Short lessons in cre­ative sto­ry­telling

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­trick West

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-

strik­ingly,

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.

in­spired

comma

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.

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