“Short Fiction for an Absurd World” by Bronwyn Rodden
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.