A few years ago I was in Cairns. I went to look at the house I grew up in, a boxy white timber thing with all the louvres, slats, lattice work, French doors and big timber beams and posts, you would expect of a tropical house built in the 1980s. The house sat on a steep gradient – looking down at it from the street, it felt as though there should be countless short stories to pull from such a place. Flannery O’Connor said you experience enough in your first twenty years to write for a lifetime. Contemporary American-style stories, perhaps, with that likeable pain of domesticity, where the gorgeous formlessness of childhood meet the strains and entanglements of adulthood.
There is the humorous and charming stuff, and the day-by-day stuff, but, like any family house, there’s also the painful stuff: the let-downs, the stuff that didn’t pan out, the horrible stuff, the downright mean and sometimes crazy stuff. The stuff that is the meat of short stories.
But such stories don’t write themselves. It’s not enough to have a crazy family, siblings that throw scissors or anything else they could get their hands on at one another, unknown men crying and yelling through the night in the surrounding rainforest, cyclones that hem you in. Otherwise we would all be a Karl Ove Knausgaard, or a Lorrie Moore or a Breece D’J Pancake. It takes sensitivity, a willingness to go somewhere otherwise difficult to capture and represent. The small, private stories can be the hardest. They can take years to work out how they should be told, and may crumble to nothing in the process.
The stories in this collection are private and small. They are about relationships, families, children, lovers, friends – stories in which the authors have nowhere to hide. All of these stories are written by emerging writers and so shouldn’t be praised absolutely. I, for one, want to see the writers trying again and again. But the attempt in each case is a serious and a sensitive one.
Josephine Scicluna‘s ‘The Landlord’ is a taut piece in which the humour – a gentle sadness that is never fully despair – and the small joy that the narrator, a young single mother, seems to take in the uneasy relationship she shares with her landlord, an older man, remain just below the surface. The relationships in this story – between the narrator and the landlord, between him and his neglected house, him and his perhaps now ex-wife, the narrator and her former partner – cannot quite be grasped, but they are never slight. We see them as the narrator does: indirectly and with some discomfort. The story itself, it seems, is trying to work out just what these relationships are, or are supposed to be.
Jennifer Down’s ‘Convalescence’ very skilfully and subtly creates a contemporary look at relationships by reaching back to a classic Hemingway story. When I finished reading the story I wanted pages and pages more. The pages are there, however, or, rather, their content is there, just painstakingly (this kind of writing never comes without real work) folded away. Jennifer Down shows an usual wisdom for detail and dialogue – she has that thing. If I were to restrict myself to one detail from the story, I would quote the lines where the narrator:
watched him dress. First the jeans that he retrieved from the floor and climbed into, stiffened to the shape of his long crooked legs, then a clean blue shirt. He rolled up his sleeves like a man ready for a task of work.
It’s not one of the moments that sock in you in the guts, though the story has those, but quickly and immediately I am there, and I think I know the boyfriend and how she, the narrator, feels about him. The piece has many tender descriptions of this man, which is interesting, considering the context. You’ll have to read the story to see what I mean.
The six central characters – two couples, each with a young daughter – in Tim Buckley’s ‘Scab’ never seem to see each other. Or is it that they all feel as though the others never quite see them? We witness two young girls – one vulgar and strong-willed, the other self-contained – with seemingly nothing in common other than having parents who are friends, trying to work out how to exist within each other’s company. We glimpse the point where unease becomes competitiveness, and then almost becomes something else. We also see those first moments a child comes to perceive how peculiar, how alien, her parents can be.
The concept of Mardi O’Connor’s ‘Orgasm Club’ strikes one as slightly outrageous. And it is, I suppose, and it’s also very sharp-witted and fun. But there’s more than humour to this story. It’s a story about a very particular kind of failure – a failure to experience a form of absolute personal pleasure, and about what happens when you form a group to overcome something so personal. It’s also one of those fabulous stories that, through an unlikely frame, taps into how we are, act, speak and treat one another. Its humour is a natural one, which appreciates the unlikeliness of so much of our experience, reminding readers of that abiding question: why the hell do we do what we do?
I hope you enjoy these stories.