"So Late in the Day": Escaping Fate
In this edition of Marginalia, Claire Keegan's story about the greed that defines misogyny and the generosity that can overcome it.
I’m going to do something a little unusual here: I’m going to issue a “spoiler warning”. Given that the book under review here is actually a short story, I want to get into real detail, which will mean revealing more of the plot than I otherwise would. The full text can be read in about half an hour, so there’s no reason not to read it before reading this piece.
So Late in the Day is out now as a beautiful little hardback, or you can read the original New Yorker version here:
So Late in the Day, Claire Keegan (2023)
“On Friday, July 29th, Dublin got the weather that had been forecast.”
So opens Claire Keegan’s latest offering, So Late in the Day, a beginning pregnant with fulfilled prophecy, which hangs over this diamond of a story. In the opening paragraph, the “brazen sun” shines down on sunbathers and children playing on the cut grass, among “beds plump with flowers” as a “gulp of swallows” fly over their heads – “so much of life carrying smoothly on, despite the tangle of human conflicts and the knowledge of how everything must end.”
How ironic it is, then, that at the start of the story, we don’t know how everything here will end. In fact, the reader can only fully engage with the story on a second read, with foreknowledge of what will happen (and has happened) to its protagonist, Cathal. Few stories are so dramatically different from first reading to second, but this is a skill Keegan has perfected. When we first read the awkward interactions between Cathal and his co-workers, and later with a talkative stranger on the bus, we understand him to be painfully socially awkward. It’s only on a re-read of this ever-flowering book that we see the truth of these interactions.
On a second read, how can we resist a knowing smirk when Sabine, the woman Cathal intended to marry, shows him her wedding dress because she “was not superstitious”? When we reach the final line that confirms she has changed her mind about marrying him, we might not be superstitious either but cannot avoid thinking that Cathal got the weather that had been forecast. And just as prophecy upends the usual chronology of cause and effect, causality is reversed in the narrative structure of So Late in the Day: Cathal’s catching himself wanting the woman on the bus to stop talking is the effect of a cause that comes later in the story, when we learn that Sabine claimed that “at least half of men your age just want [women] to shut up and give you what you want”.
On my second read of the story, I saw this moment on the bus as proof that Cathal is a misogynist. On my third reading, I saw this also as a moment of hope – perhaps Cathal, made conscious of this tendency in himself, wants to change. It’s testament to Keegan’s abilities as a writer that such a small moment can have such an outsized measure in the moral chemistry of the story. This single sentence hints at change, at self-awareness in the mind of a man who lacks self-awareness, as entitled people often do. The hope is not only that Cathal will outgrow his sexist mindset, but that he will also acknowledge his tendency to look outwards for blame. This nascent self-awareness is present when Cathal has a drink and struggles to pull himself upstairs: “He knew he could not blame the champagne but nonetheless found himself blaming it.”
In another of Keegan’s remarkable sentences, Cathal snaps at Sabine and immediately feels “the long shadow of his father’s language crossing over his life”. A good Freudian, Cathal recalls a scene from his twenties (certainly no longer a child, and old enough to know better) when his brother played a “prank” on their mother by pulling her chair out from under her. As she gets up from the floor and gathers her scattered food and shattered plate, their father laughs, and present-day Cathal wonders if he might have turned out differently “if his father had been another type of man and had not laughed”. This gauze-thin excuse for his own behaviour is another suggestion of prophecy fulfilled, implying that Cathal was predetermined to become who he is because of his father before him.
Reading So Late in the Day, I was reminded of Meister Eckhart’s expression, “The eye through which I see God is the eye through which God sees me.” The same can be said of literature, which is seen by the reader and sees the reader in turn. Great writing often implicates us in its moral universe, dares us to identify with the worst of its actors before challenging us to cast the first stone. So Late in the Day is a masterpiece of such moral body-switching.
In telling her story from Cathal’s point of view, Keegan cleverly weaponises our instinctive identification with main characters. Perhaps our assumption in the first half of the book is that Cathal has been unduly spurned, that he is a heartbroken hero; in the second half, this assumption is disturbed by each subtle revelation of his narcissism, his penny-pinching, his fundamental lack of generosity. This miserliness provides one half of the binary on which So Late in the Day rests, between generosity and greed. Cathal is critical of the profligate ebullience of life itself, while Sabine’s generosity is made manifest in her spending and her cooking. Cathal resents the number of dirty dishes (which he merely has to rinse) that come of Sabine having gone out to the shop, brought back groceries, and cooked him “chicken roasted with branches of thyme, and shallots, fennel”.
In light of Cathal’s selfishness, you have to wonder why Sabine ever accepts his tepid proposal. The answer might just lie in her generous spirit. Sabine tells Cathal that misogyny is “simply about not giving ... Whether it’s not giving [women] the vote or not giving help with the dishes”. By contrast, she has much to offer and is open-hearted in her giving – to the extent that she gives Cathal far more of herself than she probably should. I found myself thinking of Sabine outside of the book, hoping that her generous spirit was not diminished by Cathal. After all, if there is any hope for Cathal himself it’s in the possibility of his learning to open his heart more fully to others.
What better note to end on than with a call to generosity: please – because you deserve it and so does Keegan’s wonderful story – be munificent in your reading. Give So Late in the Day a second, or a third or fourth, pass. Generosity invites generosity, and yours will be rewarded with all that Keegan has given us in her writing.
Marginalia, plur. noun: “In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe