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.