Damaged in Transit
There are writers who look outward, observing the world around them, chroniclers of their times. Then there are those who look inward, exploring their own mind, often drawing on the subconscious. Damaged in Transit, with its interplay of public and intimate realms, is a collection that seeks to do both.
In ‘Traffic Island’, the first of these stories, Flora, an elderly woman, becomes stuck on the median strip of a busy road while attempting her shopping. Huge trucks roar past. Flora settles in for the long haul. This image of a small person dwarfed by the rhythms of urban life and yet persisting in her own eccentric course could be an animated Jeffrey Smart painting. In Manning’s hands it’s half humour and half sorrow. Like many of these surreal tales, the drama hovers between the banal and the outrageous.
As if her own voice was barely audible over the traffic, Manning has restrained herself to easy, conversational prose in most of these short pieces, giving an illusion of simplicity and a suggestion of intimacy. With a few exceptions, notably the creepy stalker tale ‘The Painter’, most of these stories are in first person, and Manning’s characters tend to be ingénues. The prose may be unassuming, but the interplay of banal problems with questions more absurd and surreal hints at a hidden depth.
One advantage that short stories have is their ability to undermine their own illusion. A short story can switch its logic very quickly, pull the rug out from under a reader’s feet. While many of her characters inhabit a version of Australian suburbia, and seem focused on interpersonal conflicts played out in ordinary places, there is almost always something strange going on, a not-quite-hereness that upends the real. It’s Manning’s weirder stories that more fully exploit the potential of the form and of her style.
In many of her stories, hints of the sacred are concealed within the tale like a nut, but trapped within the shell of each bumbling individual, not quite ready to break through. This often has upsetting consequences. ‘Baby Shower’ has strong overtones of Elizabeth Jolley, that master of repressed impulses: Manning’s misbehaving woman wreaks hilarious havoc on social propriety, her laughter small redemption for an unhappy life. Other influences are more explicitly honoured, for example in a story called ‘Reading Murakami’ which features cats and airports – a story which doesn’t quite work, but pays its dues in terms of evoking the popular flat-affect mystic.
Manning chases a dream logic throughout, and readers of this collection are compelled to follow. It is sometimes impossible to tell if her characters are telling you fibs, like Amazon Man, who might have swum the length of that river, or could simply be trapped in exotic delusions. ‘It suits my international lifestyle to live in this caravan,’ he says, reminding us of glamour’s double meaning.
The dream-like quality in the more naturalistic pieces seems more like a flaw, and some of these stories read like descriptive passages, unhooked from the demands of narrative tension. A few lack the energy to justify their presence, as if we have stumbled upon the people in them at a wrong moment, in the scene before the scene where something happens. This is most true of Manning’s more realist encounters, in which I found myself waiting for a surreal switch which was never pulled.
At times the power of these stories lies in their failure to settle. At others, Manning doesn’t seem to be in control of her characters’ fates. Her willingness to let the illogical stand means that some of these stories slink away from their core, as if she is afraid to proceed beyond them and into the traffic of sense-making. But this is as much a source of charm as it is a shortcoming.
There are moments of wonder, too. ‘Train Train’, the most dream-like of these stories, operates as a metaphor for a relationship between two people with separate inner lives, but also extends beautifully beyond its analogy and reaches for a universal emotional mystery. ‘The Third Great Bang,’ set in a dystopian future with a variation of Newspeak, has a character reviving the lost word god until every sentence is rendered both ridiculous and holy. It is these breakthroughs of sublime humour that provide the brightest moments in Manning’s collection.
For all her missteps and loose ends, Manning’s odd, off-kilter world is strangely addictive, and her images will leave an impression precisely because they refuse definition.