Black Inc’s The Best Australian Stories 2007 (TBAST? TBAS2?) is pictured above in my hotel room in Dakar. (Senegal!) By all (travel guide) accounts it’s pretty difficult to find cheap accommodation that isn’t also a brothel in Dakar, so consider its green glow indicative of achievement and relief rather than envy. I was in Dakar for New Year’s Eve, so it’s been a long time between drinks. Let’s see what I remember.
TBAST has plenty of very strong examples of unique voices, an element which is key in short-form fiction. I enjoyed every story in this collection, even the non-virtuosic ones. Most of them have been published before in Australia’s various literary rags. My favourites, though, the ones I still think about, were mostly written in sophisticated, forcibly rendered first-person narrative. I do enjoy a good first-person now and then. So, to some examples.
Tom Cho’s ‘The Bodyguard’: ‘Someone is stalking Whitney Houston and I have been hired to be her bodyguard.’ A demented, playful, anxious foraging into Hollywood romance and masculinity, this is the kind of writing I’ve been thirsting to see from an Australian for a long time. ‘Quirky’, creative fiction needs an assured, strong voice, and Cho can certainly produce one of those. I kind of almost fell out of my chair for this story. He’s got a collection out now, too.
I die for Louise Swinn’s fiction. Her story Endgame is a compelling example of how vocabulary and sentence structure can give rise to a very successful voice. Endgame‘s protagonist is an immediate presence:
The class was told that I’d found my mother burning and I had never corrected them. Nobody said it to my face anyway. We filed out to morning assembly and I stood leaning against the brick wall up the back listening to the principal call out winners of last week’s basketball. I watched the cloud through the window as it darkened and exploded into massive drops of loud rain. Our teacher flicked the hall lights on. I expected her to tell me to stop leaning against the back wall but she didn’t.
There are also a couple of violently impressionistic stories that use such commanding imagery that my retina, impossibly, retains memories of them. Patrick Lenton’s ‘Uncle Jeremy Has Turned into a Tree’ needs little explanation from me. In Lee Kofman’s ‘Floating above the Village’, a cross-cultural mother-daughter relationship and desultory wanderings through Melbourne are anchored by the fey spectre of Chagall’s Au Dessus de la Ville.
Then, of course, there’s Nam Le’s ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, which needs a category all of its own. No other piece of writing has been on my mind as much in 2009 as this story. It is complex and fictively autobiographical. The fictive Le is ‘dreaming about a poem’ in Iowa, and when he awakes, his father is standing in front of him,
smiling ambiguously. He wore black trousers and a wet, wrinkled parachute jacket that looked like it had just been pulled out of a washing machine.
What a punch in the guts. How simple his writing can be, and how powerful. Le’s story unbalanced me when I first read it (in The Boat, last year): Did I like it? Did the angsty, awkward confessions (‘The truth was…’; ‘That’s all I’ve ever done…’) interrupt the superb tension between the writer and his father; were the writerly clichés of Johnny Walker and blonde girlfriend too thoughtlessly exploited? But…wasn’t the brevity of the dialogue potent, and the son’s appropriating the pathos of the father’s Vietnam War experience ever-so-tentatively callous? At the apex of what good literature can do, Le is sitting on a solemn throne, pumping conflicted blood through his readers’ hearts as well as his.
These are just a few of the friends you can make in this book. So the news is good, all very good. Can’t wait to read TBAST. I mean, The Best Australian Stories 2008.