We Are Not The Same Anymore
The first thing you notice about We Are Not The Same Anymore is the voice, which has a distinctive and sustained melancholy. These stories focus on individuals – generally men – who are lost, trapped, or apparently incompetent at their own lives; these stories turn on dialogue, and are riven with inconclusive tension.
If this is beginning to sound like Raymond Carver, it’s worth admitting Somerville’s voice is close to the American great – but not in a way I’d call derivative. The personal is his domain. He writes with an honesty that at times seems uncomfortably like exposure. One of the first of these stories has a woman and her teenage neighbour in a car, stuck in the snow, and the threat of exposure – from emotional vulnerability as much as from cold – is one of the themes that ties the entire collection together.
Somerville’s characters are not all the same, but it’s possible to generalise about them: mostly young men, men on trajectories to failure, often unaware of their own actions, their own motivations. There’s a weird passivity, even hopelessness, about many of them. They act as if they are about to have breakdowns, or as if we have caught them in the moment just before something decisive happens to them. When characters act, they do so passive-aggressively, scratching a car or having sex with the wrong person to make a point I doubt even they understand.
This vagueness can be frustrating but for the most part it builds tension and a sense of distress. Somerville sticks to minimalist-realist stories for the most part, quiet and tense, with a reservation that belies the emotional clarity at work beneath them. Domestic, often deceptively simple, the everyday is shown at its moment of rupture. These are in many ways textbook contemporary compositions.
As well as unmoored characters, the stories themselves seem cut adrift from some other context, as though they have become entangled with one another in the air. Social and political spheres withdraw into a distant background. Part of me finds this problematic, in that the contemporary short story as an ideal always seems to take place in a political vacuum – everybody’s missing the bigger picture. But the personal is where we live politically, and Somerville is focused on the individual’s loneliness, on separation, loss, and transition; the sum of these parts builds steadily behind the stories themselves.
So many of Somerville’s stories are set in transit – a few in planes, and many on uncomfortable car trips – that the impression can become claustrophobic. Born in Launceston and now living on the Gold Coast, I’d hazard a guess that Somerville does much of his thinking about stories while driving. The vehicular settings are also a way of approaching a separation from landscape as something passed through – this is how most of us experience the natural world, most of the time – and that in itself is an aspect of the alienation at work in the characters’ lives. When nature rears, it is disastrous: earthquakes, floods, snowstorms. Although many of these stories feel severed from specific locations, those moments where the emotional disaster is reflected in the landscape give the stories added context and depth.
A good short story collection can be like a good record. Each track can be taken individually, but listened to as a whole they have a design, a narrative arc that builds across the stories. The arrangement here is subtle but effective. Somerville has broken up the melancholy with some more surreal pieces, which I loved: ‘Loss,’ the Murakami-esque ‘Room,’ and the killer closing story ‘Drowning Man’ take greater risks than most of these pieces. When he allows his metaphors to take over and break the limits of realism, his stories soar, and his voice is at its most poignant.
Because he is generally so restrained, Somerville’s imagery can leap out; vivid moments are brighter for it. ‘Most mornings I would wake up feeling like I was struggling to inflate a balloon,’ begins ‘Hinterland’. Another story, ‘Aquarium’, exploits the theme of contained water and fish in or out of it. Drowning is another of the meta-images that thread this book together, to the point of pathology.
Apart from its surreal moments, We Are Not The Same Anymore rescues itself from a singular mood with good old-fashioned character – throughout, there is a technique at work hinting at something dark and hurt within human motivation, forever driving at the unspoken breaking point, and more often than not finding its target. Somerville evinces an emotional maturity and ability to hold tension, which are worth more than melodic distinction. Indeed, the combination of maturity and despair gives the impression that these stories are written by a much older writer.
These are beautiful, affecting, and well-poised stories. It’s exciting to see yet another talented young Australian writer choose the form.