Short story: “Bullfighting”

by look i have opinions

“Bullfighting,” by Roddy Doyle

Appeared in the April 28, 2008 New Yorker (read here); read in the June 2012 New Yorker Fiction Podcast (listen here)

6,264 words

One thing that really impresses me about this story is the way it focuses so totally on both the characters’ emotions and their lack of eloquence about emotions. They’re not really going to talk about their deepest feelings, not even drunk; they’re not going to change their lives by talking. Reading about this type of (usually male) character feels like having emotion-specific aphasia, where you have no real insight into what you’re feeling, you can’t say it, you have to talk around it.* And yet “Bullfighting” is entirely about the characters’ emotional lives. The easy, matter-of-fact conversations of Donal’s friends are overflowing (sometimes comically) with their anxieties, their love for their families, their need for connection.

This is a major problem of a lot of psychologically realistic fiction: how to convey emotional depth that goes beyond what the characters themselves can articulate. Most characters aren’t fiction writers. Most characters don’t have any particular genius for bringing out the deeper themes of their lives, and even if they do, they don’t have enough distance from the material to do it well. Most characters don’t know everything the author knows. This problem is also one of fiction’s greatest payoffs. It gives us insight into the kinds of people who can’t or won’t tell their own stories, it says things about life that cannot be said in the language of conversation or of nonfiction. It lets us see our own mentalities from the outside, with the insight that comes only at some distance.

*This is not to put down conventionally “masculine” communication styles in favor of “feminine” ones. There’s a certain common type of (usually female) character who gives the impression of manic hyperphasia, where you get a precise and endless analysis of all the feelings, enough to make you feel like a freaking feelings expert, without necessarily getting to the heart of anything. I think that type of character presents a similar problem and a similar payoff.