'Why do we write?' asks David Brooks at the start of this exhilarating collection of short stories. 'What are we groping for?' The entire collection seems like an attempt to answer a question that the author acknowledges is unanswerable. Yet there is no futility here. His groping, as he calls it, charms and disturbs and conjures up images of extraordinary, if fleeting, power.
As the publisher's blurb reminds us, Brooks's first short story collection, The Book of Sei (1985), was heralded as the most impressive début in Australian short fiction since Peter Carey's. While Brooks hasn't achieved Carey's fame, he has maintained a consistently striking output of literary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. His 2007 novel The Fern Tattoo was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award; another one, The Umbrella Club (2009), has been underrated: it has a Heart of Darkness sense of wonder.
There is wonder too in Napoleon's Roads, often with a dark heart. I am reminded of the Magritte painting of a pipe, with the caption 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe'. Don't look for conventional beginnings, middles or ends, or easily recognisable protagonists. These stories are more in the tradition of Borges and his followers: each one an exercise in extended metaphor, akin to essay or poetry, juxtaposing ideas in surreal and sophisticated patterns. As with the best metaphors, I am never sure what they stand for, but I respond readily to the moods they evoke.