Reading Nuala Ni Chonchuir‘s new collection of short stories, Nude, I am reminded of Bob Dylan’s observation in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” that “even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked,” for the stories in this collection all feature characters who, at one time or another, find themselves in various stages of physical or emotional undress. What emerges as this occurs throughout the collection is a sense of our shared humanity, the idea that beneath everything–beneath our clothing, beneath our posturing, beneath all of the accoutrements of modern living–we are all majestically vulnerable.
This sense of vulnerability comes across most clearly in the story “Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in a Mirror: We are Not Fake!” when a deranged fanatic takes a blade to a work of art. What makes this story so engaging and inventive is that Chonchuir tells it from the painting’s point of view. As a result, the reader gets a sense of the strange mixture of innocence and ennui that a work of art like Nudes in a Mirror might endure as it traverses the world on a tour of art galleries and museums–and of the shock that such a work might experience upon being attacked. At its root, however, such experiences are so human, so natural, that it’s impossible not to see ourselves mirrored in the work itself. Like Lichtenstein’s Nudes, we are ourselves in some ways “modeled from models” (to borrow the author’s phrase). At the same time, however, this doesn’t make us any less real or any less human–a point the story makes clear when the attacker screams “Est is eine Falschung! It is a fake!” and the Nude endures a series of wounds.
As with “Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in a Mirror: We Are Not Fake,” works of art take center stage in a number of pieces in this collection. Notably, a short piece titled “Ekphrasis” juxtaposes the cover of Bow Wow Wow’s See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over. Go Ape Crazy! album with works by Picasso and Manet. Likewise, a story titled “An Amarna Princess Up North” explores the inner workings of the mind of a country-bumpkin-cum-master-art-forger. In these and other instances, Chonchuir ponders not only the human form but all that it means to us. In essence, she ponders what it means to be human.
Needless to say, artistic nudes are not the only nudes depicted in this collection. Particularly moving is a piece titled “Before Losing the Valise, but Mostly After,” in which the author reconstructs the events surrounding the fabled disappearance of Ernest Hemingway’s earliest manuscripts. Here, the well-meaning Hadley Hemingway packs her husband’s life’s work into a valise only to lose it on a train bound for Switzerland. The meltdown that ensues is painful, and it doesn’t take the hindsight offered by history to know that the relationship is doomed despite Ernest’s halfhearted optimism that the valise might turn up.
To say the least, Nude is a wonderful collection from a wonderful writer. I was enchanted by Chonchuir’s collection of poetry, Tattoo: Tatu, and I’m glad to discover that her way with words extends to the realm of prose. Exploring nudity in all of its forms, Chonchuir explores humanity–and does so with the skill and practiced craft of an artist.