Short Stories

A story called ‘The Burden’, which appears at about the halfway mark of this collection, begins like this: ‘Graham was finding the burden of freedom a little too much for him …’ He is working alone in his room above a Chinese restaurant near the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where he is a visiting Australian Fellow, writing a novel about, it seems, academic life. But the novel isn’t ‘coming along’. He is ‘stuck hopelessly in the middle of a quarrelsome English department meeting from which he couldn’t extricate any of his characters’. He has run out of money and food and is down to his last half gallon of Red Mountain claret. ‘Nothing for it but to do the tourist thing and wander down Telegraph avenue with a camera.’ And so begins his afternoon of boredom, inchoate intentions that evaporate as they arise, and chance meetings. Looking back on it at the end of the day, he decides there was ‘not much to show for it … Or maybe there was something there. He pulled his notebook towards him and began to write, “Graham was finding the burden of freedom a little too much for him …”’

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Each fiction in this small but handsome volume emerges from an interesting, perhaps even ‘transitional’ phase in J.M. Coetzee’s writing life: between the publication of Disgrace (1999) and Slow Man (2005); before and after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. The first story in the collection also predates Coetzee’s move to Adelaide in 2002, as does, presumably, the composition of the second (whose protagonist laments the corporatisation of rural South Africa, declaring, ‘I want nothing to do with it’); the third story was presented and published as Coetzee’s Nobel Lecture.

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One swallow doesn’t make a summer, as the stark proverb cautions, but a cockatoo flocking of short stories suggests that the form is perhaps enjoying a revival – and the publishing industry has seized an opportunity. As it should.

In 2013, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature, lauded as ‘the master of the contemporary short story’. Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object appeared in 2013. New collections by luminaries Hilary Mantel (The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher) and Margaret Atwood have followed in 2014. And for aficionados of the form, there was the splendid brick (733 pages) of collected stories by the quirky American virtuoso of the form, Lydia Davis (do read her – she’s extraordinary), anticipating a trend when it was published by Picador in 2009.

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At the start of ‘True Glue’, Dale the postie is called a Luddite by his mate and wonders if this is some religious or political splinter group he hasn’t yet heard of, before going home to google it. In ‘Slow Burn’, Daryl Turtle has a troublesome close encounter with a yellow toaster while suffering from ‘man flu’, resulting in a hilarious scene in a chain store when Daryl walks down the aisle in his pyjamas dropping bread, ‘Is it Hansel and Gretel?’ asks a little boy.

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You are perfect for this story. I will never meet you.’ We are invited into Australian Love Stories and into Bruce Pascoe’s erotic reverie with this line from ‘Dawn’. The reader is embraced, as the luxuriating eye of Pascoe’s narrator embraces the recumbent body of the woman beside him. His gaze is illicit, touch forbidden. We are privileged voyeurs, given temporary access to hidden thoughts and lives. Love. This paltry word hardly describes the myriad guises of friendship, affection, homosexual and heterosexual relationship, desire, lust, loneliness, and satisfaction; the gamut of emotions expressed in the twenty-nine stories editor Cate Kennedy selected from the ‘sea of stories’ she received. I do not have enough room here to mention each singular invocation of love by name. Some stories follow the constraints of realism, others are more expressionistic, but each holds a gift – a kernel of some essential truth about the human condition. The ones I mention simply struck a special chord for me.

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A prestigious prize and national exposure are fine achievements for a writer in her early twenties. Heat and Light is the first major publication by Ellen van Neerven, winner of the 2013 David Unaipon Award. Given her age, it is less surprising that Heat and Light focuses on questions of identity.

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In the spirit of our annual ‘Books of the Year’ feature, in which we ask a range of writers and critics to nominate their favourite new fiction and non-fiction titles, we asked ten Australian short story writers to nominate their favourite short story collections and individual stories. As this is the first time we have run a short-story themed feature of this nature, our ten writers were free to nominate older titles if they wished to do so. Our only request was that at least one of their selections should have been published recently and that at least one be by an Australian author.

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What makes a story compelling? When I was an undergraduate student at Deakin University, I was fortunate enough to be instructed in fiction writing by Gerald Murnane. His key criterion for the worth of a story was its capacity to mark his memory with an enduring image. Over time he used to cull books from his shelves that failed to impress him in this way.

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Bark by Lorrie Moore

by
August 2014, no. 363

In Bark’s second story, ‘The Juniper Tree’, an unnamed narrator sings ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ with calculated slowness to alter ‘not just the attitude of the song but the actual punctuation, turning it into a protest and question’. Lorrie Moore’s writing career to date strikes a similar counterbalance between form and content: irrepressible linguistic exuberance tempers – and sometimes even succeeds in confuting – an essentially saturnine world view.

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‘Buffalo Bill and the Psychiatrist’, ‘The Story of Little-Path and Marcus Kellogg’, ‘Zorro the Chess Master’: the playful titles of Power’s stories appear to belie the seriousness of his concerns. There is light and whimsy in this collection, but how much lies beneath the surface?

Power’s stories skip from Papua to digital worlds, the Wild West to contemporary Melbourne. For all their diverse settings, however, many read as if the events are floating in empty space rather than nailed down by concrete details. Furthermore, the exotic backdrops can feel arbitrary. The orphan protagonist of ‘She Calls Her Boy Amazing’ could be growing up almost anywhere – Vietnam plays no role in either the dramatic or thematic development of the story. Often the settings in Meatloaf in Manhattan seem inconsequential, like a garnish rather than part of the meal.

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