Short lessons in creative storytelling
Bearings By Leah Swann Affirm Press, 198pp, $24.95 You Lose These + Other Stories By Goldie Goldbloom Fremantle Press, 237pp, $27.95
WHAT makes a good short story? My university creative-writing students don’t ask this question as often as they might once have done. It’s easy to guess why. Still, sometimes I am prevailed upon to define short-story goodness, which usually results in an answer such as this: the writing should feel like part of a world brimming over with other stories, as if rival tales were lurking, germinating or festering in its margins, as if this particular patch of words were torn from the fabric of the greater universe.
Or I say something along these lines: the writing should feel like a world unto itself, as if sleekly excised from everything of lesser consequence, as if nothing, neither words nor anything else, could be imagined beyond its seamless, unique borders.
This is the difference between the short story as a condensation of the sprawling bricolage of the novel and the short story as poetry that simply is.
It’s also the difference, tween these two collections.
Leah Swann’s Bearings is part of a commitment by small Melbourne publisher Affirm Press to ‘‘ publish a series of six individual collections of stories’’. You have to admire how the publisher’s philosophy exposes the fraying edges of the mainstream publishing world, which mostly (there are commendable exceptions) treats the short story as a cast-off genre.
Swann’s stories, though, are much more hermetic objects: sleek excisions of Austra-
be- lian suburban, regional and rural life, attempts at creating worlds unto themselves. She takes up the opportunity to open for imaginative scrutiny a single idea for a story, a single idea that is very often creditably singular.
Perhaps the best piece is also one of the shortest, The Easter Hare. Nothing is more self-sufficient, or poetic, in a short story than the single-word paragraph, and this story has three of them: ‘‘ Friday’’, ‘‘ Saturday’’, ‘‘ Sunday’’.
Lives collide, life and death collide, within the oubliettes of these three paragraphs and days, and the only way out of present grief is through the trapdoor of the traditional Easter tale. This is classic short-story writing, with uncomplicated poetic presence: For two dusks, the body hangs from a rope coiled over a branch. Under moonlight, like a stone, the wind ruffling the leaves around it, the grasses below it. Dew gathers and dissipates over the bluish skin. Flies settle undisturbed on the lips and eyelids and ears. Bellbirds make their one-note, haunting chimes.
Another story that sticks in the memory is All Your Mothers, a bold and subtle exploration of a boy’s fosterhood, and of moribund or unmade love.
As with some of the other stories, however, I found the ending a bit too neat, as if the story had suddenly lost stamina in sight of the finishing line.
Bearings also shows up a key problem with the short story modelled as a selfsufficient world: it’s all too easy for the frail craft of the tale to run aground. This is most evident in Silver Hands: A Novella (or long short story). Too much telling weighs down the showing and the story feels padded out.
Goldie Goldbloom’s You Lose These + Other Stories, reminiscent as it is of writers such as Angela Carter and Kathy Acker, suggests the other ideal of the short story. Every story feels like something scooped out of the primeval narrative soup or as if a novel has been flailed to death and the stinking remains swept into piles.
Yet there’s a wonderful delicacy to the writing, too:
That is an ‘‘ everything’’.
Goldbloom is an expatriate West Australian who lives in Chicago. With her more internationally oriented collection, you always feel as if what you’re reading is just barely holding its own within a chaos of other stories: The wind shouting through the casuarinas, the strips of hanging bark pattering against the gum trees, the boobooking of the tawny frogmouths, everything, stilled, and the bush breathed deeply, waiting.
after They would become uneducated women who spent two hours on Tuesdays getting manicured by Tibetan girls with PhDs, and they would still feel superior, despite the drug-resistant fungus that would set up shop on their nail beds and fornicate all over their cuticles.
The danger here is that the tale can get swallowed up by the telling, that you can lose touch with the story in a way that’s unlikely in, say, Swann’s collection. Still, the danger of such a swallowing up can be thrilling.
I enjoyed these books in different ways. While, as I was reading, I became more richly immersed in Goldbloom’s literary pyrotechnics, Swann’s simpler stories, perhaps paradoxically, have lived on more richly, for me, beyond the final page. Patrick West teaches at Deakin University. His first short-story collection, The World Swimmers, will be published later this year by ICLL, Edith Cowan University, Perth.