Libraries have always held a particular fascination for writers. Whenever they appear in fiction they take on the qualities of literary temples – silent, sacred spaces, repositories of knowledge, mystery, learning and perhaps, hidden amidst the yellowed pages and dusty shelves, some kind of capital T Truth.
There have been many fine fictional libraries, but perhaps the library in the Discworld series offers the neatest summary of the charged energy that these places hold for bookish types. In Terry Pratchett’s fantasy physics, knowledge = power, and books = knowledge, therefore books = power. A large library, acting as such a concentrated centre of power, takes on the ability to bend space and time, to warp the fabric of reality itself. Get lost in those shelves, and you might never come out again. Or if you do make it out, you could come out in a different time and place, perhaps even as a different person.
The Silence Room, a new collection of short stories by Sean O’Brien, is the latest addition to the long and honourable line of literary libraries. This particular library is based in a murky, grim, superbly realised Newcastle, a bastion of peace and learning in a city of dimly lit pubs, drunken men and exhausted women. At the heart of this is the Silence Room, favoured workplace for poets and academics. It is room imbued with a peculiar juju, where strange events are commonplace – disappearing poetics lecturers, carpets that come alive and cryptic drug dispensing strangers are just a few of the things to be found in there.
It is a near irresistible concept – the mind bending, world warping library is a superb setting to hang a series of short stories around, and the grubby Tyneside that exists outside of the Silence Room is an equally beguiling setting. O’Brien has an eye for a canny detail, and can turn a tasty phrase, but he doesn’t have an instinct for storytelling – at least, if he does, it isn’t on display in this collection.
Strangely, in a literary landscape where the fantastic is set deliberately close at hand (almost every story moves towards some kind of surreal, world bending climax) it is the fantasy sections where the stories are most incoherent and least satisfying. The stories thrive in the everyday depiction of his imagined Newcastle and its literary refugees. His jealous academics, Shakespeare quoting barmaids, Sunday cricketers and alcoholic Wallace Stevens fanatics are delightful characters, but their stories go nowhere – and when the world turns on its head at the end of each short story, there is something inevitable and utterly uninvolving about each of them.
The shadow of Borges and his Library of Babel (a stunning short story that has perhaps rendered all other literary libraries unnecessary) hangs long over this collection. Each of O’Brien’s stories seems to be aiming towards a twisted Borgesian climax, but it is an impossible task to attempt. Somewhere in Borges’s Library of Babel, where every possible book has been written and sits patiently on the infinite octagonal bookshelves, there is a copy of The Silence Room where O’Brien escaped the influence of the Argentine trickster and found a compelling voice of his own. But that book, undoubtedly superior to the one I now hold in my hands, will forever remain upon that shelf in the Library of Babel, unwritten and unread.
Book-in-Laws: The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco), The Library of Babel (Jorge Borges), If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (Italo Calvino)