A jungle beyond gorgeous George
Letter to George Clooney
By Debra Adelaide Picador, 296pp, $24.99
LETTER to George Clooney is Debra Adelaide’s first collection of short stories, despite her record of editing short fiction anthologies and writing novels, the most recent of which, The Household Guide to Dying (2008), was the subject of an intense bidding war between publishers.
This collection does contain much of the sly, morbid humour and honour in quiet, domestic undertakings that were so appealing in The Household Guide to Dying, but it is an uneven book, with the most powerful or engaging stories flattened out by the less successful ones, and by a strangely undifferentiated voice that operates across them.
The title story is exceptionally strong, centred on a letter written by Miriam, a Sudanese refugee living in a small Victorian town, to the man whose face she has seen on magazine covers, both in her traumatic past and on the racks of her local supermarket.
The story is riddled with moments of everyday wonder — from testing the ripeness of supermarket fruit to flushing and reflushing a new toilet — which continually butt up against horrific details of Miriam’s past. It’s a deeply compassionate and terribly violent piece, made all the more troubling by the small interjections of celebrity and media culture that are left unreconciled within Miriam’s narration.
But its effect is dampened because none of the stories that precede it — it is the final story of the collection — is able to match its intensity, complexity, or the vividness of its narration.
Indeed, many of the preceding stories take place in suburbia, and in western Sydney in particular, and while they attempt to lend the place an honour and importance, the characters that populate them are nowhere near as multifaceted or surprising as Miriam.
Adelaide is sympathetic to these characters and they are all searching for something bigger and better than themselves; but they are also, by and large, criminals on remand, overweight clerics, single mothers, or Department of Community Services workers, with names such as Cheryl, Chantal, Traynor and Jackson, and strangely androgynous, uninflected voices.
And while Adelaide takes great care to fill in the poignant and painful details of their lives, the stories often end on notes of hope that seem too simple, or forced: The Pirate Map, for example, ends with its gauche and lonely protagonist setting up a dinner date with his accountant, whom he suddenly refers to by her first name.
Some of the best stories in Letter to George Clooney are interested in loneliness and in the vagaries of dating, online and through the personals columns. These are largely about the ways in which people attempt to approach and appeal to one another, despite the rawness of their flaws, rather than about love.
If You See Something, Say Something is the strongest of these, dexterously interweaving verbatim quotes from London Review of Books personal ads with words and phrases snatched from billboards on suburban train stations. It blends its lonely hearts narrative with broader ideas about vigilance, surveillance and sedition, although the fit is not always watertight.
Others, such as Chance, offer an almost brutal depiction of modern courtship and sex between people who are painfully awkward and not always honest.
Letter to George Clooney
keenly interested in writers and writing, and the stories that deal with this theme are delightful to read, partly because some of the institutions they portray are only thinly disguised, but also because the satire they offer is bemused and sharp, but not bitter.
In Writing [in] the New Millennium, for example, a writer flounders her way through a manuscript development conference, watching panels with names such as Hothousing New Talent and Professionalising the Creative; whereas Glory in the Flower sees an ageing international poet struggling with the facilities and participants of a writers festival in an unnamed region of Australia.
Some of these stories about writers working at their craft, however, are a little too selfreferential to really invite the reader in, and certainly sit at odds with the collection’s more personal or overtly political stories, such as the title piece.
The stories in Letter to George Clooney are all polished and skilful, and offer beautifully detailed glimpses into the lives of their protagonists. Where they are best, they delight in the small fascinations of the specific, bringing them into contact with their broader social implications, or into some kind of dialogue with the limitations and absurdities of writing. But they often are unable to move into this complexity, to allow space for the unresolved, or to engage fully with the voices of their characters, and so the collection is, at times, strangely enervated, and unable to live up to the promise of the truly powerful stories it contains.