Short gems are bold, de­vi­ous, in­ven­tive

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kirsten Krauth

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.

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