Lives weighted down by things left unsaid
JESS Huon’s accomplished and often elegant debut collection of short fiction joins a spate of impressive recent publications of linked short stories or ‘‘ novels in stories’’. While linked stories perhaps have a stronger place in American publishing — think of Jennifer Egan’s gloriously original A Visit From the Goon Squad — the form is experiencing a revival in Australia.
Steven Amsterdam’s recent What the Family Needed followed another linked collection, Things We Didn’t See Coming; Patrick Cullen’s What Came Between and Gretchen Shirm’s Having Cried Wolf are story collections strung together by recurring characters and place; even Christos Tsiolkas’s multinarrator bestseller The Slap could be seen as a novel in stories.
in perplexing, sometimes paralysing, frequently defining and occasionally self-annihilating nature of desire. Her stories have an expansive scope: from bored teenagers smoking bongs and tagging streets in suburban Melbourne to sweltering Darwin, a San Francisco bereft of the dissident counter culture, and an India attractive to and repellent of its Western visitors because of its unwillingness to ‘‘ feign control’’.
Longing, belonging, exile, return, intimacy and loss permeate these stories, in the enmeshed, haunting relationships we form in late childhood and early adolescence, in besotted sexual lust, and in the obsessive, relentless pursuit of religious rapture and release.
Huon follows three narrative strands: the childhood and adolescent entanglement of Jed, Danny and Alex, who grew up in the same suffocating suburb and are marked by the residue of violence, loss and doubt. The unusual, compelling ‘‘ romance’’ of Oliver, a nominally gay man who tries to recover himself in the wake of malaise, drugs and agoraphobia, and Isabelle, his friend since childhood and sometimes lover, who abandons a life of good grades, school prefecture and disoriented promiscuity for the promise of a reinvention in India. And last a protagonist seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown whose frenzied, almost unhinged desire for transformation and truth sees her seeking respite in born-again movements, Christian ashrams, Buddhist monas-
The Dark Wet
the teries, Hindu friezes, and, eventually, a man, a spiritual guru of sorts.
Of the three, Isabelle and Oliver’s story held my attention most. Huon’s writing can be lush and beautiful, particularly in the standout story Headfirst , where a forlorn, frank and increasingly desperate series of unsent postcards to Oliver reveals the enduring hold of childhood and adolescent intimacy and explores the pain and longing of its lost connection. Some of the exchanges between the couple, while elliptical and heavy with things left unsaid, are extremely poignant.
These vignettes also display Huon’s capacity to depict the porous, unstable constructed and constricting nature of gender identity, love and sexual orientation: Oliver’s shape shifting; Isabelle’s discomfort trying on a dress belonging to her mother, who has left the family, her strapped-down breasts as a teenage gymnast and later shorn hair, her encounters with cross-dressing and transgenderism as religious duty, economic necessity or social role in India, and a tender scene in which a gay man and a lesbian unexpectedly become lovers.
That said, Isabelle’s journey to India veers into cliche (the beggars, street sellers, temples, markets, rickshaws, cheap hotels, mosquito nets, turmeric and coconut drinks) and I felt uneasy at times about the extent to which the country is represented as an exotic, sprawling, tough-love cure for Western unhappiness.
To give Huon credit, this Eat, Pray Love approach is complicated by a darker and more nuanced rendering in the third section of the book where we encounter fully formed local characters and a nation divided by its ambiguous relationship with the global economy, its caste and class separations, its contradictions and the penetrating mazes of tradition, bureaucracy, spirituality, ritual and home. These later scenes refuse to conform to hackneyed conceptions of spiritual transcendence and the fetishisation of simplicity, openness and authenticity in Asia.
Although this final section is evocative and intriguing, it was marred for me by persistent confusion about the order of events and narrative structure. The slippages between the narrator’s pursuit of becoming a nun, critiquing the sermons in a Christian ashram and abandoning her Buddhist vocation may have been intentional but they also left me disoriented — though not as disoriented as the protagonist.
Huon’s writing is powerful (a punching bag is ‘‘ a huge red swollen lung’’), touching (‘‘I’m up close, with an unowned hunger, hurtling unseen through the night, like bullets fired by masked men’’) and funny (‘‘offering my body to Jesus, I thought as a 16-year-old, would be like saying, ‘ Here, Jesus, take this, I’m not sure what to do with it’ ’’). I suspect readers who have an affinity with spirituality more generally and Eastern religion in particular may find more layers of meaning that speak to them in this promising, talented but uneven collection. Kalinda Ashton is a fiction writer and lecturer at Flinders University in Adelaide.