Australian Fiction

Great art provokes by taking great risks. It goads, teases. When we recognise we’re in the hands of a master, the banal becomes profound, the sacred profane, and the grandest of truths reveal themselves in the most innocent of questions. Take Pauly Shore’s scathing 1994 cinematic rebuke of the complicity of heteronormativity in the military industrial complex, In the Army Now. In it, two gay soldiers signal their intent to defy the US Army’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy and serve their country in a neo-colonial war by asking, simply, ‘Is it hot in Chad?’

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Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser

by
October 2021, no. 436

To read Michelle de Kretser’s fiction is to sense important details swimming under the surface of our awareness, forming patterns that will come into view by the end of the story, or after contemplating it for a time, or while rereading. There is always enough to satisfy our immediate needs – rich aphorisms, sharp characterisation, satirical wickedness, the play of language, political and historical concerns, mysteries explored – but the presence of morphing repetitions and suggestive references leaves the pleasurable impression that you have only just started reading the novel even as you finish its closing sentence. The structural integrity of de Kretser’s fiction, its intelligence and purposeful virtuosity, combine to induce keen readerly attentiveness. Scary Monsters is no exception.

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Australian novelist and short story writer Jennifer Down has been rightly acclaimed, with an impressive list of awards to her name, including the Jolley Prize in 2014. Her new novel, Bodies of Light, is both much more ambitious in scope than her first and an altogether more harrowing read. Spanning the years from 1975 to 2018, and traversing many different locations in Australia, New Zealand, and America, the novel confronts us with child sexual abuse, a suicide attempt, a series of fractured relationships, allegations of infanticide, recurring social alienation, and a serious drug addiction. But it is also, and mercifully, a story of a woman’s remarkable resilience, the possibility of human kindness, and the necessity of hope. Bodies of Light thus has affinities with the feminist Bildungsroman popularised in the 1960s and 1970s; a genre that championed a belief in productive self-fashioning by women in the face of systemic misogynistic oppression.

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Nicolas Rothwell is perhaps best known as a critic of art and culture for The Australian, though he has also published several non-fiction books, one of which, Quicksilver, won a Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2016. Red Heaven, subtitled a ‘fiction’, is only the second of Rothwell’s books not to be classified as non-fiction. Always straddling the boundary between different genres, Rothwell has cited in Quicksilver Les Murray’s similar defence of generic hybridity in Australia: the novel ‘may not be the best or only form which extended prose fiction here requires’. Working from northern Australia, and intent upon exploring how landscape interacts obliquely with established social customs, Rothwell, in his narratives, consistently fractures traditional fictional forms so as to realign the conventional world of human society with more enigmatic temporal and spatial dimensions.

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A man waits outside a schoolyard and watches a young girl who, it seems, is his daughter, though she doesn’t know him. What appears to be an internal dialogue between the man and the child’s mother commences, set apart from the main text. It is a self-conscious narrative manoeuvre. The narrator, Jules Pyatt, after all has a thesis in English literature behind him (abandoned). He knows what narrative is all about, and he knows he wants to tell the story of his ‘Tazyrik year’, which belongs to a period several years before, when he was in his late twenties.

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By the end of Hugh Breakey’s The Beautiful Fall (Text, $32.99 pb, 349 pp), it is hard to remember that the prologue hinted at stimulating possibilities. In it, Robbie’s past self writes to his present one, explaining that he suffers from recurring amnesia, which strikes every 179 days. Readers could be mistaken for thinking they are in for meditations on time and memory, maybe even on the meaning of a life lived episodically. When it is revealed that Robbie is building an intricate arrangement of 83,790 dominoes in his living room, readers might even imagine a novel that touches on metaphysical themes in the vein of Jorge Luis Borges.

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In an ABC interview to promote his previous novel, Fever of Animals (2015), Miles Allinson shares a brief anecdote. When Allinson was aged sixteen or seventeen, a teacher told him that everyone turns conservative eventually. Allinson recalls his repulsion at the notion of this inevitable slide towards orthodoxy. His new novel, In Moonland, feels like a rebuttal. Joe, the narrator of the first part of the book, is caught somewhere between consent and revolt: though ambitious, he feels trapped by the flickering lights of his own computer, by the suburbs, and by his run-of-the-mill job. Orbiting him is a coterie of questions relating to his new status as a father, coupled with one more profoundly unanswerable question: why did his father, Vincent, kill himself? Only some of these questions are answered across a narrative that uses four different perspectives and three different timelines, from the present back to the 1970s and into the near future.

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Halfway through Lucy Neave’s new novel Believe in Me, there is an astonishing scene in which an orphaned foal is dressed in the skin of a newly dead foal, the skewbald coat threaded with baling twine and the strings knotted under the throat and chest. Disguised in this fleshy coat, strands of bloody muscle still clinging to it, the foal is presented hopefully to its foster mother. The novel’s main protagonist, Bet, is sceptical: ‘It’s condescending: as if a mare could be fooled by putting her dead foal’s skin on another foal.’ Sure enough, the grieving mare rejects the starving foal, stamping her hooves and moving around uneasily in the stable. Later that night, when Bet goes to check on the animals, she finds them nestled together: ‘Dark shapes, they moved together, away from me, as though they’d been startled from a dream.’ Stunned at this unexpected communion, Bet retreats into her own solitude: ‘I turned off the light, bolted the door and walked back through dew-soaked grass to bed, seeing again the mare and foal, nose to tail. They had no need of me.’

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There is something, or rather someone, in the air in Jennifer Mills’s dark fourth novel. The Airways represents another leap towards the uncanny for Mills, whose previous book, the Miles Franklin-shortlisted Dyschronia (2018), was already a departure from the more traditionally realist modes of her earlier novels, The Diamond Anchor (2009) and Gone (2011), and short story collection, The Rest Is Weight (2012).

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Writers seeking publication are often advised to have an ‘elevator pitch’ ready. These succinct book-hooks are designed to jag a trapped publisher in the wink between a lift door closing and reopening. Has this insane tactic ever actually worked? No idea. But it’s fun to imagine the CEO of Big Sales Books, on their way up to another corner-office day of tallying cricket memoir profits, blindsided by three of the looniest elevator pitches imaginable. A novel narrated by Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles! A faux political memoir about a prime minister and his shark vendetta! An academic satire cum historical mystery mashup told largely through the – wait, wait, wait! – footnotes of a PhD thesis! That CEO will probably take the stairs next time, but kudos to the independent publishers who saw the potential in these experimental works and their début authors. Whatever the path of weird Australian writing, long may it find its way to these pages.

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