A jun­gle be­yond gor­geous Ge­orge

Let­ter to Ge­orge Clooney

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Fiona Wright Fiona Wright

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

is

also

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.

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