Short Stories

‘Shall I scrub your back for you?” the monkey asked ... He had the clear, alluring voice of a doo-wop baritone. Not at all what you would expect.’ The eight short stories in First Person Singular are exactly what a reader has come to expect from Haruki Murakami, a writer with a penchant for neo-surrealism. The parabolic tales in this collection explore the familiar tropes and motifs of his oeuvre, including loneliness, outsiderness, chance encounters, music (classical, jazz and the Beatles), and memories. While Murakami might not be breaking new ground here, it is still a magical experience to return to his whimsical, eccentric, and enigmatic reimagining of Japan.

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Smokehouse by Melissa Manning

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April 2021, no. 430

Smokehouse is an engagingly constructed collection of interlinked stories set in small-town, yet globally connected, settler Tasmania. The volume, which is focused on personal crises and family breakdown, is bookended by the two parts of the novella that lends the collection its name. This splicing is an inspired decision: the end of Part One keeps us turning the pages through the subsequent, fully realised short stories; with Part Two we feel rewarded whenever we spot a character first encountered in a story that seemed discrete.

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When as a boy I listened to football on the radio, I would often hear mention of David Harris, a skilful midfielder who played for Geelong and Geelong West respectively in what were then the VFL and VFA. Harris was mostly known as ‘Darky’, not ‘David’. Recently, thanks to a YouTube interview, I learnt that Harris’s parents were Lebanese Australians. While in the interview Harris did not express offence, one can only wonder about the effect on him of this nickname – one he’d had since his own boyhood – based on the colour of his skin.

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Pushing Back by John Kinsella

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April 2021, no. 430

Comprising more than thirty works of poetry, fiction, memoir, and criticism, John Kinsella’s prolific output is impressive, and this figure doesn’t include his collaborations with other artists. Here is a writer who swims between boundaries, experiments with form and content, and eludes easy categorisation. His most recent novel, Hollow Earth (2019), was a foray into science fiction and fantasy, and his most recent poetry volume The Weave (2020), was co-written with Thurston Moore, founder of NYC rock group Sonic Youth.

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A series of beautifully controlled fictional voices and an exquisite sense of literary craft contribute to the dark magnificence of Chloe Wilson’s début collection of short stories, Hold Your Fire. This volume explores the strange and sometimes surprising abject horror that characterises the quotidian and the ordinary. The stories both examine and revel in the classically Kristevan abject realities of the body’s expulsions and the disgust that is often characteristic of social marginality. For example, the ‘poo phantom’ writes a ‘message in shit on the walls’; tampons wrapped in toilet paper are described as ‘bodies that needed to be shrouded for burial’; a character feels a ‘quiver down to the bowels, the rush that is equal parts excitement and dread’; another tries ‘to pass a kidney stone’; and two sisters try an ‘Expulsion Cure’, where the doctor asks how much they expel: ‘And how often? And what is the colour? The texture? … When you eat something – poppy seeds, say, or the skin on a plum – how long does it take to reappear?’

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Eugen Bacon’s début short story collection, The Road to Woop Woop, plays with the genres of speculative fiction and magic realism. Using familiar tropes such as time travel, shapeshifting, and prescient characters, the stories typically refuse formulaic outcomes. The title story, for example, confounds expectations about the horror of bodily disintegration. The ominous angel of death in the story ‘Dying’ turns out to be a true wit. The surreal is transformed by the blessing of love in the heart-warming story ‘He Refused to Name It’.

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Canberra Tales by Margaret Barbalet, Sara Dowse, Suzanne Edgar, Marian Eldridge, Marion Halligan, Dorothy Horsefield, Dorothy Johnston

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November 1988, no. 106

Short stories are often disappointing, and this collection is no exception. What a pity that so much strength and force has been put into a book that lacks a plan and presents too many inconclusive pieces.

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When Shirley Hazzard was invited to give the 1984 Boyer Lectures, it was an astonishing break in tradition. Her twenty-three predecessors included only one woman, Dame Roma Mitchell, a supreme court justice who was later governor of South Australia. Except for architect and writer Robin Boyd, and poet and Bulletin editor Douglas Stewart, Hazzard was the only creative artist on the list. All her predecessors were well known for their public contributions to Australian life.

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In perhaps the most tender story in this textured, interconnected collection, an adolescent son spends the summer sunbathing in the backyard and sneaking glances at the paperboy while his working-class, stay-at-home father, who reads detective fiction and likes to ‘figure things out before the endings’, gently attempts to make it known to his son that he can tell him anything.

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Laura Elvery’s second short story collection, Ordinary Matters, shows the same talent for precise observation, pathos, and humour as her accomplished début collection, Trick of the Light (2018). It differs in its creation of a greater range of narrators and voices, and in its use of a specific ideological framework through which to unify the collection: each of its twenty stories is prefaced by the name of a Nobel Prize-winning female scientist and the ‘prize motivation’ for her award. This device might be read as subverting the sexist stereotype that, denying women the capacity for rational thought, consigns them to the ‘softer’ realms of emotion and artistic endeavour. It also encourages an interesting way of thinking about female desire as it pertains to a range of experiences, including creativity, ambition, motherhood, sexuality, and political activism.

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