Tag Archives: short stories

The Book Group and Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction

Gerald Murnane, Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018)

murnane.jpgBefore the meeting:
Gerald Murnane has been described as ‘Australia’s most distinguished unread writer’. His most recent novel, Border Districts, is shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Prize. He is the author of seven other novels, two books of essays and a memoir as well as the 20 short fictions in this book, which have previously been gathered in three collections: Velvet Waters (1990), Emerald Blue (1995) and A History of Books (2012).

My introduction to Murnane was ‘The Breathing Author’, an essay published in Heat 3 (New Series) in 2002, in which he portrays himself in such a negative way (‘I cannot recall having gone voluntarily into any art gallery or museum or building said to be of historic interest’) that I felt absolutely no desire to read more.

So when the Designated Book Chooser chose Murnane’s  Collected Short Fiction for our August meeting, I was less than thrilled.

And now I’m grateful to the Book Group for once again taking me places I wouldn’t otherwise have gone. The book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was enthralled – I loved it.

It’s hard to say why I loved it. These fictions (every time you see that word here, I have first typed ‘stories’, and then deleted it and replaced it with ‘fictions’) have no named characters (unless you count the uncle of the main character in the third last story who is given the name Nunkie), they generally have very little action, and it’s sometimes hard to see how they even hold together. They feature an obsessive repetition of words and phrases and constantly draw attention to themselves as something being written. If the word ‘introspection’ didn’t exist it would have to be invented to describe them.

What do they have? Well, the narrator of one of the stories, ‘In Far Fields’, who is described in the story itself as its implied author (that is, I think, he is implied to be Gerald Murnane), describes to a hypothetical student his own approach to creating fictions. He begins by writing a sentence, which is ‘a report of a detail of an image in [his] mind’, an image that ‘was connected by strong feeling to other images in [his] mind’. He then proceeds to write a sentence that is a report of a detail of another image that was connected by feelings to the first image. And then a third image, and so on. This chain of images forms the basis of the story. It becomes complicated after that, but it’s worth quoting a little from near the end of his talk to the hypothetical student:

Before she left my office, I would tell her, as a last piece of advice, that she need not have learned the meaning of every image reported in a piece of fiction before she had finished writing the final draft. Nearly every piece of my fiction, I would tell her, included a report of an image whose connections I did not discover until long after the piece had been finished. Sometimes these connections had not appeared until I was writing a later piece of fiction, and then I would understand that the image in the earlier piece of fiction was connected with an image in the later piece.

I think it’s this sense that the (implied) author is always exploring something that involves deep and not yet understood emotion, not knowing where the writing is taking him, that kept me pretty much spellbound on almost every page of this book. The prose is generally dry, methodical, self-referential, but the analogy that come to my mind is of an archaeological dig in a temple of Aphrodite: meticulous brushing, digging, scraping around objects that speak for themselves of great unruly passion.

One effect of this approach is that no distinction is made in the text between memory and fantasy. Most of the fictions feel autobiographical, but that isn’t the point: the reader is invited/expected to respond to the images and the fiction that connects them without knowing or caring if they come from Murnane’s actual life. Many of the images that the fictions ‘report’ are scenes from rural Victoria, and I expect that readers from that part of the world would feel an extra connection with the writing. Another whole swathe of images relate to the Catholic childhoods and adolescences of the unnamed main characters, and it’s probably these that led me to a deeper emotional engagement.  ‘Pink Lining’ is an example. It begins:

The image that caused me to begin writing this story is an image of a single cloud in a sky filled with heaps or layers of clouds. The single cloud and all the other clouds in the sky are coloured grey, but the single cloud is surrounded by an aureole or nimbus of pink.

It turns out that this image is on a holy card preserved from the narrator’s childhood. Adult, non-believing cynicism having been raised and brushed aside, the image leads to memories of the narrator’s favourite aunt, a pious woman, bedridden since the age of twelve, who taught him a lot about Catholic teachings. The story of the narrator’s relationship to that aunt emerges, and the fiction wanders through other parts of his life, with every now and then a tight focus on the colour of a wall, a pink holy water font, a sky ‘filled with heaps or layers of grey clouds’. Here’s perhaps the most dramatic paragraph (which reports on one of the key images of the piece):

At certain times during the years following his twenty-fifth year, the man who was first mentioned in the second paragraph of this story believed that he had never looked at or touched the naked body of any woman before his twenty-fifth year. At other times during the years just mentioned, the man believed that he had looked at the naked body above the waist of a certain woman during his fifth year. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door mentioned in the previous paragraph, the naked body above the waist of his favourite aunt as she leaned over a dish of white enamel filled with water and on that body two breasts, each with a nipple surrounded by a zone of pink. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the sentence before the sentence mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door just mentioned, the naked body above the waist just mentioned and the dish filled with water just mentioned and on the body the nipples of a girl whose breasts had not yet begun to grow,

The affectless, asperger-ish quality of this is typical of Murnane’s prose. The prim but eloquent silence about what happened when the man was 25, and then the pedantically framed account of what he had seen when he was five (leaving the reader to imagine the emotional content of the experience) have a feel I recognise from my own Catholic childhood: some things simply aren’t meant to be spoken of, especially if sex or the naked human body is involved. (My mother’s response to The Female Eunuch comes to mind: ‘You don’t look over people’s shoulders when they’re brushing their teeth, so why do it with that?’) The result, though, is that moments like this or the final words of this story, which quote a line from a song ‘previously mentioned’, pack a huge punch.

Now that I have actually read this book, I am left wanting more: maybe I should start with Murnane’s first novel, Tamarisk Row. I am immensely grateful, not only to this month’s Designated Book Chooser, but also to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

The meeting:
There were six of us. One of the absentees said on the phone, in a voice affected by a heavy cold, that he thought Murnane used a lot of words to say almost nothing. But those of us who ate the spinach pie and ice creams found a lot to talk about. In fact, we probably stayed with the book more than any other night except maybe Anna Karenina. I wouldn’t say everyone was wild about the book, and only three of us had read all 20 stories (plus one was part way through Border Districts), but we had all engaged with the writing, with Gerald Murnane’s mind (or to be more precise his way of writing about his mind).

One chap came back from a toilet break saying, ‘I’ll give him a hundred percent for slowing time down. I love dance and music that does that, and he’s done it  in writing.’ I think he meant that Murnane’s fiction moves from emotionally charged image to emotionally charged image is something that we all do, but what we do in fractions of a second, he slows down and dissects meticulously.

Someone quoted from a review that said that with Murnane’s writing, what matters is what you find yourself thinking about as you read it. That struck a chord: some of us had found ourselves reflecting on our intensely religious upbringings; others on our connection to the land where we live; others still on the complexities of early adolescent attitudes to sex.

Someone said that even when Murnane is annoying – and at least one person said he’d felt like throwing the book across the room more than once – he’s interesting. Someone said he’s cruel, leading the reader in one direction and then springing a nasty surprise. Others disagreed, reading him as not really caring how the reader responds, but following the logic of his own process. In fact, we generally felt there was a ruthless honesty in his self-exploration.

When someone gave a 30 second version of one of the stories, it produced belly laughs, which for me at least was a revelation, as I hadn’t found the story funny when I read it in its own tempo.

That is to say, I’d recommend these short fictions as an excellent choice for a book group.


Andy Kissane and the Swarm

Andy Kissane, The Swarm (Puncher and Wattmann 2012)

20121003-175856.jpg I read this collection of Andy Kissane’s short stories a month or so ago, just after reading some Chekhov stories for the first time. (The reason for the delay in posting is that – a rare event for me – I received an advance copy from the publisher, and the book isn’t being launched until Sunday.) The stories in The Swarm made me realise, with some embarrassment, that I had read Chekhov as if I was visiting a museum: it was interesting, instructive, challenging, but all at arm’s length, preserved, from another time and place. Andy Kissane’s stories are as alive and immediate as neighbourhood gossip.

Partly that’s because these stories, all except two, are set in the present. And partly because of the book’s strong sense of place. Most of the action takes place in an inner city landscape as distinctive as Chekhov’s rural villages, and the characters – musicians, mostly unsuccessful actors, a twenty-something artist, a young mother screwing up her courage to invite her recently widowed father to move in – are as much part of that landscape as Chekhov’s peasants, idlers and provincial bourgeoisie are of theirs. I imagine the sense of the local in these stories would appeal to any reader, including one for whom the Marlborough or St Vincent’s are no more than names, but it’s especially sweet to me because by and large, it’s my local.

[About 200 words about being a North Queenslander deleted here.]

A sense of place doesn’t make a good story, of course. And there is a lot more than that to enjoy here. Again and again a commonplace experience is seen freshly, charged with moral or emotional meaning the way commonplace things often are. A young man stands at a condom vending machine in a pub toilet. A couple spend an evening playing Monopoly when the TV set has died. An old man cleans up his daughter’s yard. A musician watches his cello being played badly by a prospective buyer. A man (who could have come from the pages of On Western Sydney) boasts of car-related derring-do. Looking at that fairly random list of closely observed, mostly domestic events, I realise that the common subject of the stories is love: romantic love, parental love, love betrayed, love unfulfilled, love surprisingly revived or belatedly recognised. Nothing flashy, just a deepening sense of what it means to be human and in connection.

The historical stories – ‘A Bright Blue Future’ and ‘A Mirror to the World’, about asbestos mining at Wittenoom and racist frontier violence respectively – mostly keep to a similar domestic perspective. They too can be read as about love – one man makes disastrous moral compromises out of concern for his family’s short-term wellbeing; tentative overtures between Aboriginal Australians and settlers end in disaster.

‘A Mirror to the World’ is the longest and most ambitious story in the collection. It is based on an incident that happened in Rockhampton in the 1870s – an incident, interestingly, that’s interpreted quite differently in Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions of an Australian Badland. At least, one of the story’s two narratives is based on that incident. The other belongs to the author–academic who is writing that historical narrative, in between running a creative writing course where he lectures on multiple narratives, mise-en-abîme and other devices that are used in the story itself. So, yes, unlike the other ten stories it draws attention to itself as an artefact. It does this in other ways as well. There are explicit references to at least two other stories in the collection: a character from one makes an offstage appearance, and a situation from another is echoed in detail. It’s cleverly done, and there’s a final twist that crowns the cleverness, but it serves a serious purpose. As the story turns back on itself, it opens the way for questions about what it means for a white Australian to tackle the appalling injustices of our colonial past, about the question of moral judgement, the difficulty of imagining the inner world of the early settlers without either surrendering or imposing a modern perspective. The ending is both a technical delight and a moral/political challenge. It’s a story I’d love to discuss – but not here, not to spoil it for people who haven’t read it.

Full disclosure: As well as receiving a free book, I have a degree of commitment to Andy Kissane’s work, since the script for the short film currently known as Scar!, which regular visitors here will know I co-wrote, was inspired by his poem ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’.

Janette Turner Hospital’s Forecast: Turbulence

Janette Turner Hospital, Forecast: Turbulence (Fourth Estate 2011)

This collection of nine short stories and a memoir has been shortlisted for a number of awards and it may have won some. Sentence by sentence it’s very well written. It is populated by a range of eccentrics, outsiders and non-neurotypicals and should have been interesting. But as far as I was concerned it didn’t touch the sides. I didn’t believe a word of it, even the memoir, which I know is truthful. Newspaper reviewers seem to have loved it, though I’m not convinced they’ve all actually read it.

That is all.

The Book Group reads Chekhov short stories

Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories, 1896–1904 (translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin 2002)

I was enthralled by The Brothers Karamazov when I was 16 – the Grand Inquisitor raised the hairs on the back of my Catholic neck – but have so far managed to read very little of other 19th century Russian writers. The Book Group made me read Anna Karenina a while back, and now it’s Chekhov.

Before the meeting:
Knowing that Chekhov is one of the masters of the short story, I was vaguely expecting a display of virtuosity – cleverly constructed mechanisms with twists in the tail, perhaps, like O Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’ only profound. The stories in this late collection aren’t like that at all. (I don’t know about his earlier stories, and it would probably have been better to start with some of them.)

To generalise, the stories are studies in Russian provincial life at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s hard if not impossible to read them now without an awareness that the Communist revolution was on the horizon. Chekhov’s picture of the oppression of the peasants, the hand-wringing of liberal land-owners and the viciousness of others, the flailing about of the intellectuals, and the way the economic and social system stifles and corrupts everyone, clearly reflects a world ripe for revolution. Not that he calls for revolution, but he does lay out the inadequacy of anything else on offer. These are stories, not tracts. They contain a lot of argument, but they don’t push a line – or if they do, it’s in terms that have become impenetrable to this casual reader a century and a hemisphere away.

In ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, when a socially responsible woman chides the artist–narrator for having no interest in such matters as the creation of a clinic for peasants, he replies that on the contrary the question interests him a great deal, and in his opinion the peasants do not need a clinic:

‘To my mind, with things as they are, clinic, schools, libraries, dispensaries only serve to enslave people. The peasants are weighted down by a great chain and instead of breaking this chain you’re only adding new links … What matters is not Anna dying in childbirth, but that all these peasant Annas, Mavras and Pelageyas toil away from dawn to dusk and that this unremitting labour makes them ill. All their lives they go in fear and trembling for their sick and hungry children. … You come to their aid with hospitals and schools, but this doesn’t free them from their shackles.’

And he goes on. Up to the point where he starts talking about spirituality, he could be a hardline lefty of a couple of decades ago railing against reformism. In the story, the dilemma is not resolved. At the end the peasants are still suffering and the narrator, without explanation and perhaps symbolically, fails to find true love. (A while after I’d written that, I came across this quote from Chekhov’s correspondence:: ‘You … are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist.’)

Or take this rant in ‘Gooseberries’, in which a character is talking about his brother, who chose to live a contented life on a small farm. It could be 21st century polemic against the self-help industry:

It’s obvious that the happy man feels contented only because the unhappy ones bear their burden without saying a word: if it weren’t for their silence, happiness would be quite impossible. It’s a kind of mass hypnosis. Someone ought to stand with a hammer at the door of every happy contented man, continually banging on it to remind him that there are unhappy people around and that however happy he may be at the time, sooner or later life will show him its claws and disaster will overtake him in the form of illness, poverty, bereavement and there will be no one to hear or see him. But there isn’t anyone holding a hammer, so our happy man goes his own sweet way and is only gently ruffled by life’s trivial cares, as an aspen is ruffled by the breeze. All’s well as far as he’s concerned.

There’s a lot of grim humour. The wedding celebration in ‘In the Ravine’ could have been the inspiration for Jack Hibberd’s Dimboola – but audiences laugh at the latter, while any laughs at the former are tinged with despair and disgust. And the stakes are raised by the peasants outside, one of whom shouts, ‘You’ve sucked us dry, you rotten bastards. You can all go to hell!’ That moment, of course, quickly passes as the peasants too join the celebratory mood. But the reader has been warned.

Chekhov isn’t one of those writers who ties everything up in a neat little bow. In ‘In the Ravine’ when a baby is murdered, his mother is blamed and the murderer goes free – but we are given no explanation for the mother’s failure to defend herself or other people’s silence about the cruel injustice. ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ is a love story. Instead of ‘happily ever after’, it ends, ‘ And both of them clearly realised that the end was far, far away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.’ Which is my sense of what all the stories are saying, about everything.

I’ve seen Eudora Welty quoted on the Internet as saying, ‘Reading Chekhov was just like the angels singing to me.’ That transforms my sense of what an angel can be.

The meeting: This meeting was postponed a number of times because I was hosting it and I was down with a heavy cold. As a result, most people’s recollection of the stories wasn’t very precise, but we’d had time to absorb them – in particular I had read some new Australian short stories (about which I’ll post separately), and my appreciation of the Chekhov had grown with the comparison. A big impediment to our discussion was that, as it turned out, we’d read different books: three of us had read The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories, 1896–1904. Others had read Lady with Lapdog and other stories, translated by David Magarshack, which contains a different set of stories (damn you, Penguin, for giving different books almost identical names!). The only stories in both books are ‘The House with an Attic’ aka ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, ‘Ionych’, and ‘Lady with Lapdog’ aka ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’.

We had a lively discussion. I think Chekhov was a bit of a surprise for everyone – not enough story for one chap (who thought the title of ‘A Boring Story’ said everything that needed to be said about it), a bit on the grim side for another, surprisingly modern in his discontinuities and sexual morality, surprisingly not, or not always, about the sufferings of the peasants.  At one stage, for the benefit of someone who hadn’t read it, I gave a synopsis of ‘The House with the Mezzanine’. It seemed a bit on the incoherent side, and then someone realised that I’d thrown in a key scene from another story altogether. Will I ever be trusted again?

Since the meeting, I found ‘A Dreary Story‘ on the internet in Constance Garnett’s translation (I think). There’s a wonderful passage near the beginning that could have been about me:

 I write poorly. That bit of my brain which presides over the faculty of authorship refuses to work. My memory has grown weak; there is a lack of sequence in my ideas, and when I put them on paper it always seems to me that I have lost the instinct for their organic connection; my construction is monotonous; my language is poor and timid. Often I write what I do not mean; I have forgotten the beginning when I am writing the end. Often I forget ordinary words, and I always have to waste a great deal of energy in avoiding superfluous phrases and unnecessary parentheses in my letters, both unmistakable proofs of a decline in mental activity. And it is noteworthy that the simpler the letter the more painful the effort to write it.

Colm Tóibín’s Empty Family

Colm Tóibín, The Empty Family (Picador 2010)

I’ve read very little by Colm Tóibín – his book on Barcelona, an extraordinarily spoilerish review of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, and that’s pretty much the lot. This collection of nine short stories, which has been beside my bed for a while and which I decided to read just now as possibly better suited to post-nasal-surgery times than a single longer work, is my introduction to his fiction.

While there are no characters who recur, and nothing like a discontinuous narrative, the book feels coherent – a number of the stories are about people returning to their country of origin after a period of exile, self-imposed or otherwise; many of them deal with Gay male experience; they are mostly set in Ireland or Barcelona, and in all of them connection with place and the people of the place are significant. An elderly Irishwoman returns to her native Dublin after a long absence to design a film set; after the fall of Franco, a Barcelona Communist returns from exile and encounters the old and new Spains; an Irishman returns from New York when his mother is dying. ‘The Pearl Fishers’ traces a delicate, questioning path through the Irish Catholic Church’s sex scandals. ‘The street’, the longest story, traces the developing relationship between two Pakistani indentured labourers in Barcelona.

I don’t know if I would have been quite so struck by this book’s Not Safe For Work bits if I hadn’t read it immediately after Philip Roth’s The Humbling, but I was struck by them. In three of the stories, there are graphic accounts of sex, probably more specific than the ones in The Humbling, but where at one stage Roth’s narrator protests, ‘This was not soft porn,’ Tóibín’s narrator and his characters are too engaged to need any such disclaimer. Both writers describe activities that I personally have no urge to participate in – Roth’s account makes me wish I’d somehow missed those pages; Tóibín’s prose manages to shed light on the nature of desire. ‘Barcelona, 1975’ reads as memoir, or at least conte à clef, and has an almost anthropological feel to it: this is how we did things in the dying days of the Franco regime, this is some of what we learned, and in particular this is how it felt.  Everywhere in his writing, you can feel the connections between people, again in stark contrast to the despairing isolation in the Roth book. That’s got to do with their different subjects, of course: Roth is writing about the loss of creativity. But I suspect I’m talking about something that goes much deeper in each writer – perhaps a cultural difference between Irish Catholic, lapsed or otherwise, and New York Jewish intellectual who is only as successful as his latest creation.

Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand, Anyway

Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway ( 2007)

A friend told me about this in an email, describing it as short stories soaked in historical research, and mentioning that one of the stories is a set of fictitious journals kept by Charles Sturt. I trekked to the library the same day.

Most of the book’s eleven short stories evoke historical moments: Chernobyl in April 1986, Hadrian’s Wall in ancient times, a Nazi-sponsored quest for evidence of the yeti, Sturt’s exploration of the south Australian desert, a Russian space launch, the Battle of Marathon, and the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. These historical events aren’t there as background to the stories, they are the stories, reimagined from the point of view of key participants. For instance, the Reign of Terror story, ‘Sans Farine‘, is narrated by Charles-Henri Sanson, the royal executioner before the revolution who was kept on in the job to become the man in charge of the guillotine. The real Sanson has a Wikipedia entry, which confirms that Shepard’s story stays close to the known facts. But Shepard doesn’t give us some kind of pedagogical re-enactment – this story in particular takes us to a poignant human reality. The horrors of capital punishment before and after the revolution are graphically presented, and Shepard avoids what might seem another obvious temptation, to editorialise on the evils of state murder. His concern is with the experience of the man, and with coming to imaginative grips with historical events.

Eons ago, on the way to an MA thesis that never eventuated, I read Sturt’s published journals, as well as those of Leichhardt, Eyre, Mitchell, George Grey and Ernest Giles. My thesis would have argued, of Eyre’s Journals in particular, that these books were literary compositions and should be much more widely read. Novelists and poets including Patrick White and Francis Webb, have drawn on the various Journals, and there is at least one anthology of excerpts. Shepard’s ‘The First South Central Australian Expedition’ captures the feel of the original. It does something else as well, as the fictional diarist Sturt is much more forthcoming about his emotional life than the real one was, at least in published form, but Sturt is much more a presence in the story than a jumping off point.

The book is dedicated to the author’s brother, and it includes plenty of brothers and brotherly relationships. Probably the single thing that stops the historical pieces from feeling didactic or info-dump-ish is the overarching preoccupation with relationships between men. Even the one story with a female narrator is set in the predominantly male milieu of the Russian space program, and the relationship between the two main female characters has the kind of competition traditionally found between men. The nerdy scribe overwhelmed by barbarians in ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ has a lot in common with the skinny twelve-year-old who manages to survive the bullying at summer camp in ‘Courtesy for Beginners’. The team sport in ‘Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak’ (surely a science fictional take on American Football rather than a realistic account!) is as brutalising in its way as the work of the executioner in ‘Sans Farine’. Fathers ache for their sons, sons for their fathers. Sons die. Fathers die. Brothers die. Occasionally there’s a woman, but she’s not let in easily. Like she’d understand, anyway.

Joanna Russ’s Adventures of Alyx

Joanna Russ, The Adventures of Alyx (1976, Baen 1986)

I believe Joanna Russ carried the flag for uncompromising feminism in the science fiction/fantasy community in the 1970s. Apparently she invited James Tiptree Jr out of a fanzine symposium on women in science fiction because as a man Tiptree had no business speaking on the subject (for those who came in late, Tiptree was really Alice Sheldon lurking behind a male persona, and she responded graciously, in role, to the disinvitation). So it’s no surprise that Alyx in these stories is a strong female character. There are three short stories featuring Alyx, little more than active character sketches really, and a much longer narrative, then a final short story that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have anything to do with Alyx.

Alyx the adventuress from ancient Tyre is a marvellous character, so the sketches – in which Alyx respectively helps a young noblewoman escape a potentially lethal marriage, escapes her own marriage to take up with a pirate, and deals with a gross man who claims to have created the world – hold up well. The first two happen entirely in a version of earthly antiquity. So does the third, though the nasty patriarchal figure has the language and paraphernalia of a time traveller rather than those of a demigod. In the fourth and longest piece, ‘Picnic in Paradise’, Alyx is transported by the Polysyllabic Agency for Temporal Gobbledygook (or something like that) to a future where her skills – and her lack of knowledge of technology – equip her perfectly to shepherd a group of tourists out of a war zone. In this piece the book well and truly transcends the ‘of historical interest’ niche. It’s funny, touching, and sexy in an over the top way. It points vicious satire  at the Prozac generation before the name. Then, just as one is thinking of Alyx as a kind of moral touchstone, one who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs, a role model even, she confounds all expectations by going so far off the rails it’s hard to understand how the story manages to keep us sympathising with her. She’s a real hero, and the story brilliantly refuses to be neat.

Then the last, short story, as far as I can tell, is not an Alyx story at all. A teenage girl in rural USA in 1925 is visited by a strange woman who turns out to be a descendant from the distant future. The young heroine (and we with her) understands only a fraction of what her strange visitor is up to. She helps her to kill another visitor from the future, but we’re left with only glimpses the relationship between the two visitors. And there’s more. It’s a tantalising narrative in which all the huge world-changing events happen offstage and/or in a language we don’t understand. Yet it’s also a satisfying coming of age story. After all, what teenager understands the world s/he finds him/herself part of.

I don’t have fond memories of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, which I read (in 1970 something) as an undisciplined scream of rage. This book suggests strongly that I may have got it wrong.

If you want a proper, informed, intelligent discussion, I recommend you have a look at Niall Harrison’s review at Torque Control.

Love, Squalor and Seymour’s introductory exit

J D Salinger, For Esmé – With Love and Squalor (1953, New English Library 1978)

I read this at least partly because I wanted to learn more about the Glass family, particularly Seymour Glass’s suicide. The suicide is there, of course, in the first story in this collection, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, also Salinger’s first published story. It’s a good story, full of charm and then of shocking enigma, but there’s nothing to indicate that the author would still be probing the repercussions for the Glass family a decade later (not to mention possible further Glass Family fictions yet to be discovered … I live in hope). Boo Boo, the older of the two girls in the family, makes an appearance in ‘Down at the Dinghy’. And Buddy, the family’s self-appointed chronicler who is in danger of vanishing into his own parentheses in ‘Seymour: An Introduction’, plays a central role in the title story (at least, I assume Staff-Sergeant X is Buddy, even though I may be the only person in the world to have done so). In each of these stories, the adult Glass has a conversation with a child, and these playfully smart-alecky conversations are what lift the book above standard albeit ultra-sophisticated New Yorker fare. Boo Boo could be a forerunner of the mother in Maurice Sendak’s sublime The Sign on Rosie’s Door.  Buddy’s conversation with thirteen-year-old Esmé and her follow-up letter are surely meant to be read in counterpoint to Seymour’s chat with the little girl Sybil. The latter is either a farewell to all things lovely or a cryptic explanation of his suicide, while the former has a deeply healing effect: one brother dies, the other lives. (Incidentally, I doubt if either of these stories could have been written nowadays: in the late 40s the general reader wasn’t expected to see every man as a potential child-rapist.)

Two non-Glass stories stand out for me, both with child protagonists: ‘The Laughing Man’ and ‘Teddy’. ‘Teddy’ is genuinely shocking.

Incidentally, it occurs to me that my lack of enthusiasm for The Hurt Locker may have something to do with the fact that I saw it in the middle of reading this book. It was awfully hard to see the movie as anything other than an adrenaline pumper with pretensions when I had Staff-Sergeant (Buddy?) X’s shaking hands fresh in my mind.

The Book Group’s Revenge of the Lawn

Richard Brautigan, Revenge of the Lawn (1972, Picador 1974 – with British spelling!)

BrautiganA Book Group member was given a copy of this book by his son, and thought it would be a good quick read for our December meeting, when there are so many competing demands on our time. None of the nearby libraries had copies, and I may have got the last one listed in Australia at AbeBooks. Other members of the Group made do with PDFs. So I was feeling pleased with myself when I opened my slightly stained book, formerly the possession of one Kerry Thomson. That pleasure had pretty much evaporated 50 pages later. It was only corps d’esprit that kept me going: if David and Keith had persevered with the Coetzee book in spite of finding nothing there to interest or please them, surely I could hack another hundred or so pages of underdeveloped twaddle – reminiscence, dream fragments, quirky observations – snapped up by a publisher confident it would sell on the coattails of Trout Fishing in America, published about a decade earlier. That was my state of mind after reading 12 of the book’s 62 pieces.

Things improved at about page 60. It was probably the piercing nostalgia for childhood games in ‘The Ghost Children of Tacoma’ that dispelled my irritated boredom. After that, I was drawn in mainly by pieces capturing (or perhaps re-imagining) moments from his childhood: ‘Blackberry Motorist’, in which he discovers an abandoned car under a high tangle of blackberries; ‘The Post Offices of Eastern Oregon’, a kind of Lake Wobegon horror story; ‘One Afternoon in 1939’, in which he tells a story his little daughter loves to hear, and ends beautifully, ‘I think she uses this story as a Christopher Columbus door to the discovery of her father when he was a child and her contemporary’; ‘A Complete History of German and Japan’, which would be great without the nudging of the terrible title.

After another 50 pages or so, the whimsical observations of life in San Francisco bars, buses, streets, bedrooms and bookshops became the dominant mode, and I lost interest again.

I came across a thoroughgoing web site devoted to all things Brautigan, and found a page giving the place of first publication of these stories. A good number first appeared in Rolling Stone and I’m sure they sat comfortably with the dope and psychedelia of its pages. Mostly they haven’t travelled well. And I haven’t even mentioned the casual sexism.
I wrote that a couple of weeks ago when I’d just read the book. Tonight the Group met, at a very expensive Japanese restaurant, where we managed to have an interesting conversation about the book before ranging off in a hundred other directions. There was genral agreement that the quality was patchy, but my impression is that other people enjoyed the book as a whole much more than I did. One guy had read it in the 70s, so this reading was partly an exercise in nostalgia. The frequent quirky similes, which irritated me, gave delight to others. One comment was that the prose generally left a lot of room for the reader to fill out the picture, in contrast to a lot of recent writing that corrals your response leaving you nowhere to go but where the writer decides. I didn’t understand what he meant until he said that the reading made him think back to his own childhood – and I realised that for me that was a good part of the childhood stories’ the appeal: some of them, at least, triggered a mood of reminiscence, of reflection on my own childhood with a kind of openness to wonder. And of course it was worth ploughing through a fair amount of unaffecting stuff to have that.

Star Songs of an Old Primate

James Tiptree Jr, Star Songs of an Old Primate (Del Rey Books 1978)

0345254171Somewhere in the course of reading this book I realised it was a first edition, indeed an only edition, and that it’s been out of print for close to 30 years. You can’t even buy a copy on e-Bay. There is one collection of Tiptree’s stories still in print, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, from Tachyon Publications in 2004, which contains eighteen stories compared to this volume’s eight, so perhaps there’s no big deal. Still it’s a shame that the fabulously self-promoting title of this collection has gone from the bookshop shelves. James Tiptree Jr/Alice Sheldon is the old primate in question, and a depressive old primate s/he is – I wouldn’t recommend these stories to anyone prone to letting grim prognoses for the planet take them on a nose dive. For all her feminism, her stories here feature an unhappy biological determinism, and even way back in 1978 she was terribly aware tht if nuclear war didn’t get us, then global warming or some terrible pandemic would.

I was glad to have Meet Me at Infinity still to hand, because Tiptree’s own comments on these stories, especially ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’ and ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’, greatly enriched the reading experience for me. Those comments make it clear that part of her project was to introduce what she calls software into hardware science fiction – she was au fait with cutting edge and out-on-the-edge psychological research of her time, and found in it the stuff of poetry.

Speaking of Meet Me at Infinity, I don’t care if F R Leavis said the artist’s biography was irrelevant to the work of art, ‘The Man Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats’ gains tremendous resonance from its relationship to Alice Sheldon’s own history. Like her, Tilly Lipsitz is a researcher in psychology whose interests are at odds with the dominant mode of his place of employment. Like her, he is exhilarated by biological research; and their fields of enquiry are similar. Here’s a paragraph from the story (first published 1976):

He will never outgrow the thrill of it. The excitement of actually asking, after all the careful work of framing terms that can be answered. The act of putting a real question to Life. And watching, reverently, excited out of his skin as Life condescends to tell him yes or no. My animals, my living works of art (of which you are one) do thus and so. Yes, in this small aspect, you have understood Me

and one from an interview published in Contemporary Authors in 1983:

It takes time and work to learn how to ask a meaningful, unambiguous question of nature. For instance, you have to learn everything that has already been asked in your field, and what the answers were and the statistical techniques. And after you are qualified, there is still a period where you stand, as it were, in the great Presence, dejectedly hearing it grumble, ‘No … no … garble in …’ But you try and try, until one great day the needed cunning comes. And Everything-That-Is responds majestically, ‘Yes. You have truly grasped one of the hidden dimensions on which My creatures live and move.’ Time will never blur the wonder of that moment for me.

In the story, but hopefully not in the life, this thrill is overshadowed by the grim academic environment, strapped for cash even then and engaged in hideously cruel practices. That overshadowing grimness is characteristic of the stories, so even though there’s much that is rich in this book, I don’t see it becoming a favourite.


And a niggle from a Down Under editor: It’s nice that Tiptree made Australian women the main surviving humans in ‘Houston Houston Do You Read?’, and gave the humanity of the future an Australian accent (‘date’ is pronounced ‘dyte’), but I wish she or her editors had checked the spelling of ‘Woomera’. I just checked in Google Books, and see that it wasn’t corrected for the 2004 edition either. Hooston, do you read?