Short Stories

Yellowcake  by Margo Lanagan & The Wilful Eye: Tales from the Tower, Volume I  edited by Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab

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May 2011, no. 331

The ten tales in Margo Lanagan’s Yellowcake offer an eclectic glimpse behind the slender veil separating the everyday from the fantastic. The collection is peopled by monstrous gods and godly monsters, by scavengers, drifters, and fascinators. Its landscape incorporates hellish war zones, apocalyptic streetscapes, and haunting carnivals. There is hope and ...

The final offering in Patrick Holland’s first collection of short stories is also its best.

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From a clutch of novels including the award-winning Camille’s Bread (1996), Amanda Lohrey has now turned to shorter literary forms, notably two Quarterly Essays (2002, 2006), a novella (Vertigo, 2008) and this new collection of short stories. At the 2009 Sydney Writers’ Festival she publicly confessed her new leaning, arguing the benefits of genres more easily completed by both writer and reader and less likely to produce guilt if cast aside unfinished.

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The first book I ever properly owned – pored over, slept with, inscribed – was an elaborately illustrated hardback copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. One can imagine the producers of the attractively packaged Tollins: Explosive Tales for Children hoping it might assume similar significance for a contemporary seven-year-old boy. Conn Iggulden’s secret and quirky world of the Tollins involves old, greybearded men, intricate maps and plenty of adventures and derring-do by the book’s unlikely hero, Sparkler.

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Under Stones, a collection of short stories and one poem by first-time author Bob Franklin, reads like a study in subterfuge: a teenage outcast wreaks cyber vengeance on her local Tidy Town group; a man’s online porn addiction is turned against him by a mysterious workmate; a seasoned duck hunter finds that the target has shifted without his knowledge. Yet scratch the surface and you will find that the deception runs deeper than that; the darkly humorous scenarios hint at society’s moral decay. In ‘Soldier On’, a man’s homecoming visit to England to see his retired parents turns from farcical to forlorn, as his infuriation over their addiction to soap operas gives way to a disquieting realisation about the widespread misery of the elderly.

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Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho & Why She Loves Him by Wendy James

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June 2009, no. 312

Self-evidently, the short story demands precision. The term ‘short story’ more than likely brings to mind the magazine-length sprint or the rapidly delivered epiphany. John Updike was a master of this demanding form. In his Olinger and Tarbox tales, characters are assembled quickly and sent to their fate with little delay. Never cursory, this was writing performed under haiku-like restraint. In the short stories of Wendy James and Tom Cho, we are presented with similarly brief and precise tales of two different Australian landscapes: one as small as a kitchen, the other as capacious as an arena. Why She Loves Him is James’s first story collection after two well-received novels. For the most part, the stories are quiet and domestic affairs. Her characters are frequently repressed and restrained, filled with rage that is rarely given voice. If the short fiction of some novelists feels too constrained, James’s evocation of despair is perfectly suited to these short bursts.

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David Malouf’s The Complete Stories brings together the three and a bit books, spanning twenty-five years, that constitute his forays into shorter fiction: Antipodes (1985), Dream Stuff (2000), and Every Move You Make (2006), along with two stories that accompanied his novella Child’s Play (1982). Given that this is a collection rather than a selection – no stories are cut from the earlier books – the quality ebbs and flows, both from story to story and from book to book. Despite its slight imperfections, The Complete Stories confirms that Malouf is, at his best, a masterful exponent of short fiction.

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What can we make of the fact that, of the forty-seven stories selected by Robert Drewe for this year’s The Best Australian Stories collection, thirty-three are written in the first person? The influence of Creative Writing classes has to figure in any stab at an answer. It would be interesting to do the rounds of the universities to discover whether the teachers of such courses actively encourage the use of ‘I’, or if it happens obliquely, resulting from the way that writing exercises are structured. One wonders, too, if that old saw, ‘write what you know’, is discussed in the first week of these courses, and if such a practice contributes to the writer’s feeling more comfortable and secure when deploying the first person.

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In 2005, Lisa Gorton, writing in ABR, named Paddy O’Reilly’s The Factory one of the best books of the year. It was O’Reilly’s first novel, but she was already well established as a prize-winning writer of short stories. The End of the World is a collection of those stories, and should secure her reputation as one of our most interesting, if not best-known, literary talents.

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In a recent feature article in the Guardian Review, William Boyd proposed a new system for the classification of short stories. He constructed seven stringently categorical descriptions and ended his article with a somewhat predictable – that is to say, canonical – list of ‘ten truly great stories’, among which were James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Spring at Fialta’ and Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Funes the Memorious’. Most of the writers cited were male, and the classifications were confident demarcations in terms of genre and mode (‘modernist’, ‘biographical’). It is difficult to know, and no doubt presumptuous to speculate, what Boyd would make of Frank Moorhouse’s edited collection The Best Australian Stories 2004. Garnering them ‘at large’ by advertisement and word of mouth, Moorhouse received one thousand stories, from which he selected ‘intriguing and venturesome’ texts, many of which display ‘innovations’ of form. Of the twenty-seven included, six are by first-time published writers and twenty are by women. This is thus an open, heterodox and explorative volume, unlike its four predecessors in this series in reach and inclusiveness. It is also, perhaps, more uneven in quality: a few stories in this selection are rather slight; and the decision to include two stories by two of the writers may seem problematic, given the large number of submissions and the fact that the editor claims there were fifty works fine enough to warrant publication. A character in one of the stories favourably esteems the fiction of Frank Moorhouse over that of David Malouf: this too may be regarded as a partisan inclusion.

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