Short Stories

These twenty-one stories have a pedigree; according to the customary list of acknowledgments, they have had a previous life littered across no fewer than twenty-six books, magazines, and journals, some of whose names are unfamiliar even to my local newsagent. I’m not sure these days if places of publication should properly be called ‘sites’, ‘topoi’, or ‘venues’. Such is the prevalence of dope in this book, however, that perhaps they could be called ‘joints’. But This Is For You is certainly greater than the sum of its parts.

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Sometimes I long for beauty – in a book I want beautiful writing and even some beauty illuminated in everyday experience. Fiona McGregor’s short story collection does little to ease my longing.

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The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin

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February–March 1994, no. 158

Every adventurous reader of fiction ought to have a private hoard of novelists, preferably from a non-English writing background, who have escaped the appalling nonsense of Booker-style PR hype. Luckily, publishers like Collins Harvill set about promoting such writers; unluckily for Australia, though, our major literary pages often neglect to review the bulk of such output. You will have your favourites in such a category, but let this reviewer recommend the following: Jose Donoso, Etienne Leroux, Jose Saramago, Eduardo Mendoza, Saiichi Maruya, and Haruki Murakami.

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This is the finale to ‘The Death of Daffy Duck’, one of the stories in Peter Goldsworthy’s latest collection. ‘The Death of Daffy Duck’ outlines the end of a friendship between two bon vivant couples whose years of dining out together had come to an end in a restaurant, during dinner, when one of the men almost choked to death on a piece of food (the ‘Scene’ referred to), and the other saved his life. From that time on, the saved man will not speak to his rescuing friend.

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For its double epigraph, Rock’n’Roll Heroes combines a couple of lines of Midnight Oil’s Hercules – ‘my life is a valuable thing / I want to keep it that way’ – with six wonderfully numinous sentences from Thomas Traherne:

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‘When Australians run away, they always run to the coast.’ Robert Drewe has already debunked the myth of the bush as Australia’s heartland, and in The Bodysurfers pictured us living and loving on the very rim of the continent, precariously perched in salty, sweaty, and essentially temporary hedonistic bliss between the threat of the empty outback, the incendiary bush, and the menace of the ocean with its sharp­toothed predators and secret stingers.

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I am a Boat by Sally Morrison

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May 1989, no. 110

Collections of new Australian short stories by a single author have become a regular feature of Australian literary publishing in recent years. They are a welcome addition to the range of new writing available to the reading public. Collections that have unity of style, are thematically coherent and present a linked set of perceptions from the one creative source offer the reader much more than a light or fragmentary experience. Instead of the sustained characterisation of the novel, they can achieve a dazzling variety of episodes and mood. Robert Drewe’s Body Surfers and Helen Garner’s Postcards from Surfers are outstanding examples of how good the best collections of stories can be. It was a great delight to pick up I am a Boat by Sally Morrison and find that, although it is only her second book, in style, originality and literary quality, Morrison is fast approaching the Drewe and Garner class.

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The Glass Whittler by Stephanie Johnson

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April 1989, no. 109

Stephanie Johnson writes short stories and writes mainly about women. It’s as though there’s a specific genre in current writing that ties together these two kinds of writing, for women writing about other women in short prose pieces make up a distinct category that includes almost all of the familiar names of women writing in Australia now. These women writers include migrants who have made their homes in Australia and write from that position. Johnson, for instance, is a New Zealander.

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Bleak Rooms by Peter Goldsworthy

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May 1988, no. 100

Peter Goldsworthy uses the short story to examine and question elements of the kind of life he leads. There is an attractive lack of pretence in his kind of story; Goldsworthy sketches social situations clearly and succinctly so that he can move on to probe the weaknesses in his characters’ otherwise complacent lives. As the back cover tells us, and the stories reveal, Goldsworthy is a medical practitioner in Adelaide and his fiction is in a tradition which begins with social experience and reflection on it.

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About a year ago, when The Woodpecker Toy Fact and Other Stories was just a gleam in its author’s eye, I chanced to hear this very fancifully dressed woman read a story about childhood perception, semantic confusion, and small-town gossip. It was one of those welcome breaks at an academic conference, when we turned our attention from the analysis of art to the thing itself. And it was perhaps the context, along with the exceptional performance of the reader, which made this particular story stand out so vividly. For while it satisfied, they (by then quite desperate) desire to be enthralled by something fictive, it also played up cleverly to the critic in us all.

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