This anthology is touted as the best of the best – culled from the Best Australian Stories annuals of the past decade. It is not clear how they have been selected. The nameless Black Inc. editors of this anthology state simply that their aim was to ‘showcase the vigour and diversity of Australian short fiction’.
There is certainly diversity: thirty-seven stories, from the ridiculous to the sublime, from Tom Cho to Tim Winton. And there is vigour, although the quality of the writing is uneven. A shorter, more selective, anthology might have been more impressive and memorable. After all, many of these stories are already published elsewhere. But, at over four hundred pages, it is an interesting and comprehensive collection.
Stories from veteran Australian writers Murray Bail and Gerald Murnane provide sturdy bookends for this anthology. Murnane’s uncanny tale is a brainteaser that hovers somewhere between the brilliant and the absurd. It is a clever choice to end on, with a retired writing tutor imagining his students’ stories racing in ‘the Gold Cup of Remembered Fiction’, when a contender from left field races to the front.
But let’s go back to the beginning. The first six stories set a high standard and introduce themes and imagery that recur frequently in the anthology. One of the strongest themes is water: from Robert Drewe’s lap pool to Anna Krien’s floodwaters, as well as Dorothy Johnston’s ocean, Nam Le’s river, Amanda Lohrey’s canal and Steven Amsterdam’s floods.
In this book of Australian stories nature is ever present, loaded with imagery. And it is not just the rural writers who set their stories in the bush. Although the younger writers tend to find plenty of narrative material in the city, it seems Australian literature still looks to the bush for its identity. Grouped together, we have Peter Goldsworthy’s moving tale of faithful working dogs, Eva Hornung’s Tasmanian fox and Cate Kennedy’s young rabbit catcher who takes justice into his own hands. City dwellers tend to come off badly in the bush, where they are not up to the challenges of nature or village life. Kate Grenville explores the city/country divide in ‘Mate’, and Drewe’s ‘The Lap Pool’ – one of the most memorable stories – tells of dire consequences for a businessman trying to escape his fate in the country.
Another high point in the anthology is a crop of great stories starting with Delia Falconer’s fascinating ‘The Intimacy of the Table’, set in Sydney and recounting a young poet’s meeting with the poet Kenneth Slessor. There are some fine stories about sex: the stockman’s Aboriginal girl in Gillian Mears’s lyrical ‘La Moustiquaire’, Luke Davies’s original take on film star liaisons in ‘The Book of Howard H.’ and the brilliant ‘Possessed by the God’ by Marion Halligan about a French philosopher whose perfect wife finds a more deserving creature to care for than her husband. Halligan’s theme of female revenge is shared by Karen Hitchcock’s ‘In Formation’, which is written from the point of view of the wife of a Lacanian psychoanalyst who, with the help of Freud, outwits her husband. It’s the funniest story of the collection.
Between Halligan and Hitchcock I discovered another writer I would like to follow up: Emily Ballou. She brings a light contemporary touch to her story ‘On the Splice’, in which a woman, Ella, is about to hold a dinner party when her world collapses. Ballou writes great dialogue and highlights her portrait of Ella with the refreshingly funny character of her teasing partner Dan. Ella is an office worker, and this is one of the few stories of everyday city life. Another is Jessica Anderson’s ‘Act Fifteen’, set in a doctor’s waiting room. It resonates just because of its ordinariness and its observation of emotions that shift in moments of crisis.
The most bizarre tale is by Ryan O’Neill, whose ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’ takes the form of a series of book reviews, and is a spoof on literary criticism and its claims to objectivity. A writer’s lament?
I try to keep track of my favourites, but the winning post keeps moving. Yesterday I thought Marion Halligan’s story ‘Possessed by the God’, which later became part of her novel Valley of Grace, would win by a short head. It’s good to see she has just brought out a book of short stories, so that is on my list of books to read next. But today, on reflection, it is nosed aside by Nam Le’s unforgettable ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, which lives up to its ambitious title in a poignant tale of father and son meeting and their two far-distant worlds colliding. In this beautifully layered story the author stays close to his own experience as a writer of short stories and as a Vietnamese Australian, and says something profound about his own experience and how it relates to generations before him. I’m glad one of the newer contenders came out from left field and forged ahead. But, as I’m sure Gerald Murnane would agree, this is not a horse race.