Vo­ge­langst, or the value of a nudge

The win­ner of the 2008 The Aus­tralian / Vo­gel award will be an­nounced this week. One of the judges, nov­el­ist Matt Ru­bin­stein, sur­veys the short list

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

NOT so long ago I re­alised that I would never win The Aus­tralian / Vo­gel award, Aus­tralia’s lead­ing prize for un­pub­lished manuscripts by au­thors un­der 35. My time had run out.

I’ve since learned that a lot of my con­tem­po­raries have been feel­ing the same way: they have the same sense of sor­row, which we might call Vo­ge­langst or even Vo­gelschmerz. It’s an epi­demic that il­lus­trates not only what a de­press­ing bunch we are but also how large the Vo­gel looms in the land­scape of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture.

We all know its suc­cess sto­ries — Kate Grenville and Tim Win­ton and An­drew McGa­han — and we know its con­tro­ver­sies, from the dis­qual­i­fied win­ner of the first award in 1980 to the Demi­denko- Darville scan­dal of 1993.

But its real value lies be­yond the head­lines, in the chance it gives to young writ­ers who may not be ready for pub­li­ca­tion but who need a nudge in the right di­rec­tion or an en­cour­ag­ing nod along a path that can of­ten be lonely.

Judg­ing the award for the first time, with Cate Kennedy, Marele Day and Mur­ray Wal­dren, has been enor­mously re­ward­ing. Not as re­ward­ing as winning it would have been, but al­most.

Per­haps be­cause of the $ 50,000 on of­fer this year the num­ber of en­tries rose to more than 200, and many of them were re­mark­able.

They came from ev­ery main­land state and ter­ri­tory and from al­most ev­ery genre, from crime, fan­tasy and sci­ence fic­tion to the pi­caresque, the un­re­li­able mem­oir, the satire and the il­lus­trated in­ter­ac­tive ad­ven­ture and, of course, ev­ery kind of ur­ban, sub­ur­ban and ru­ral drama.

They cov­ered the coun­try — coast to rain­for­est and city to desert — and trav­elled across Asia and Europe to imag­ined plan­ets and even to the picket fences of the 1950s. Many of them dealt with var­i­ous kinds of faith and spir­i­tu­al­ity, with de­pres­sion and men­tal ill­ness, with the in­ter­sec­tion of in­dige­nous and non- in­dige­nous Aus­tralia, and with young men and women forg­ing an iden­tity, a voice, and a place in the world.

There were ex­cit­ing ideas, com­plex char­ac­ters, strong nar­ra­tives, beau­ti­ful de­scrip­tions and snappy di­a­logue. Not ev­ery en­try had all of th­ese in­gre­di­ents in equal mea­sure, but a sur­pris­ing num­ber of them did. There were dis­ap­point­ments, but there were also rev­e­la­tions.

Some of the writ­ers have emerged from creative- writ­ing cour­ses, and their works show a pol­ish at ev­ery level from the clause up. Some have pub­lished short sto­ries or have been sighted in pre­vi­ous Vo­gel years or in other awards. And some have ap­peared mirac­u­lously out of nowhere, fully formed or close to it. It’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing

There were ex­cit­ing ideas, com­plex char­ac­ters, strong nar­ra­tives and snappy di­a­logue

to imag­ine how many peo­ple are scrib­bling or tap­ping away right now, get­ting ready to un­veil some­thing com­pletely new and un­ex­pected. There’s a pretty good chance that they will choose the Vo­gel award for their de­but.

Given the num­ber and qual­ity of en­tries this year, the judges de­cided to ex­pand the short list to six manuscripts. Th­ese nov­els are ut­terly dis­tinc­tive, ex­tremely am­bi­tious and just as ac­com­plished. They rep­re­sent an im­pres­sive cross- sec­tion of new Aus­tralian writ­ing in all its di­ver­sity and achieve­ment.

All of the short- listed au­thors should revel in their Vo­gel­freude — in their joie de Vo­gel — even if they don’t win.

Jeremy Cham­bers, The Vin­tage and the Glean­ing Kenny is a shearer- turned- vine­yard worker who has been forced to give up drink­ing af­ter a life­time of al­co­holism and is re­flect­ing on his life and the de­ci­sions he’s made. This qui­etly re­mark­able ob­ser­va­tion of coun­try and mas­culin­ity is told in a mes­meris­ing voice with a beau­ti­ful ear for the tac­i­turn con­ver­sa­tion of work­ing men, a poem to ru­ral Aus­tralia that is en­tirely mod­ern in its telling.

An­drew Croome, Doc­u­ment Z This richly imag­ined ac­count of the de­fec­tion of Vladimir and Ev­dokia Petrov ex­plores the large and small psy­cho­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal pres­sures on the Rus­sians with per­cep­tion and hu­man­ity. As com­pelling for its char­ac­ter stud­ies and its views of 1950s Aus­tralia as for its Cold War thriller plot, it ef­fort­lessly spans the global clash of ide­olo­gies and the ne­go­ti­a­tions of bu­reau­cracy, com­mu­nity and mar­riage.

Demet Di­varoren, Orayt? Azra is a 21- year- old Turk­ish girl who is preg­nant to her Greek boyfriend and has to ne­go­ti­ate her mother, her aunts and her grand­mother, all for­mi­da­ble women who cling to Turk­ish cul­ture even as they run riot through the sub­urbs and health spas of Vic­to­ria. This is an ir­re­sistible story of the joys and tri­als of fam­ily and tra­di­tion, told with great hu­mour and feel­ing.

Rachel Hen­nessy, The Heaven I Swal­lowed World War II widow Grace McAl­lis­ter adopts a young Abo­rig­i­nal girl, in­tend­ing to give her the ben­e­fit of a proper up­bring­ing in white so­ci­ety. But Mary’s pres­ence and the cir­cum­stances of her ‘‘ res­cue’’ force Grace to con­front the lies that un­der­pin her own life, and her care­ful house of cards comes tum­bling down. This is a book of the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions told from the per­spec­tive of a per­pe­tra­tor who is nei­ther ex­cused nor con­demned but ul­ti­mately emerges as a painfully en­gross­ing char­ac­ter.

T. R. Ma­garey, Cred­i­ble De­ter­rent: A Folly in Parts A badly be­haved foot­baller, an am­bi­tious newsreader, a se­nior staff mem­ber to the premier and a low- level diplo­mat come to­gether with much else be­sides in this high- oc­tane farce that be­gins with a one- night stand and ends with the forced de­pop­u­la­tion of Ade­laide in the af­ter­math of a North Korean nu­clear strike. Enor­mous and fre­quently hi­lar­i­ous, this is a novel of great en­ergy and no re­straint.

Threasa Meads, No­body A choose- your- own- ad­ven­ture from hell that puts you in the heart of the action and forces you to make im­pos­si­ble choices as you try to help a young girl from child­hood to ado­les­cence. A unique struc­ture and a com­pelling voice lift this story of vi­o­lence and abuse into a haunt­ing and heart­break­ing work that lingers in the mind.

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