Helen Thompson describes the representation of lesbian desire in O’Brien’s fiction as ‘uncanny’, an observation Shirley Peterson builds on in her discussion of sado-masochistic desire in The Country Girls Trilogy, which she begins by quoting O’Brien: ‘All masochists are just sadists waiting to be cured’. The psychologically immature or incomplete O’Brien protagonist, who invites and even performs self-annihilation occupies, according to Peterson, a metonymic position vis-à-vis the ‘sadomasochistic impulses that drive the mid-century Irish sociopolitical agenda’, a relationship that can be extended to ‘a kind of global abjection’. O’Brien’s global resonance, like James Joyce’s, resides in her paradoxically ‘provincial’ focus on the particular, a quality often noted in commentary on her fiction, including a review of O’Brien’s memoir, Country Girl, by fellow-novelist Anne Enright, who argues that ‘O’Brien knows the precise emotional weight of objects, their seeming hopefulness and their actual indifference to those who seek to be consoled’. In this chapter I intend to bring ‘thing theory’ and ‘object-oriented ontology’ to bear in considering the uncanny melancholia of domestic objects in O’Brien’s fiction, the ‘things’ littering women’s lives, their power of retreat, the way in which they withhold consolation. These ‘strange strangers’, as Timothy Morton refers to non-human objects and life forms, are ever withdrawing, retreating into an ineluctable independence, what he identifies as a ‘feminine’ unknowability, ‘ the terrifying thingness at the heart of our subjectivity’.
In her review, Enright goes on to ask, ‘Is this the root of the (usually male, let’s face it) unease about O’Brien; the worry she might become untethered from the real? It is the tension between the actual and the metaphorical that gives her sentences their enormous energy and restraint’. O’Brien’s treatment of the material world collapses the aesthetic distance necessary to the violence of figuration. There is more than one way of ‘being’ in O’Brien, which introduces a number of instabilities into her fiction, instabilities that expose the crime O’Brien biographer Amanda Greenwood identifies as the novelist’s persistent critical target, ‘cultural matricide’. There is a fatal genealogy to this violence, often figured in the self-conscious and insecure co-optation and occupation of the ‘Big House’ (as in House of Splendid Isolation and The Light of Evening) as reflections of the crisis of Irish male identity. The Oedipal implications of the bloody wrenching apart of the union between the kingdoms of England and Ireland, traditionally figured as a marriage between John Bull and Cathleen Ní Houlihan, make for shameful regrets and longings, insecurities, suspicions of illegitimacy. The forensic attention O’Brien brings to her descriptions of houses and their furnishings inevitably reveal bloody fingerprints. In her recent short story, ‘Inner Cowboy’, for example, an ecological disaster is brought about by Celtic Tiger greed, fuelled by macho posturing and competition, a disaster witnessed by the child-like and sensitive—and therefore ‘feminine’—male protagonist, Curly, who has a complex relationship with objects, one he shares with his beloved granny.