Short Stories

Red Hot Notes edited by Carmel Bird

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April 1996, no. 179

Were it not for the timing, it would be easy to speculate that this richly evocative collection of pieces about music was the inspiration for Jane Campion’s glorious film, The Piano. So many elements of the film – the dominant image of the beached piano, the powerful undertow of sexual passion, even the unexpected violence-are present in this book in the most uncanny similitude. I should not be surprised since Carmel Bird has already displayed her uneasy fascination with the film in her dazzling essay ‘Freedom of Speech’ (in Columbus’ Blindness and Other Essays) and in her introduction to Red Hot Notes she admits that the film was a catalyst for the idea of various writers exploring ‘the complex feelings that surround, and embed themselves in, the human response to music’.

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The Stranger Inside is billed on its own front cover as ‘an erotic adventure’. The title would be considerably more innocuous if the book didn’t announce itself as erotica, but once it does, the phrase ‘the stranger inside’ suddenly becomes suggestive in the extreme. It’s a good title, partly because grammar renders it fruitfully ambiguous: apart from the obvious implication, it could also mean ‘the inner alien’ (a fragment of psychobabble, as in ‘the inner child’), or perhaps ‘the more peculiar interior’ (as in ‘my inside is stranger than yours’). Whichever way you read it inside the body, inside the book, inside the soul the phrase suggests that eroticism depends on a combination of interiority and mystery.

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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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These stories are well written and rather depressing. That makes them, I guess, rather representative of what one might call the current state of short-story writing by urban males. One thinks immediately of recent collections by Garry Disher and Nick Earls. There seem to be a few basic starting off points, the most notable being in the delineation of defensiveness and insecurities that give the male characters, who are often the narrators, a sensitive but decidedly uptight response to, well, almost everything. Women, parents, children (their own), and particularly the drab world that has snuffed out some early spark of liveliness or vitality (which is usually rubbed for sympathetic magic in moments of nostalgic recall).

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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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