Fiction

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Susan Sontag has identified in contemporary fiction what she calls an ‘impatient, ardent and elliptical’ drive. These are features, above all, of the well-wrought story, and they are also adjectives that well describe its inherent paradox: the story is contained but somehow urgent, intensified but working in a system of concision, suggestive but employing referential exorbitance. Four pages might betoken an entire world.

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Don’t be put off by the cover of Alex Miller’s most recent novel, where a stag-at-bay is invoked, rather reminiscent of an early century front parlour picture. Although this novel is firmly set in period and place, it simply cannot be understated as the definitive deer-hunting tale. There is also the powerful universal sub-theme of the outsider searching for meaning and identity in a society firmly entrenched in a rigid and outdated class system.

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Andrea Goldsmith’s second novel, Modern Interiors, is about a family, and marked out by its goodies and baddies. This is a moral novel about capitalism and the choices open to people within its system. Goldsmith uses outrageous caricatures to represent the baddies – those seduced and corrupted by the family’s damned money. And all of the goodies have an interest in and strenuously pursue the higher knowledges – poetry and fiction, philosophy and philanthropy. They are all good, and fair-minded people, if sometimes with too much sweetness and light.

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I have walked long and often with this writer man, travelled with him on trains, listened to him give exact references on the Melways map, noted him noting his whereabouts and those places about and abutting his whereabouts, and I am still uncertain why his work interests me so much, unless it be that the geography of the imagination is the first and the last landscape of grasslands to be explored and that the inland of an island such as ours will always be an ambiguous place which may display a real sea and a centre or mirages of either.

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The first book of fiction is a little sub-genre with a number of readily recognisable features. It’s loosely structured and tends to be episodic, without much of a plot. It’s at least partly about love and sex, preferably of an obsessive or otherwise significant kind. And it’s at least partly autobiographical. If it’s already a bad book, then these things do tend to make it worse, but if it isn’t, then they don’t necessarily detract; it’s not a value judgement, just an observation.

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In the wake of the spectacular collapse of Rothwells and unsavoury revelations about Western Australian entrepreneurial enterprise, it is very apposite for Penguin to have republished Nick Hasluck’s 1980 novel, The Blue Guitar. This novel, as relevant now as nine years ago, deals with the world of entrepreneurship with its illusory money, fast talk, and duplicity. It is a world of the corrupt and the corruptible, where principles and moral certainties give way before glib notions of innovative thinking and flexibility.

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Often collections of stories seem to me idle gatherings of chance acquaintances, sometimes uneasy with their companions. While the random can offer pleasures of its own, it can mean narrow-minded stories offended by their wilder and noisier neighbours, together a matter of squabble and disharmony. The four long stories that comprise Michael Wilding’s new work, Under Saturn, have instead a creative discord. Each one is self-contained, yet the movement of counterpoint among the four brings to Under Saturn the unity of a single composition, a quartet of variations on a theme.

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In her interview with Candida Baker for Yacker 2, Jessica Anderson expresses her dissatisfaction with the covers of a number of her books, citing in particular the glum face on the paperback of The Impersonators and the representation of The Commandant as, in Baker’s words, ‘a Regency romance’. Anderson, who began as a commercial artist, stresses that ‘Design and presentation ... really matter. They’re the introduction to a book.’ It seems to me to be particularly unfortunate (although she may well have given it her blessing) that her new book sports a clichéd Ken Done cover. Perhaps Done’s bright colours might evoke the ‘warm zone’ of the title, although Anderson is referring to Brisbane, not Done’s mock-naïve view of Sydney. Unfortunately, the cover subliminally suggests that Anderson’s writing is sunnily comforting, easily assimilated.

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There has been altogether too much talk recently about literature and bliss, and not enough about sadness. Think of the gloom that descends when you have read all the works of a beloved author, and no fresh fields and pastures new remain. Years ago, I suffered this depression after reading all the works of William Faulkner. There was a brief respite when Flags in the Dust, an ur-version of Sartoris, appeared, but brief it was.

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David Foster is obsessed with opposites. He likes to play polarities of place and value against each other: in The Pure Land he contrasted Katoomba and Philadelphia, the sentimental and the intellectual; in Plumbum he put Canberra against Calcutta, the rational against the spiritual. At a talk in Canberra several years ago, he commented that it was the symmetry of the words Canberra and Calcutta that attracted him to the idea of the cities as polarities. Words themselves invite Foster to play games with meaning and suggestion, and he finds an endless source of absurdity in the gap between actuality and the words chosen to label it.

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