Tony Birch is giving the opening address at the upcoming Australian Short Story Festival in Adelaide on November 3-5, 2017. https://australianshortstoryfestival.com/ I’m looking forward to it. Earlier this year, I taught Birch’s first book of short stories, Shadowboxing to two classes of year 11 students at a high school in Casula. The book was popular with the students and I loved teaching it. This short story cycle dramatises the life of Michael Byrne as he grows up in Fitzroy in the 1960s.
My favourite story in Shadowboxing is “The Sea of Tranquillity”, which chronicles the car stealing exploits of Michael’s friend, Charlie Noonan. When Charlie eventually steals the maroon Mercedes that he’s lusted after, he crashes through a bluestone embankment into the Yarra river. The story then jumps a few months to the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing, with Michael limping about on crutches and Charlie dead. Michael is not interested in watching this historic moment, drawn more by the rear fin and tail-light of a 1964 Falcon surfacing in the flooded river. One of the things I like about Birch’s writing is the way he builds stories around central metaphors. In this story, the central metaphor is the moon, in other stories, it’s a red house, a father giving his son a boxing lesson, or a son cutting his father’s hair. Birch is not the only writer to use this device—I’m reminded of the electricity outages in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter”, a nightly cutting off of lights that provokes the young couple’s confessions to each other, or the uncollected birthday cake that results in the mysterious phone calls of Raymond Carver’s “A Small Good Thing”.
On the evening of the moon landing, Michael goes up to the roof of the flats where he lives and is joined by Charlie’s grieving sister, Alice. There’s something audacious about the way Birch writes this rooftop scene. It evokes the grieving of two adolescents and the awkward awakening of their attraction. Michael says, “Do you want to hold hands, Alice?” Alice moves away from him, but then sways back and slips a hand into his. This simple action of holding hands contrasts with the over-sexualisation of today’s youth culture, yet as a choice made by a writer it is honest, sexual and brave. Throughout the scene the moon hovers, vanishing from sight and then returning to end the story, becoming a metaphor for the yearning and desire that this story explores. It’s hard to explain exactly how and why Birch gets such metaphysical intensity from this portrayal of everyday life. It’s partly due to Charlie’s death, which hovers like the moon, unknowable in the lives of the characters, but it also owes much to Birch’s restraint. It’s as if he’s taken to heart Chekhov’s mantra that “in a story it is better to say not enough than to say too much”[i]. “The Sea of Tranquility” suggests and evokes much more than it actually says and this is the source of its power.
Tony Birch’s fourth book of short stories is the recently published collection, Common People. There are interesting connections to Shadowboxing such as in the story “Death Star”, where Patrick Cross is driving home a stolen car which hits black ice, wraps itself around a tree and bursts into flames. Here are two stories with similar premises, but I don’t think that Birch is repeating himself, more finding a new and different way to explore what feels like a similar artistic impulse. Patrick’s brother, Dominic, discovers his brother’s story and sets about revenging his death in a way that I found immensely satisfying.
Birch’s characters, as the title suggests, are ordinary people, and include the madam of a brothel, workers at an overnight pop-up abattoir, a retrenched journalist and a genealogist attempting to return a funeral home’s unclaimed ashes. Sometimes these characters have intriguing names such as “Harmless”, whose name reminded me of Fuckhead, the narrator of Denis Johnson’s short story collection Jesus’ Son. Another character is humorously called “Good Howard”, in opposition to the graffiti about our former prime minister, John Howard: “Howard lied—and sold out on refugees.”
There are a number of writers who have focused on people struggling to survive, the down and outs of society, the common people. At one stage in the development of Australian literature this genre was referred to as dirty realism. Much of it was unrelenting in its bleakness, its feeling of oppression and its lack of hope. Refreshingly, Birch avoids the pitfalls associated with characters who are trapped in their circumstances, with no way out. He doesn’t romanticise his characters or try to water down the difficulties they must deal with, but he manages to do what a lot of his predecessors failed to do—he offers a sense of hope.
“Harmless” is narrated by a thirteen year old tomboy, who doesn’t quite fit in with the other girls at school, who rides her bike around and becomes obsessed with the local homeless man known as Harmless. When another girl, Rita, unexpectedly goes into labour, the narrator takes her to an old timber cutter’s shack where she knows Harmless is living. The story is set in an unnamed country town with its typical prejudices and although it dramatises the experiences of two loners, what gives it a sense of hope is the way they help each other, the way their struggles result in a sense of community, even if it’s only a momentary one. The story “Joe Roberts” follows a similar trajectory, where a man who is sick and alone cares for a boy who has lost the key to his flat.
The beginning of “Colours” reminded me of Sherman Alexie’s story, “The Toughest Indian in the World”. Tony Birch’s story begins:
My grandfather taught me about the sky. At night he would take me out walking in the paddocks behind the government house we lived in on the Reserve. He’d tell me to look at the sky while he took a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and rolled a cigarette…. Only when he’d finished would Pop point one of his nicotine-stained fingers at the stars and tell me that a night would come sometime in the future when the stars would save me.
The narrator of Sherman Alexie’s story, a Spokane Indian, says:
When I was a boy, I leaned over the edge of one dam or another—perhaps Long Lake or Little Falls or the great gray dragon known as the Grand Coulee and watched the ghosts of salmon rise from the water to the sky and become constellations. Believe me, for most Indians stars are nothing more than white tombstones scattered across a dark graveyard.
“Colours” begins by evoking the relationship between grandfather and grandson and builds to a brutal and unjustified police arrest, where the grandson is actually saved by the prediction of his grandfather. The leap at the end of this story owes something to magical realism or perhaps to an Indigenous way of seeing the world that Birch shares with Alexie.
This book about common people is uncommon in its portrayal of hope and the emergence of community in unlikely situations, in the way kindness can triumph over adversity and shine down on us like stars, like secret stories waiting to be told. Common People is a book waiting to be read—get into it and discover its marvellous secrets now. Get to the Australian Short Story Festival in Adelaide this November to discover the rich and wonderful world of Australian short fiction.
Shadowboxing by Tony Birch. Scribe, Melbourne, 2006. 178pp. ISBN: 1920769706.
Common People by Tony Birch. UQP, ST Lucia, 2017. 218pp. ISBN: 9780702259838
[i] Chekov, Anton. “On the Problems of Technique in the Short Story.” What is the Short Story? Eds. Eugene Current-Garcia and Walton R. Patrick. Glenview, 1974, p21.
This is the speech I gave when launching 4W New Writing 26 at Gleebooks in Sydney on 21 November 2015.
The Thirsty Crow, a boutique pub in Wagga Wagga that murders thirst, (they obviously have a good writer working on their publicity) has on its dinner menu, the following: Hawaiian Lava pizza. Ultra hot. Quadruple exclamation marks. And the following advice in red ink: “Do not order this pizza. It’s far too hot for you. Do not come back and tell us it is too hot. Do not try and be a hero. Do not eat this, you will not enjoy it.”
Well as I grow habanero chillis, one of the Hawaiian Lava’s ingredients, and as I am a chilli fiend and know how hot they are—I couldn’t resist the challenge laid down by the menu. I wanted to be a hero. And I can faithfully report back to you that this pizza is too hot and I did not enjoy eating it. Though I did eat most of it and the waitress was duly impressed. I told them later that it was too hot and they said it was just meant to be a joke, that people weren’t really meant to order the Hawaiian Lava.
Wagga Wagga is a town, a regional city, renowned for its jokes. There is, for example, the five o’clock wave on the Murrumbidgee, caused by the release of water from the Burrinjuck and Blowering dams, a wave that arrives promptly each day at five o’clock, and if you’re any good you can ride it all the way to Narranderra, one hundred kilometres away. I checked it out while I was walking beside the river and I can faithfully report that it is indeed a whopper and that you could do worse than to catch it, if you ever need to get to Narranderra.
I was, as some of you may know, lucky enough to be a writer in residence at Booranga Writers’ Centre in September this year, where I experienced the generous and marvellous hospitality of the Wagga writing community. Before you come to the conclusion that I spent all my time in The Thirsty Crow, where the beer is great, or the rest of my time surfing the Wagga break, where the waves are huge, let me turn to my anointed task for today, the launching of fourW.
As I understand it, fourW stands for Wagga Wagga Writers Writers and I love the joke that is inherent in the title, I love the repetition. In one of his essays: One Body: Some Notes on Form, the American poet Robert Hass writes: “The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself. I had been taught to believe that the freshness of children lay in their capacity for wonder at the vividness and strangeness of the particular, but what is fresh in them is that they still experience the power of repetition…” The first fact of Volume 26 of fourW— an impressive number and may there be 26 more—is that the magazine includes two forms of writing that are close to my heart—the poem and the short story. In some senses that is where the repetition stops, for my overall reaction to the new writing in this distinctive, idiosyncratic magazine is to be astonished by the vividness, the freshness and the strangeness of the work, and to approach it with a kind of wonder. I can’t possibly manage to convey all that is surprising and arresting about this issue of fourW, so if you’re here and I don’t mention your work, please don’t be offended, there’s a bias in my desire to talk about the discoveries I’ve made, rather than the established writers whose work I have long enjoyed and admired.
Magazines such as fourW are crucial to the development of new writing and new writers and without the early successes that these magazines offer, most people would prematurely stop writing. I certainly would have. The importance of fourW to the Riverina is noted by David Gilbey in his incisive editorial, but one of the things that struck me about issue 26 was the breadth of the catchment area. Sure there are writers from Wagga Wagga and Albury, Melbourne and Sydney, but there’s also work from people who live in Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania and internationally, there are writers from Newhaven and Newcastle in the United Kingdom and Phoenixville and Minneapolis in the United States. I am reminded of the American poet, James Wright, who wrote in “The Minneapolis Poem”:
But I could not bear
To allow my poor brother, my body, to die
The old man Walt Whitman, our countryman
Is now in America, our country,
But he was not buried in Minneapolis
And no more may I be
I want to be lifted up
By some great white bird unknown to the police,
And soar for a thousand miles and be carefully hidden
Modest and golden as one last corn grain,
Stored with the secrets of the wheat and the mysterious lives
Of the unnamed poor.
Reading the poetry in fourW is like being lifted up by some great white bird and carried aloft to witness Rob Walker’s concern for the railway children beside Darjeeling station, then sliding with Bronwyn Lang under Long Feng bridge in China, before hovering with Les Wicks in Darlinghurst, as the speaker of his poem struggles to deal with the death of her baby boy. “I will live without compartments” she decides at the end of what is a harrowing flight. fourW is not just international in terms of the writers published, but international in terms of both its subject matter and the quality of its art. But, I must admit, I was astonished by the number of writers who live overseas and are in this issue. Can I just check if any of them are here today? … No, good. Then let me just say that I thought the work of Australian writers was more impressive. But I’m not parochial. One international standout for me was Adam Day’s moving poem, “Dead Friesian in Winter” which is carried by its finely tuned observations.
Turning again to the Australians, Joan Cahill’s “The Rose Shredder” utilises the native bug, the Riverina rose shredder as a metaphor for male sexual conquest, a leap that I found truly surprising and reminded me of the idea Robert Bly develops in his essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke” of the long floating leap, perhaps from the conscious to the unconscious, that exists in a work of art. Leaps also abound in Julie MacLean’s poem “Prize Collection” where the speaker suggests, “you have pinned spiders/ to my eyes in celebration/ of our lifetime together.” You must read this poem, it’s a beauty.
There are a number of poems that deal with war. There’s Albury poet Phillip Muldoon’s vivid dramatization of the after-effects of the Vietnam war, Maurice Corlett’s moving elegy to his great Uncle Tass who died in the evacuation from Dunkirk, and David Gilbey’s ekphrastic series, “Shrapnel”. This series avoids the common trap of writing about art works, where the poem becomes merely a description of the painting. Instead, Gilbey uses the art works as triggers for his imagination. In “Shrapnel 4” he evokes the difficulty of living with someone who has returned from war: “You didn’t mean to hurt me, but your eyes looked through my face/ to other faces.”
Derek Motion’s “Density” received this year’s fourW prize for poetry. It’s a poem that I think Robert Bly would admire, where the speed of leaping is fast, taking us from a semi-black bra outline under a white shirt, to Anzac dogs, to the ambient potential of a startled wallaby, to a country girl and to the smell of rain passing the gums. It is a poem which embodies its title, an exploration of the density of the mind and Motion demonstrates the ability to associate quickly and move from the present to memories and back again with a control and a rhythm that carries you along. It’s an intriguing poem, where something it seems, happened in the long grass. I gather this long grass occurs in the Riverina. Interesting. Read it. And read the many other fine poems printed in this anthology.
The work is organised alphabetically by author name, though reading fourW I was struck by a number of surprising resonances, as if one contributor was writing back to another. There are many fabulous short stories published here. I was impressed by Sean O’Leary’s “Nowhere”, a tale of police pursuit and revenge set in central Australia and involving both Indigenous and white Australian characters. The evocative cover of fourW with its tyre marks and footprints is suggestive of this story. In what has been a violent week for world citizens, “Nowhere” confronts the interesting problem of how to write violence, not the sort of stylised violence that Quentin Tarantino excels in, but realistic violence that impacts on the lives of people. There’s a long history of writing violence in literature that goes back to Homer’s Iliad. The French philosopher, Simone Veil wrote:
‘To define force — it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most liberal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is the spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.’
O’Leary’s story is distinctively Australian, and I was completely engaged by its deft plotting, its realism and by the way it tackles the writing of violence, which as I know from my own work is a difficult issue to deal with, but in the end I’m not sure that O’Leary gets it quite right. What happens serves what Roland Barthes’ calls the interests of the story, but I wondered if this character would actually do this. Or to put it another way, the plot and the characterization didn’t quite mesh for me. In one of the many resonances that the journal throws up, Ron Pretty’s poem, “plans” also tackles this issue in what struck me as a slightly more successful manner, but perhaps this is due to Pretty’s foreshadowing of a violent act that is only contemplated and not yet actualised. Violence is difficult for all of us to understand. It’s good that fourW has the courage to tackle it. Read “Nowhere” and “plans” and make up your own mind.
Nadine Brown’s “Drowning”, a story of a woman married to an evangelical pastor, is a fresh and fascinating study of how people can think one thing and do another. Jane Downing’s “Don’t Write it Down” is a story with considerable charm that deals with how a mother can hope to explain to her thirteen year old son, these lines inscribed in her copy of The Decameron: “To my only true love, my arms will always be open to you. Forever, Hal.” Hal, as her son knows, is not her husband. This story utilises the sophisticated technique of a narrator talking to a narratee. Many of the other writers collected here are also particularly adept at their manipulation of narrative technique. There’s the flashbacks and intercutting of Jarrah Dundler’s “Caravan”, which recounts a dramatic encounter with an Eastern Brown snake. In Beverley Lello’s “Surfacing”, Jay’s childhood experience of almost drowning becomes the central metaphor for a relationship that is moving, human and memorable. Michel Dignand’s “Chain of Events” demonstrates the centrality of power in writing dialogue. This wry, modern take on sexual politics resolves through a twist in the tale that I didn’t see coming.
Maryanne Khan’s “An Inconvenience” a charming, humorous and delightful story was the worthy winner of the fourW prize for fiction. Set in the south of Italy, it’s a portrait of an old Italian woman who is shunted between cousins. I enjoyed the way this story critiqued the myth of the family, while presenting an old woman who survives, it seems to me, because of her ability to live in the moment.
Dorothy Simmons’s story, “Try Me” also features an older single woman, Alice, a school librarian, who while fishing at night is confronted by drunken Year 11 students who call her a witch. In response she summons Macbeth, “by the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes” and Sylvia Plath: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.” This is a brilliant story which builds to a surprising twist, a twist which is… well, wonderful is the word that comes to mind.
There is much more in fourW that I don’t have time to detail—it’s a truly International magazine full of surprising, engaging and wonderful work. It’s there for you to read, to ponder, to savour. My congratulations to everyone who performed the hard slog of producing it, or contributing to it. And unlike The Thirsty Crow’s now infamous, uneatable pizza, it’s hot stuff, but not too hot for you. You will, I promise, enjoy Issue 26 of fourW New Writing. It’s my pleasure today to send it out into the world.
For information on how to purchase a copy of 4W New Writing visit the Booranga Writers’ Centre website https://www.csu.edu.au/faculty/arts/humss/booranga/home
Four W 26 New Writing. Edited by David Gilbey. ISBN: 9780994202017
1. Do you remember the name and personality of the first character you ever created?
What springs to mind is a series of laments I wrote last century, set on different islands. The first one was written in my voice, based on a visit to Taquile Island in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. The people who live there are Uros Indians, descendants of the Incas and they run the whole island as a cooperative. It’s a lament about the limitations of tourism, about not being able to stay there long enough or fully understand the culture without a shared language. The second lament, ‘Leaving Inishmore’ is written in the voice of an Irishman who is cursing the arrival of tourists and foreigners; while the third, ‘On Sarah Island’ is written in the voice of a convict transported to Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania. I guess rather than a name, or a personality, which seems an intimidating thing to create from scratch, my way into character has often been through voice. It’s through the speaking voice of a character that I began to write narratives, in both poetry and fiction.
2. What drove you to write the story which is in the Michael McGirr Selects series?
Initially, Love Bites was motivated by a desire to write about a strong woman, a scientist. I was interested in how difficult it is for women to pursue a career in science, how so many fields of scientific research are dominated by men, how women had to overcome discrimination and sexism, as well as the everyday challenges typically faced by working women. I was attracted to malaria because the search for a viable vaccine has been going on for at least thirty years now. As I wrote the story, I realised that the scientific journey wasn’t really enough. I’m a firm believer in the adage that you often need more than one idea to make a story work, and the relationship between the mother and the daughter gradually started to become the focus of the story. I’m working on a short story cycle about three women who are friends—Anna, Svetlana and Penny. I already had some notion of the Anna’s character from a previous story, but she’s much younger in Love Bites, which was interesting, as I travelled backwards rather than forwards in the creation of a character’s life.
3. How do you approach a new story? With a clear plan of where the narrative is going, or is it more of a ‘well, let’s see how this goes’ kind of approach?
I never have a clear plan at the beginning. I often wish I did, but I tend to just start with an idea that interests me, like a scientist working on a malaria vaccine, a woman waiting for a man to propose, or two children living in a garbage dump in Phnom Penh. I think over-planning limits the capacity of intuition to do its job, that gut impulse that takes the story in a direction that is surprising. In the end, trial and error is the only method I use. If the story works it’s great; if it doesn’t, then I try to think through what might work instead, but the answer is almost always more gut instinct that anything logical.
4. Is there one particular author or book that you look to as a source of inspiration for your own writing? What are you reading now? Any recommendations?
I believe that writing comes from other writing, as well as an openness to the world, so reading is a crucial part of the process. Recently, I’ve been impressed by two stories that deal with the subject of trauma, and it is now a subject I want to write about myself. The Canadian writer, Tamas Dobozy has a story in Siege 13 called ‘The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-45’. It chronicles the experiences of the zookeepers during the siege of Budapest at the end of the Second World War. The story has elements that you might describe as magical realism, yet it is a magic that develops credibly out of physical and psychological trauma. Siege 13 is a short story cycle built around the siege of Budapest and the experience of ex-pat Hungarians in Canada in the years after the war. As a form, I’m very interested in the short story cycle, not just because I’m trying to write one, but because of the way that the short stories work on their own, yet also contribute to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. I think it’s a pity that really wonderful short story cycles like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge have been marketed as novels. They’re not novels, I want to argue, but I guess this is one genre war that the marketing departments are winning.
Elizabeth McCracken’s ‘Thunderstruck’ in Thunderstruck and Other Stories dramatises the heartbreak of a family whose precocious and rebellious teenage daughter has an accident while drinking with boys. The story is centred around the father-daughter relationship and uses painting in a way that seemed original to me, and was also profoundly moving. ‘Thunderstruck’ is a searing and unforgettable story, a towering achievement in a collection that is consistently impressive and thoroughly engaging.
But perhaps the book that has impressed me the most recently is Joan Wickersham’s, The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story. Another short story cycle in which seven distinct stories have the same title: ‘The News from Spain’. In one story the news from Spain is what a character hears in a shell that has washed across the Atlantic Ocean; in another a woman receives a telegram from Spain informing her that her lover has been killed in a racing car accident. Although this trope gives the collection unity, what really unifies this book is Wickersham’s unfailing ability to write love stories—usually love-gone-wrong stories—that are psychologically astute, absolutely compelling and that feel ‘new’. This is a book about contemporary adult relationships, and reading it, I was blown away, not just by Wickersham’s understanding of people, but also by her capacity to craft stories that pulse and vibrate with life. Wickersham’s short story cycle deserves to be news—I cannot recommend it highly enough.
5. How does writing fit into your day-to-day life? Do you have any unusual writing habits? Any advice to share for those stuck in a writing slump?
I tend to put off starting because writing is hard. I’m also not much of a morning person. I tend to write best when I’m in the rhythm, so I try to write whenever I’m not doing paid work. Some days are just horrible, but I’ve learnt over the years that if you tough it out, then good things can happen. Motivation is key—if you’re not particularly motivated, it’s hard to write and there’s no boss standing over you to make sure you do it, at least in my house there isn’t. Writing both poetry and fiction helps—if I’m bored with fiction, I can switch to poetry and vice versa.
I don’t really believe in writing slumps or writer’s block. I believe in what Lorrie Moore said in that wonderful essay of hers, ‘Better and Sicker’, that there is only ‘the sick devotion to the work.’ Moore suggests: ‘Better to think of writing, of what one does as an activity rather than an identity—to write, I write, we write; to keep the calling a verb rather than a noun; to keep working at the thing, at all hours, in all places, so that your life does not become a pose, a pornography of wishing.’
For me the hardest thing is the first draft—pushing through the first draft is a bit like tunnelling through rock and hoping to eventually come up into the light at the other end. After that is done, revising is fun, it’s a form of play, probably because I’m in love with the rhythm of sentences and the beauty of words.
For information about Spineless Wonders’ innovative publication of short Australian fiction in audio, in e-books and in print, go to Spineless Wonders.
I feel compelled to start this review with something akin to a confession. The author has been a friend of mine for many years, her beautiful painting of the Shoalhaven River has pride of place in our living room, and a peppermint gum she gave us is now flowering in our backyard. The practice of mates reviewing mates is particularly common in Australian literature, perhaps especially Australian poetry, and more often than not, it results in reviews that read like overblown puffs—more back-cover blurbs than serious reviews. It is a problem that is obvious to insiders, but would easily escape the notice of many readers. Typically, these conflicts of interest are never acknowledged. The launch speech of a recent book of mine is now masquerading as a review in an on-line journal, something that the journal does not acknowledge. I’d be happier if they did, for they strike me as similar, but also very different beasts.
Discussing this issue with a friend who reviews for one of Australia’s oldest literary journals, he suggested that you would have to be an iceman to honestly review your friends. There is a powerful but unspoken compact that the reviewer will be positive, that she will praise the book. Coupled with this is the problem that writers inevitably approach other people’s work from the perspective of their own artistic practice. It might be a subterranean and unacknowledged perspective, but it’s irreducibly there in the way they read, the way they think, the way they respond. I can’t review a book of short stories without drawing on my own assumptions and prejudices as a writer of short stories and also as teacher of short story writing. Of course, the notion of an objective reviewer is a fiction—even the professional reviewers who only write reviews and nothing else carry their own baggage, though this is rarely, if ever, acknowledged. I recall that Dorothy Porter commented on the insular community of Australian writing while reviewing three of her contemporaries in the early 1990s and ended her review by saying that she needed to go have a Bex and a good lie down. The issue is still with us today, and although I don’t have any answers, I feel better that I have at least articulated some of the questions. I will skip the Bex and the nap. Our literary community needs more reviewers, and for this article at least, I will do my best to become just that, aware, I hope, of some of the baggage that I carry with me on this journey.
Bronwyn Rodden’s Short Fiction for an Absurd World is a book of eleven stories that, at times, deals with worlds that are comically absurd, though absurdity is only one hallmark of this fine collection and Rodden covers much more ground than her title suggests. The first story, “The Redemption of the Foliaceous Picture of Dorian Grey” is set in a modern office where the metamorphoses of the workers could be read as variations on the fate of Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s famous story. The football man is transfixed by the blinding flash of the photocopier and cannot move away from it; the typist is moored to her typewriter; and the skin of the boss has started to “divide into columns of attendance records”. Only two of the workers escape, one of them transforming into the plants she has lovingly looked after. This story deploys the logic of surrealism, where the fantastical seems possible, building to a climax that is vibrant, energetic and convincing.
“Rimbaud and Ward 15” depicts a narrator who pays the patients of a psychiatric institution from their trust funds and hovers around issues of madness and the restricting nature of health care. The anarchic reputation of Rimbaud and his affair with Verlaine is raised by the narrator as some sort of metaphorical comparison with the men she observes, but the intercutting between these two narrative strands is not as fluid as it might have been. The story lacks a central event and is much more a sketch than a fully-formed story. The point of the story seems to be outlined in the ending, when the narrator comments on Rimbaud:
“He didn’t want evenness, plainness, put up or shut up, a do-what-your-told living. He wanted to scream out to the world that things should be better than they are, as people moved about him like domestic cattle, mooing when required, eating when the farmer gave them hay. He wanted to shatter the peace, uproot it, tear it out so people would at last, for once, do something: live, care, breathe.” (24)
Howard, the focal character of “So Long, Chu Chu” is an angel who “always felt he’d lived his life on the edge of a chasm.” He ends up in heaven where his love of the music of Gilbert and Sullivan and Rodgers and Hammerstein is satiated. His death, brought about from the bite of a rabies-infected Chihuahua, robs him of his wish to visit the Eiffel Tower. A special angel sends him back to live out this wish. This is a delightful comic story, narrated with an assured lightness; a story that is consistently charming and entertaining. My only quibble is that Howard’s revenge on his nemesis, Chu Chu, which involves the Eiffel Tower, is only referred to in a few scraps of passing dialogue. I’m not sure why the comic possibilities of the story’s climax were not enacted for the reader, but I certainly wish they had been.
Continuing the absurd and magical realist focus of the book’s opening, “The Ritornello Principle” dramatises the hell of a musicologist, whose hi-fi system plays the despised Vivaldi’s concertos on a non-stop loop. Confronted with a problem as immovable as Herman Melville’s Bartleby, with his refrain of “I would prefer not to”, the story’s ending suggests that this hell is cyclical, that the repetition of musical terror is being repeated in other parts of the city. Rodden is a confident entertainer, one who clearly excels at the type of story that takes a seemingly innocuous premise and plays with the possibilities generated by both exaggeration and logic pushed to its extremity.
The tone shifts somewhat in the next story, “A Sensation of Falling”. It is set in 1933 at the Allambie House guesthouse in Audley in what is now the Royal National Park in Sydney. There is a fine evocation of both place and time as Rodden portrays the difficulty that May and Harold face in consummating their marriage. They have a fear of physical carnality that might seem anachronistic in our highly sexualised modern world, but in this story their problem is convincing and engaging. The focus shifts deftly between the point of view of the two newlyweds and there is a memorable moment when the difficulty of undressing and dealing with all those stays, hooks, buttons and fasteners moves into a quietly human sense of elation. The story ends with a twist in the tale that I didn’t see coming, a twist that O. Henry would have been proud of. Unfortunately, twist in the tale endings have a tendency to be both formulaic and can feel manipulative for readers, but this twist in the tale is psychologically astute, memorable and intriguing. This story deservedly won Westerly’s Patricia Hackett Prize for short fiction. Rodden’s book is worth purchasing for this story alone.
Returning to absurdity, the narrator of “Happy Valentine’s…” wears a bridal dress, meets Victor on Fridays and is haunted by a previous relationship with Jack. Reading it, I was reminded of Hemingway’s iceberg theory, where a story is strengthened by omissions and is like an iceberg, where only one-eighth of the iceberg is visible above the water. I don’t know if the author was motivated by this theory, maybe she wasn’t, but I wanted to know and understand more; I wanted to know more about the details of this absurd world; I wanted to be clear about what had happened by the end of the story. “The Cake Lady” is written with an anarchic energy, but the meaning of the story escaped me. “Death of a Weaver” is another piece that features metamorphosis and is well-executed, entertaining and amusing. “No Escape from the Rainbow” depicts the events in a theatre in a voice that struck me as authentic. I am not sure that I can explain this story, it is another one that deserves to be read, except to mention Graham Swift’s suggestion that fiction “begins with strangeness”. It is a strange, compelling and unsettling story.
The penultimate story, “The Green Chair” was a story that completely engaged me, involving Ed, who kills birds with a slingshot and Melody, who Ed helps to escape from a hospital. Ed works in a supermarket where he is teased by his female co-workers, in scenes that border on sexual harassment. The threat of Melody being returned to the institution where she was incarcerated hangs over the story, but the story’s climax doesn’t eventuate. As a story, it feels cut-off, rather than finished. Unresolved endings are trendy, but this story ends, not with a bang, but a whimper. The writer uses a metaphor of a green chair, in which Melody sits, but the final significance of the chair and the metaphor puzzled me. It’s a pity, because it promised to reach the artistic heights of “A Sensation of Falling”, yet stumbled at the last hurdle. The short story, because of its brevity, has been called an end-oriented form and this story highlighted for me the importance of endings. This is, of course, easier said than done, but I think it’s true that a great ending often makes a story “great”.
“Eating Clouds” dramatises a romance that begins in a supermarket and is continued in a laundromat. The narrator meets Mr White Overalls while shopping for dog food and there’s a delightful comedy in the shortage of dog food, except for the unwanted tins of Chicken Chasseur. This story is dominated by three women who talk about the narrator’s interest in the man’s shoulders and whether it’s his wife or ex-wife at the other end of the phone. Veronica is the narrator’s “flatmate and ex-travelling partner” while Jane is doing night school with Waldo (the euphemistic nickname given to the supermarket man, after his fat dog). That’s about all we learn about these characters. I wondered why Rodden didn’t supply more background, more life information. Almost everything is dramatised, as if she was writing with a “show don’t tell” mantra in mind. Yet anyone who has read the Nobel prize-winning short story writer, Alice Munro, will know that her stories contain copious amounts of telling, so that one learns a lot about the life of a character as well as following them through the story’s featured events. As Gerard Genette suggested, showing is simply one form of telling, and its prominence in contemporary fiction is perhaps related to writers having one eye on the film of the book and accepting the mistaken emphasis of many creative writing teachers and workshop groups. In this story, I wanted Rodden to tell us more. The characters float in a kind of vacuum where what we know about them is largely determined by what they say and by their proper names. And it is curious that the proper names of the two central characters are not supplied.
Still, there is something to be said for a story that presents three women talking about men. I’m happy to be a fly on the wall in that situation and I found the story engaging and interesting. The climax of any rom-com is the moment when the couple actually get together, but when this comes, it is not dramatised by Rodden, but summarised: “We had sex, we had possibilities”. That is an acceptable decision as I’ve just argued that not everything needs to be dramatised, but given that the dominant mode of the story is dialogue, the logical choice would have been to enact the climax of the story as dialogue. I wanted the three women to talk about what had happened between the two protagonists in much more detail than Rodden gives us. Instead, the narrator is defensive as her friends question her about why her beau still lives with his ex-wife. Maybe it is realistic that she wouldn’t actually say much, but she could surely think what she is unwilling to say. Again, I felt this was a story where more attention needed to be paid to the importance of the ending.
Overall, Bronwyn Rodden’s, Short Fiction for an Absurd World is a book that excels in dramatising the absurd moments of modern life, with flights into an imaginative and convincing magical realism. I think absurdity works best when it is grounded in realism, as Beckett does in Waiting for Godot. Estragon and Vladimir’s situation by the solitary tree is absurd, but there is much that is richly human in their banter, their hopes, their need for food and comfort, their desire that Godot will eventually turn up. Similarly Rodden’s absurd stories rise out of a realism that is consistently convincing. To my mind the best story, “A Sensation of Falling” is the one that is the most realist and least absurd, although there is something magical and psychologically astute about this story’s superb ending. This aptitude with realism suggests that Rodden’s recently published crime novel, The Crushers, would be well worth a look. Short Fiction for an Absurd World is a collection of stories where humour, imagination, narrative drive and a perceptive understanding of the human condition are to be found on page after page. It is a book that I’m glad I read; a book that deserves more readers.
Short Fiction for an Absurd World, by Bronwyn Rodden. ISBN: 9781499290042
Originally published in Rochford Street Review
Short Fiction for an Absurd World is available from Bronwyn Rodden’s Amazon Author’s page http://www.amazon.com/Bronwyn-Rodden/e/B005KBPW3O /ref=ntt_athr_ dp_pel _pop_1 or from http://www.bronwynrodden.com.
This is the first of a series of irregular posts (whenever I have time or the impulse to do them) about short story collections or individual short stories.
I have never been really convinced by Frank O’Connor’s claim in The Lonely Voice that the short story typically deals with a ‘submerged population group’, with ‘outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society’. As a theory it seemed too neat—bound to apply to one story and not another. But reading Janette Turner Hospital’s superb collection of stories, Forecast: Turbulence, I was reminded again of O’Connor’s claim. All of Turner Hospital’s characters seem to be outsiders. There’s ten year old Lachlan from ‘Blind Date’ who although a ring-bearer at his sister’s wedding, can’t be trusted to walk in the procession because he’s blind—a blindness that Turner Hospital skillfully evokes without explicitly naming. There’s ‘weird Rufus’ who captains a whale-watching boat and talks to whales. There’s a lonely computer nerd in one story and abused teenage girls in another. A high school theatre director, Duncan, who is arrested for sexually harassing his students in ‘The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman’ sentences his daughters to years of being outsiders as they try to escape his notoriety. In ‘Hurricane Season’ a grandmother and grandson are literally marooned by an approaching hurricane. The characters in this book are certainly individuals living on the fringes, apart from a well-functioning and caring community.
The short story cycle, like the short story, is undergoing something of a resurgence. Internationally, Elizabeth Strout’s magnificent Olive Kitteridge (2009) and Jennifer Egan’s cutting-edge, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011) both took out the Pulitzer Prize for fiction ahead of novels. Forecast: Turbulence was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s and The Age awards for fiction and won Queensland’s Steele Rudd Award. Unlike Strout and Egan’s books which derive their unity from one or two central, recurring characters, or Gillian Mears’s collection Fineflour, which uses the setting of the river flowing through a country town as a unifying element, this book is structured around the repeated metaphor of turbulent weather. It works. When the police knock on the door to arrest Duncan, a tornado, both literal and metaphorical is unleashed into the lives of his family. But the less literal examples are more impressive, such as the girl into self-harm who cuts ‘weather maps on my legs.’ (103) The central metaphor is an interesting feature of many fine contemporary stories and Turner Hospital takes it one step further by using it as a unifying motif for this collection.
Janette Turner Hospital grew up in Brisbane and has lived for many years in South Carolina. This experience of two places and cultures is surely an asset for a writer. Turner Hospital makes use of it by setting the first three stories in Australia and following them with six set in North America, ranging from Canada to the Carolinas. Usually the language and idiom fit the story’s locale. ‘Dumpsters’ for example, is a very American word that belongs in an American story. But occasionally Turner Hospital slips up. When Lachlan’s father, Jim, returns to Melbourne from the Burdekin in Queensland in time for his daughter’s wedding, he scoops up his son and ‘the ring cushion rises like a snowbird in flight and hovers over Pamela and falls.’(19) In what is a masterful ending, the simile jarred for me. The story is colloquially Australian—the daughter says, ‘I should tell you to bugger off, Dad’—yet a snowbird is North American. Although the additional connotation of someone who moves south to avoid winter and taxes seems to apply to Jim, the image of the snowbird can only be the author’s. It is wrong, to my ear, at least. It’s not that Turner Hospital is not careful with words, for her stories display a mastery of free indirect style, of the narrator’s voice taking on the idiom of her characters. The other instance that jarred for me was the young, self-cutting Tiyah, fishing at a secluded creek and saying, ‘It’s private weather down here.’(118) Turner Hospital has already established the special meaning of ‘private’ in this story, but it’s ‘weather’ that doesn’t fit, that I can’t really hear this character saying, that belongs to the author’s central motif rather than a character’s speech. These are clearly quibbles. It’s a testament to Turner Hospital’s art that they’re rare occurrences.
The protagonist of ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’, Nelson, is another lonely outsider, a software designer who is infatuated with a lady in a green nightgown he watches every night from behind a tree in a park. The woman reminds him of Daniel Gabriel Rossetti’s famous painting, Beata Beatrix. Like the Beatrice of Dante’s poem, this Beatrice is also idolised, with Nelson making her not only the woman of his dreams, but the hub of a labyrinthine on-line game that he creates and that becomes a popular craze. But after an incident at an office party, Nelson withdraws further and further into a world of dreams and illusion with horrifying consequences. It’s an affecting story of unrequited love, of a loner struggling to function in the real world. But as the story proceeds to Beatrice’s death, Turner Hospital provides a twist in the tale that I didn’t believe in. The ‘twist in the tale’ ending, which O. Henry made famous, is an ending that tends to foreground the cleverness of the author. When it works the shock of the twist feels organic to the story. When it doesn’t work the reader feels manipulated by an author pulling strings. Here, the ending felt like a leap too far to me, a turbulence that comes from nowhere. In contrast, the title story, ‘Forecast: Turbulence’ details the return of a father from the Afghanistan war after a five year absence with a twist that is completely shocking and completely right.
Overall, this is a dark collection. The final story, ‘Afterlife of a Stolen Child’ is a moving portrait of Melanie and Simon, whose two year-old son, Joshua, is stolen from outside a bakery. Turner Hospital employs two first person narrators, one who gradually seems to be Joshua’s murderer, one who years later identifies as the adult, stolen Joshua. It’s a complex and thoroughly modern story, where the reader is forced to question the reliability of the narration and to wonder whose version of events can be trusted. It’s also a harrowing portrait of the long term effects of guilt and grief and demonstrates how the short story, despite its length, can still accommodate a multiplicity of viewpoints. This is the story that should have ended the collection.
Instead, the book ends with a memoir, ‘Moon River’, that focuses on the author’s colonial ancestors and the death of her mother. Apart from a brief reference to an Aborigine who is shot, the tone is also colonial, as Oxley, we are told, ‘opened up the Liverpool Plains’. (227) It might well be the sort of the historical narration that Turner Hospital grew up with, but her memoir adopts rather uncritically the language and world-view of the colonisers. It’s beautifully written, but dramatically dull and is a rather anti-climatic ending to a strong book. ‘Moon River’ was previously published in a collection of Brisbane stories and that is where it should have stayed. It is not like Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, where the entire book plays with generic diversity, but a blip on an otherwise coherent weather map.
Forecast: Turbulence is a diverse and confronting book. It deserves the accolades it has already received. It is powerful and compelling, demonstrating the range of the contemporary short story. My favourite moment is in ‘Hurricane Season’, when the grandmother, Leah, produces a box of photographs to peruse by candlelight. Steven, her grandson, picks out a photograph of an old lover, who rather magically rings her at the height of the storm on a phone resembling a nautilus shell. The story rises into a kind of magical realism where the turbulence of the hurricane replays the chaos of passionate love. Turner Hospital understands love, whether it’s long gone but not forgotten, or the immediate everyday love of grandmother and grandson. It’s a story about choices, those made in the present and those made in the past, and how they linger in people’s lives. Just as good stories linger and stay with you, just as this book will.
Forecast: Turbulence by Janette Turner Hospital. Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2011, pp. 232, AUD$23.99 Hardback, ISBN: 9780732294441