Short gems are bold, devious, inventive
The Great Unknown: Stories
Edited by Angela Meyer Spineless Wonders, 177pp, $27.99
The Sleepers Almanac No 9
Edited by Louise Swinn and Zoe Dattner Sleepers, 356pp, $24.95 IN The Great Unknown, editor Angela Meyer winds her collection of short stories around the idea of the mysterious, with writers striving to pin down narratives that threaten to take off into the wilds. In Sleepers Almanac, the ninth instalment of the annual collection, editors Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn roam wider, but still their aim is to highlight writers working outside their comfort zones.
Both anthologies mix new writers with old hands. The reliance on a theme to bind a collection can be handy for an editor seeking material but can also be a barrier, with writers shaping material to fit the parameters. In The Great Unknown it often works — can even be spectacular — but occasionally falters. Sleepers Almanac, with its greater freedom, is uniformly strong.
In an interview with Trouble magazine in April, Dattner observed that “any kind of story anthology by its very nature requires risk-taking readers because you don’t know what you’re going to get”. She is true to her word in this collection. Rhett Davis’s Interior Exterior is written in
May 3-4, 2014 the mechanical style of a screenplay, as we fade in and out on Manny and Yvette, whose lives are completely constructed within the confines of a film set, a la The Truman Show. As they begin to realise their lives are not ‘‘real’’, they seek to flee, but each time the film crew moves faster, creating fake scenery to hem them in.
JYL Koh’s Civility Place takes a corporate lawyer into a world where all roads lead back to the swaying tower where he works, the revolving glass doors like “egg beater fans sucking you in. Whump. Whump. Whump.” It’s a razorsharp and witty incision into the soul-destroying nature and extreme pressures of highpowered white-collar work, where secretaries sitting next to each other communicate by email, where emphasis on good mental health means going home to log on remotely and where exit interviews mean the woman from human resources says, “‘I better let you go’, even though it was she who had places to be”.
The collection drifts from singledom to coupledom to family life, a common emphasis being relationships — and conversations — between children and parents. Gareth Hipwell’s An Architecture of Iniquity, a short exchange between an all-knowing and provocative mother and her naive young son about a brothel seen from the car window, is a riff on cross-purposes communication, the gaps in language and meanings so big a child can fall through them.
Ryan O’Neill also zooms in on the gaps in The Stories I Read as My Mother Died, where his sly narrator talks about being at his ailing mother’s bedside and his hunger to use the experience in his fiction: “‘ Nothing is real for you, is it?’ she said. ‘Not until you see it written down.’ ”
If there is a central theme in The Great Unknown, it is women doing a disappearing act. Whether lost, stolen, ignored or just sleeping for days, the ladies vanish.
Krissy Kneen’s Emily stalks the rooms at night trying to capture a ghost in her camera sights ( Sleepwalk); Alexander Cothren’s Alice reaches the very limits of empathy trapped in a machine that delivers surround sound so loud no one hears her screams ( A Cure); Helen Richardson’s Lucy lets her sat-nav guide her to confront her own gravestone ( Navigating); Marion Halligan’s May is a mother who appears to her children like a ghost at a suburban restaurant for just one meal ( Her Dress was a Pale Glimmer); while Carmel Bird’s artist Ginny disappears altogether ( Hare).
While a few stories fall short, this is a high- quality collection. For this reviewer, the visions that linger in the twilight come from Susan Yardley, AS Patric and Paddy O’Reilly. In Yardley’s Significance, a middle-aged woman literally disappears after going to the hairdresser’s. When Faye has a bath and her family enters, looking for her, she becomes invisible in the grey water: taken for granted taken to extremes. She moves through the city, naked and invisible, investigating the possibilities.
Patric’s Memories of Jane Doe brings a murdered Serbian woman back to life from anecdote and statistic, retracing her steps from Melbourne’s Maribyrnong River through a chef’s cold storage to a waitress with sky-blue dreams of Sydney. O’Reilly’s Reality TV offers the scariest prospect of all, moving from This is Your Life to Jerry Springer in a snap, with Carly trapped in the TV spotlight as she confronts the contortions of her unfaithful husband and sister and live studio audience … for eternity.
Many Australian writers are choosing to concentrate on the short-story form, a decision reflected in the confidence of these two collections. The writing is bold, funny, devious and inventive. Small publishers such as Spineless Wonders and Sleepers see the potential of short stories to promote new writers to publishers and readers alike: it’s exciting to see a space created where writers have the chance to cross genres and blur boundaries with controlled abandon. Kirsten Krauth’s first novel, just_a_girl, was published last year. She edits Newswrite magazine.