Archive for 2011

I’ve only read five short story collections this year so far. It’s been a big-book year; I’ve schlepped my way through two Game of Thrones books, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, an advance copy of Isobelle Carmody’s The Sending (!!!) and am currently engaging in the bicep tussle that is Don Quixote. And I also suspect I have a little bit of short-story fatigue. Reading bad short fiction is exhausting in a way that needs no explanation, and reading good short fiction can be draining too. I always need a bit of a temporal or psychological break between even each short story in any one collection, whether single-authored or multi-authored: if the writer is doing their job right, you need some time to absorb and then recalibrate for the new world each story brings.

But I had no hesitations in buying Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories ahead of his MWF session (which I didn’t end up attending in the end). This 2010 collection has been much lauded, and I’m impatient to read his new novel The Cook, which I think is spectacularly well-timed: the collective fever-dream of MasterChef is beginning to fade slightly, but notifications from every publishing corner, including the meteoric rise and power of food blogs and the success of McSweeney’s Lucky Peach point to the middle-class obsession with food and kitchens being a stayer.

To return to Other Stories. It’s a collection that should breed excitement in short fiction aficionados. Macauley’s fiction is clean, the tales made almost ridiculously accessible by his use of simple prose. In some stories, chummy, confessional first-person establishes character with the naturalism, attention to vernacular and easy representation of foible that made Cervantes’ Sancho Panza the most memorable simpleton in literary history.

In ‘A Short Report from Happy Valley’, the (unnamed) narrator, a pathologist, is dashing off an epistle to a colleague about ‘strange goings-on’ he recently observed (‘My invoice will follow shortly, by the way’). The serene people of Happy Valley display a tendency towards sleep; one man has been asleep for thirty years, waking only for meal-times or other necessaries, while others ‘hover precariously between sleep and wakefulness’. The business-like diagnostician can’t put his finger on the cause, but while possible theories range from the pathogenic to the philosophical, he’s laissez-faire about the odd phenomenon: ‘Leave them alone! Let them rest in peace!’ – his mind’s already on his next case, a sick cow in Brisbane.

Macaulay does this oblique and unperturbed chronicling of curiosities very well. ‘One Night’ contains the simplest and most charming form of this signature; the vignette describes the summer night when ‘Michael Ebeling, the panel beater’ took his mattress down into the street and was gradually joined by all his Boxstead Court neighbours. And when Macaulay refracts these anomalies through his satiric filter, which he does often, the result tickles the fancy while disturbing the civic sense. ‘Bohemians’ seems like a fun example, at first; an agent assures a client that he can lease some ‘bohemians in their purely decorative role’ so as to create some character and ambience in a community. But the bohemians, so prized for their louche inertia, can’t afford to live in the area, where ratepayers have ‘bought up all the bohemians’ houses and taken over the bohemians’ cafés’.

If this seems like a slightly dated complaint (vale affordable North Fitzroy, Brunswick and Northcote living), note too that the collection comprises stories that have been written over almost twenty years. But when Macaulay aims his sights at the prickly end of the rectitude scale in ‘The Farmer’s New Machine’, the lengths to which a farmer is prepared to go to attain bucolic bliss are chilling because very little about the story – the proud farmer, the advances in industry – places it far outside of contemporary experience.

It’s not only groups that become bewildered, slipping into interstices that protect them from the onslaught of increasing complications. One of the collection’s best, and longest, stories, ‘The Bridge’, tells of a lone soldier who attempts to maintain his loyalty while defending a post that has been cut off from all communication. In ‘So Who’s the Wrecker Then?’, the Premier – ‘a man with a wicked sense of humour and a great flair for the dramatic’ decides during an appearance at a building site in outer suburbia to use his new-found bulldozer skills to chase dignitaries and photographers around ‘like sheep’.

With his restraint and talent for observation, Macauley clads what might usually be thought of as dystopian themes in the familiarity of realist garb, and this lends real frisson to his work. He has also written two earlier novels, which I haven’t read, but what with the sharp execution and imaginative premises, Other Stories is an excellent way to introduce yourself to Macauley’s gimlet pen.

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Hello! Just checking in. I am chairing the Melbourne’s New Wave session at Melbourne Writers Festival on 2 September. I will be talking to S.J. Finn (This Too Shall Pass), Raphael Brous (I Am Max Lamm), Jessica Au (Cargo) and Melanie Joosten (Berlin Syndrome). You should come to this, because when they each eventually wins the Miles Franklin, you can say ‘Bless. I remember Finn/Raphael/Jessica/Melanie from that Melbourne Writers thingy when that chair asked them the awkward question about what they like to do before they go to bed’.

(No, I won’t be asking them that.)

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Ha ha, just kidding. More like ‘Me and Russell Brand: A Book Review in The Lifted Brow‘. Take it from there.

Laura Miller’s New Yorker piece on George R. R. Martin and his fans (who are legion) was great, and left me dying to read Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I like fantasy, I like complexity, I like HBO tv shows: done deal, right? I borrowed the first two books, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings from my friend James, who has read them several times since childhood (Game of Thrones was written fifteen years ago).

By way of brief description, the books describe the power struggles of various high-born families in the Seven Kingdoms, and take their plot and setting cues from something approximating English medieval history (I think Martin has said that the plot is loosely based on the War of the Roses). They are huge books – both volumes run to over 700 pages – giving other sprawling fantasy worlds reason to reconsider their level of commitment.

Game of Thrones is a much easier sell than Clash of Kings: it is laden with surprises and ends with a fist-pumper of a scene. Clash of Kings suffers from the lugubriousness of an already expansive universe that Martin only continues to complicate, edge outwards and fill in, introducing more and more characters, locations and intrigues. Of course, that’s no problem in itself, but I found the second volume a bit tedious in places, and while I occasionally skipped over pages of description in the first book, I skimmed whole sections of Clash of Kings without regret. So while it was no great difficulty to continue on to the second book after the first, I’m in no hurry to go on to the third any time soon. (Dana Jennings’ NYT review of the fifth book in the famously long-incomplete series has swayed me slightly.)

Obviously, a lot happens in the 1500+ pages I read. (If anyone is giving out prizes for understatement of the year, I’ll take one.) But a few general areas of note. (Note that because there are so many significant plot changes, there’ll inevitably be SPOILERS. And note that I’m in no way trying to convert non-fantasy readers to these books. If the words ‘meat and mead’ anger you, you shouldn’t read this at all – click here now.)

I Sex and women

When an early description of a family’s bloodline contains the words ‘for centuries they had wed brother to sister’, you know you’re in for a hard-to-defend-to-your-friends kind of read. And no bloody joke. In Game of Thrones alone, you get twincest and a very closely written scene between an adult man and a thirteen-year-old girl. It’s enough to make you realise how grateful you are for age-of-consent laws.

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June 6, 2011

I’m taking up residence at MWFblog again from now until the end of the Melbourne Writers Festival. I’ll also be jumping on a plane for New York on Thursday, to be followed by a brief sojourn in Iceland. Holiday time! I’m taking plenty of reading material but am gutted to be missing Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing.  (Though I dare say I’ll find something else to do instead.) Someone see it for me!

You learn a lot of things at writers’ festivals. In the first weekend of the 2011 Emerging Writers’ Festival, I’ve learned that:

  1. Ben Law’s work uniform is a pair of ‘housing commission-y track pants and a Bonds singlet’.
  2. If you are a freelance writer, ‘you will never stop freaking out’ (thanks, Penny Modra).
  3. Even if your friends are in London, they can still be guests at a festival held in Melbourne (see Hamilton, Caroline).
  4. It’s possible that the novel you wrote and recorded from your house in Melbourne will be downloaded over half a million times.
  5. I can’t hold my drink anymore.

No matter how tired I think I might get of attending literary events and writers’ festivals, the Emerging Writers’ Festival always surprises me with its ability to direct and hold my attention, and uncover enthusiasm in my breast where I thought it had lain dormant during the cold winter of my inactivity. We’re very lucky in Melbourne to have a festival that gives emerging writers support, opportunity and venues (physical or virtual) in which to meet, discuss, debate and laugh together.

There’s still another week of the festival left, with plenty of interesting ideas yet to be hashed out. There’s a strong focus on genre in this year’s festival, and there are also plenty of free and digital events too. See the program here.

My picks are The Pitch, where editors, including KYD editor Rebecca Starford, will be talking about what they look for in pitches, and Dirty Words, where a bucketful (brassiere-ful?) of writers, including gold-shoe-wearing Scot Alan Bissett and enthusiastic planker Linda Jaivin, will form a line to disclose naughty secrets and things of that ilk. Vachel Spirason of Slow Clap will also be there, and if he’s anywhere near as entertaining as he was at the festival’s First Word event, where he danced so hard he gave himself a front-wedgie, I think we’ll be in business.

Thanks to Favel Parrett for making me actually start weeping uncontrollably on public transport.