Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

I have been getting right into the library over the past couple of months. We might be moving house in a while so I’ve been trying not to accumulate more books for the moment. Honestly, I think my boyfriend might break up with me if I buy any more before we move. Plus, have you been to the library lately? As my friend Maddie would say, you can get like THIRTY BOOKS FOR FREE. I am a pro at using the library. I get some good stuff there. It is a truly amazing institution.

So I’ll just briefly chat about the titles I have to return soon.

The Diving Pool / Yoko Ogawa

If you’re anything like me, you feel a little heartsick when looking at the spines of your Murakami and Yoshimoto books, remembering how much you loved contemporary Japanese literature and then read so much that you kind of had a brain hernia in response and now get hives whenever looking at book covers that feature brushstroke fonts on white backgrounds. It’s evident to me that I have avoided reading new Japanese writing for this not very good reason, which is totally dumb because The Diving Pool is really good. It comprises three stories that all exhibit Ogawa’s deceptively understated prose, which often gently depicts strange, repellent but morally opaque acts. In ‘The Diving Pool’, the only biological daughter of serial orphan-adopting parents hurries to the pool the same day each week to watch her foster brother, Jun, diving. This hidden obsession is a rare bright spot in her life: she thinks that her blood relationship with her parents ‘disfigures’ her family, and her relationship with its members is by turns callous and derisory.

‘Pregnancy Diary’ tracks the changing moods and diet of a pregnant woman through the eyes of her sister, who makes grapefruit jam to assuage her cravings. But this seeming act of sisterly affection takes on a grotesque malevolence through repetition. A disturbingly slanted take on familial care and the venerated ideal of a gravid woman.

The final story, ‘Dormitory’, sees a young woman revisit the dormitory where she lived while at university. Food is an integral part of each of Ogawa’s stories. This woman takes small cakes and other gifts to the dormitory’s caretaker as a way of showing respect and care, but also as an excuse to be there – or perhaps to excuse her being there, as her visits become more numerous. But food also rots and harbours malignancies; it decays, as do bodies and buildings. This book is more powerful for not pathologising the harms it describes; for its quiet, polite voices that utter terror.

A Single Man / Christopher Isherwood

I have to confess that the 1960s are not my strongest decade. I don’t have anywhere near enough knowledge about the historical context or adjacent literature to make the most of anything I read from that time. But I still enjoyed reading A Single Man, set over the course of one day in the life of George Falconer, an British expat teaching literature in Los Angeles. In some ways it’s a regular day; George wakes up, talks to his friend Charley, thinks about his neighbours, drives over the bridge and to work. But it’s also a day defined by a loss that George has recently suffered – that of his partner, Jim. Moving not only as an intimate portrait of a man psychologically reconstructing himself in response to his surroundings, but also in its frank treatment of aging and sexuality, this novella deals in gear-changes, masks and behaviours. Enjoyable, too, are the academic-novel scenes, in which colleagues bicker and gossip about each others’ wives. And much is changing in LA: a diversifying body of students represent a newish type of America, while Charley reminisces – in a plummy RP that leaps off the page into the ear – about the old country.

Gone Girl / Gillian Flynn

AAAARRRRGGGHHHHHHHHH. Okay, so I shot myself in the foot with this one. For some reason I’d got it into my head that this was a super literary thriller. I’d read about it all over the place and everyone was raving about it, so I thought I was reading a very different book than what I was. When it finally dawned on me that Gone Girl is essentially a grown-up Christopher Pike-ish type thing, I was already sore from having my ear chewed off by two of the most irritating narrators I have encountered in a long time. So please don’t take this as an unbiased opinion.

You probably already know enough about Gone Girl‘s plot or premise, so I don’t need to go into that too much. Perfect wife Amy Dunne goes missing on her and husband Nick’s fifth wedding anniversary, yada. They alternate chapters as narrators. There’s a big twist. Yes, it’s an extremely tight thriller, quite astonishing. I marvel at the structure of this book, and my imagination is not capable of coming up with this kind of story (though there are some stretch-the-imagination bits). I’m actually afraid of Gillian Flynn now. Don’t cross that lady. But I think the horrors here are almost purely structural – or even theoretical – rather than emotional. I felt absolutely nothing when I reached the huge twist (okay, that’s a lie – my attention had been flagging, and it whipped back into place once I reached the twist). And I think many readers would be able to guess what the twist is (though not the specifics, which are mindboggling) – there are enough clues. But Amy Dunne’s voice is so cloying (I don’t want to spoil it too much, but I understand that there’s of course a good reason for this) and Nick’s so lackadaisical that I really couldn’t have cared less what happened to either of them. Plus, he’s the kind of narrator (an ex-writer!!!) who feels the need to tell you all this stuff he knows about grammar and story structure. Cue zombie-style rolling of my eyeballs. Nothing makes me more annoyed. ARGHGH, etc.

When I got to what Peter Craven called a ‘sick-making’ ending in The Age, I was pretty unmoved. I felt more upset in Grade 4 when my frenemy stole my story about a fruit bowl, copied it and handed it in as her own. Okay, that’s a pretty dog act, but still. In conclusion: I admired this thriller. It is surprising and fairly well paced. I read it expecting it to be something else, so that’s just my bad. But I was disappointed and pretty annoyed. Kind of reminded me of Double Indemnity (amazing movie, okay, just wait) in that the suspense kept me going, but the emotional side of the character development was lacking, which made for little emotional punch. (Though Double Indemnity has much better dialogue. Uhhh, I regret bringing this up.) And that’s a genre thing, and that’s okay. Just letting you know how my experience was.

The Lover’s Dictionary / David Levithan

Oh my god, it’s like someone gave me a shot of vodka. I feel so much more calm thinking of this book. This is seriously like a pear and Sauternes sorbet after a main course of rotted monkey brains in terms how comfortable I feel. Ahhhhhh. Okay, here is a book that has heart as well as a creative structure. I’ll just be quick now. The Lover’s Dictionary takes the form of a dictionary: words like ‘caveat’ and ‘flux’ are presented, not with definitions, but memories and wonderings that make up a love story. It’s non-linear, so each ‘definition’ is like a piece of a puzzle that the reader puts together over the course of the book. This concept might be too cutesy for some, but Levithan’s pared-back prose ensures the end result isn’t too saccharine. A nice idea, well executed.

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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I have a short review of Patrick Holland’s short story collection The Source of the Sound in this month’s Australian Book Review, which magazine is now available in an online edition – you can buy individual issues or subscribe for a year. (Of course, the paper version is still available.) Go forth and modernise.

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February 28, 2011

Hi all. Just another one of those cursory ‘direct-you-elsewhere’ posts, sorry. Hey, at least I am not stealing your money or anything like that. (Although, for all you know, I could be.)

Anyhow, I read Sherman Alexie’s War Dances for Killings and I blogged for The Book Show here about … this blog, actually. And how it’s helped me become a better reader.

Happy week!

I was talking to a friend the other day about how it seems to be baby season, how we have swiftly and surely reached the age where our family, friends and colleagues generate offspring without any scandal – indeed, it is expected. In response to this influx of infants, I found myself saying, ‘I don’t want to have a baby, but I don’t want not to have had a baby.’ And then I mentally slapped myself across the wrist, for I had just paraphrased Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories I had been reading. (Not that I had done very much paraphrasing – many of Davis’s stories are renowned for their brevity.) But the ease with which the words left my mouth signalled to me just the genius of Davis’s plain rendering of people’s interiors. Instead of padding stories out, she trains her storytelling on dilemmas in an intimate, immediate way.

Not all of the situations Davis depicts are as straightforward as the one I parroted, though – time and time again her narrators painstakingly work through problems that seem a little left of the centre show; or they are at the beginning of their workings-out, taking an exploratory path that unearths only a proliferation of other avenues. The collection is remarkably assured right throughout its bulk – over 700 pages, almost 200 stories, the work of more than ten years. It’s a beautiful tome, as well, which  you can slot in right next to Lorrie Moore’s collected stories, if your library is arranged by Pantone colour.

My review of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis appears in this month’s Australian Literary Review, the first under the editorship of Luke Slattery. It comes with today’s edition of The Australian. You can see the contents list and the editorial here, or purchase online access to the day’s edition here. Enjoy!

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In ‘Up North’, the fourth story in The Dead Fish Museum, a man whose wife is having a string of affairs says, ‘Our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance, without ever arriving at the moment in time where, utterly familiar, I’d vanish’. In the collection’s final story, ‘The Bone Game’, a man comes across a crystal clear stream, but the fish, which the native Americans believe are their ancestors, are ‘thin and weak and mutilated, their flesh ripped and trailing from their bodies like rags’. Charles D’Ambrosio’s second short story collection is full of these inexorable equations: lives diminishing without fully disappearing.

One way of coming to terms with the diminishing returns is to accept that life is a pretty low-stakes deal. Tony, the narrator of ‘Blessing’, describes heavy misfortunes as ‘gyps’. He’s an insurance broker, so he knows all about hedging bets: ‘You expect a normal life, but wager against it.’ Boons aren’t of much consequence either; Tony’s wife, Meagan, an actress for whom parts are proving elusive, says, ‘I love you … At least there’s that’. In ‘The Scheme of Things’, Lance and Kirsten live off small amounts of money – ten bucks a pop – that they procure by posing as charity workers.

Of The Dead Fish Museum’s eight offerings, three are fishing stories and one is a hunting story. In ‘Up North’, a couple make their way from New York to a cabin in the snow for deer season. In ‘The High Divide’, two boys go on a fishing trip. The triangulation of life, death and nature is a classic configuration: a proven catalyst for unearthing family violence (‘Up North’), or a nation’s bloody history (‘The Bone Game’). But D’Ambrosio’s sensitivity to natural beauty makes the gambit worthwhile. Not only is the land tainted (in the title story, the ocean shore is awash with garbage), it is also promising and fecund, housing tulips in ‘a sea of red and yellow … rolling our way like a wave’.

Animals meet their ends quite readily in these stories, but for their human counterparts, life is a waiting room at best. Young Ignatius in ‘The High Divide’ watches his father sitting on the caged-in patio of St. Jude’s Hospital, his eyes like ‘blown fuses’. This sense of attenuated experience is intensified by the recurrence of details across the stories. In a García Márquez–like repetition of circumstances, the collection contains multiple failed actresses, guns, insurance workers and psychiatric hospital inpatients. This déja vu blurs the lines between tales, creating a spectrum of story in which the waiting never ceases – characters are reincarnated, waiting, in another purgatory.

D’Ambrosio’s prose is good, his dialogue great. ‘My life is so simple a one-year-old could live it,’ says the self-immolating ballerina in ‘Screenwriter’. Folksy vocabulary and unusual word choices enable him to nail character and description in a scant sentence. His dialogue and prose work together at their best in ‘Drummond & Son’, a study of the relationship between a typewriter vendor and his son. Drummond is patient, dignified, undemonstrative: ‘Sometimes your illness tells you things, Pete. You know that’. Yet twenty-five year old Pete is referred to as ‘the boy’ in the story’s prose, a protective tell construing his son’s interrupted life.

‘Half-life’ is a scientific term – a measure of the time it takes for a substance to halve in size or potency. It’s synonymous with decay, with deterioration, and thus with the consciousness that there’s only less to come. While the realism of The Dead Fish Museum is constructed with an eye to the compromised quality of its characters’ existence, it’s also anchored in the ‘strange becalmed moments’ of the outgoing tide. D’Ambrosio’s stories are portraits of humanity at the tail end of exponential decay, reminding us of the distinction between even a compromised life and silence.

(Cross-posted from Killings – with my apologies for all the cross-posting while I’m occupied with blogging for MWF.)

I know this is cheating, but here’s my review of Andrew Porter’s short story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, at Killings. Sorry to be so stingy on value, but I’m reeling this week from having been told I look like Poh.