,” a story that features a homophobic father who lures his gay son from the carnal city, with its train stations where the boy picks up strangers to engage in anonymous sex, to the pristine beauty of the seaside, where he murders the young man then kicks sand over the body in a final act of desecration. The juxtaposition between the divine and profane is evident in such descriptions as “the bars jostled around the piazza and serene evening light bathed the Basilica façade,” adding even more subtext to this intricate piece. In an interview with the website Love in the Time of Covid: A Chronicle of a Pandemic from March 2021, McNamara notes, “I like the beauty of human truths and their conveyance in a bed of careful language.” Indeed, the language she uses to detail the boy’s assassination – “The boy later knelt and was shot.” – is provocative in the truth it reveals about the intersectionality of the sacred with the sexual, and the violence and hypocrisy often at the centre of it.
In the aforementioned interview, McNamara also states, “For me love is ultimately victorious, it is what we live for and what binds us. Whether it is sensual, filial, self-love, love of nature – it is what makes us taste life and live it within our cells. It is a life force that we all need, even in its most gritty, inelegant moments. The final stories in the book, for me, are a crescendo of real, worn and exuberant love, which I believe in.” “Love Is an Infinite Victory,” which concludes the collection, is testament to this. The story is a celebration of a long-married couple that has survived hotel rooms and train stations and airports and infidelity and enjoys rejuvenated intimacy after they move back to Paris, “where they had begun their lives together many years ago, feeling denuded and carefree as students.” There in their old apartment, “they resumed heady, unsophisticated lovemaking on the mattress their son had left there, especially through the long mornings when the city revolved and banged and wailed around them.” There is triumph in love coming full circle, sustenance in love that cradles the act of living, love that springs through the cracks, love that is not slaughtered. “Love Is an Infinite Victory” is the perfect ending to a collection that transports readers not only to exotic locales but also sends them on a visceral and intellectual journey of emotional discovery. Love Songs for Hectic People is a triumphant offering from one of best flash fiction writers I’ve had the pleasure to read.
Love Stories for Hectic People
by Catherine McNamara
77 pages. Reflex Press