Lydia Davis writes long essays and short stories; some of them, like this one of six words, very short indeed: ‘INDEX ENTRY: Christian, I’m not a’. Influenced by Kafka and Beckett, she is drawn to Anglo-Saxon words, complex sentences, and literary forms which are hard to define. In the United States she has been awarded Guggenheim and MacArthur Genius Grants; in France she is a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters; in the United Kingdom she won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize for what Christopher Ricks, chair of the judges, called her ‘vigilance … to the very word or syllable’. Rick Moody calls her ‘the best prose stylist in America’, TheNew York Times compares her precision to that of Vermeer, while for her publisher she is simply ‘beyond compare’. Claire Messud, looking for fresh adulatory epithets, says that Lydia Davis ‘has the gift of making us feel alive’. What, then, am I missing?
At the beginning of 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write (2014), author, mother, and playwright Sarah Ruhl notes: ‘At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.’ Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell’s Mothertongues embraces, embodies even, this collapse of the boundaries between living and writing. Rather than extolling the proverbial ‘room of her own’, Bell and Dovey are asking us to heed the kinds of knowledge that come from being embedded in the everyday.
What happens when we die? Human curiosity about the afterlife has inspired countless artists and storytellers from the earliest myths through to Dante and Boccaccio. More recently we’ve had Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), as well as sitcoms like Netflix’s philosophical The Good Place and Amazon’s capitalist dystopia Upload, and now Steve Toltz’s alternately bleak and bonkers take in Here Goes Nothing.
Deborah Levy published the first volume in her ‘living autobiography’ trilogy, Things I Don’t Want to Know, in 2013. Five years later came The Cost of Living. Now we have the finale, Real Estate. Each book is an autobiographical interrogation of women’s middle age in which Levy ambivalently considers the place of the woman writer in the contemporary world.
It’s an achievement to write about the climate crisis – and the resulting increase in Australian firestorms – without having people turn away to avoid their mounting ecological unease. Despite experiencing the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 directly, I too am guilty of looking away. It’s easier that way. Danielle Celermajer, however, excels at both holding our attention and holding us to account, balancing the horror and hope of not-so-natural disasters, specifically extreme Australian bushfires, in her new book of narrative non-fiction, Summertime.
I could begin with a lark stitched into a letter. It’s 2020 and ‘all manner of virulent things’ are simmering. Sixteen-year-old Sacha writes to Hero, a detained refugee. She wants to send ‘an open horizon’. Unsure what to say to someone suffering injustice, she writes about swifts: how far they travel, how they feed – and even sleep – on the wing. The way their presence announces the beginning and ending of summer ‘makes swifts a bit like a flying message in a bottle’. Maybe they even make summer happen.
Towards the end of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory (2018), Richard Powers attempts to articulate why literature, or more precisely the novel, has struggled to encompass climate change: ‘To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.’
Connor is a thirty-something Australian who bides his time grifting in India. His targets are Western female tourists, whom he describes as ‘talent’, and whom he seduces and fleeces. Connor seems to be escaping something, most likely the upbringing in which his masculinity and personal safety were constantly called into question.
One of the few details we learn about the unnamed narrator of Ronnie Scott’s début novel, The Adversary, is that he is fond of Vegemite. Although only a crumb of information, this affinity for the popular breakfast tar reveals much about our hero. Just as Vegemite ‘has to be spread very thin or you realised it was salty and unreasonable’, his human interactions give him a soupçon of a social life, a mere taste that never threatens to overwhelm his senses.
James Bradley’s Ghost Species arrives at a time when fiction seems outpaced by the speed with which we humans are changing the planet. Alarmingly, such writerly speculation has been realised during Australia’s tragic summer, when the future finally bore down on us. And there are few writers of climate fiction – or ‘cli-fi’, the term coined by activist blogger Dan Bloom and popularised in a tweet by Margaret Atwood – who so delicately straddle the conceptual divide between present and future as Bradley.