Negative Capabilities: Hugh Sheehy’s The Invisibles

Morgan Fritz

Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012. 192 pages. $24.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

The stories in Hugh Sheehy’s The Invisibles grant access into the lives of people coming of age or undergoing crises in a fluctuating and uncertain space. Mainly set in unnamed Midwestern towns, these are tales of the faceless suburbs; locale is evoked only by the fact that characters aren’t rich, don’t speak with Boston accents or Southern twangs, don’t eat regional cuisine, and aren’t flanked by prairies or mountains. They live and die in such places as “a new subdivision where no houses had been built yet,” and a sliver of forest amidst “a neighborhood with snarling dogs and no government, alongside the railroad tracks.” In articulating the experiences of his embattled characters, Sheehy successfully hybridizes limpid realism with an array of genres (magic realism, horror, noir) in a way that imbues their lives with beautiful intensity.

Sheehy’s title story marks out a class of people who share the dubious “power” of invisibility. More unnoticed than transparent, the “invisibles” do enjoy a privileged vantage point on a world that rarely engages with them in the open. As people “who for one reason or another aren’t memorable,” they also face a heightened threat of violent erasure, especially at the hands of the embittered of their own kind. The plight of the invisibles, and the hunted terror in which the invisible heroine, Cynthia, lives, provide insight into the bleak options left to the genuinely excluded, of resignation or rage.

“The Invisibles” blends magic realism and mystery fiction, and throughout the entire collection Sheehy uses genre combinations dynamically, whether to establish narrative frame or mood or to inflect the interiority of a main character. In “A Difficult Age,” which explores the alternately hopeful and dangerous elements of friendship, drugs, pregnancy, and rebellion experienced by a trio of suburban kids, the character Lionel speaks in calculated quips reminiscent of Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler. A sharp-eyed observer who’s also a youthful nihilist, Lionel stands somewhere between hard-boiled detective and the thugs they hunt. Steadily hurtling toward institutionalization, he sagely muses to his friends: “How quickly and how cruelly the outer world relates to you.” This describes the Cassandran predicament of so many of Sheehy’s characters: their clear perspective on the world seems only to provoke its wrath.

One way to describe The Invisibles is in terms of a resurgent interest by American authors in unexplored spaces and communities. In a 2005 reflection on what he considers the golden days of the Congress of PEN International, Salman Rushdie lamented that writers have abdicated their place as Percy Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In those days (the 1980s), Rushdie claimed, authors like himself and Czeslaw Milosz opened new horizons for US readers “while the Bellows and Updikes looked inward into the American soul.” Rushdie’s nostalgia aside, the work of international authors has never been as accessible as at present. Sheehy, meanwhile, stakes a claim here as one of those contemporary American authors who offer us new perspectives on a part of our country currently in a state of rapid but uncertain change.

In stories like “Henrik the Viking,” “Whiteout,” and “Translation,” characters make their way from the Midwest to New York and New Orleans to establish new lives, but don’t leave their vulnerability behind them. Maybe one day Ohio and Michigan will furnish future authors with the sort of beautifully forsaken homeland Dublin offered Joyce or Mississippi offered Faulkner. This volume of short stories, though, finds us on territory that hasn’t yet hardened into the Gothic or picaresque, in which the inherent anonymity of the setting menaces the characters in their pursuit of meaning and purpose.

Sheehy’s stories, by creating continual intersections between the fantastic and the real, find a novel way to seize upon the moments of change that test the relationship of the individual will with the outside world. One of the few stories not featuring genre hybridity positively makes the case for its effectiveness throughout the volume. In “Whiteout,” the protagonist, Mason, drives across the country, intent on visiting his family after a decade of estrangement. His trip, fueled much against his better judgment by drugs, is interrupted midway by a car crash in heavy snow. Given shelter at a farm, the stranded Mason achieves a moment of self-realization that his homecoming never would have really provided. In The Invisibles we find, in the lives of down-and-out or excluded protagonists such as Mason, heavily charged interstitial moments of vulnerability, fear, hope or redemption. These are created in some cases by sudden shifts in momentum, but more often by jarring intersections between the realistic and the fantastic. The possibility of maximizing these moments, and heightening their intensity and significance with the deliberate seams created between seemingly disjunctive modes of storytelling, is what Sheehy demonstrates in this book.

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