Roving the land with a master storyteller
It is one thing to abandon a story because it’s poorly written, quite another to stop because it’s too good. And yet that is what I did with Unnecessary Gifts from Fiona McFarlane’s debut collection of short fiction. The tone of the piece is jaunty, the setting blamelessly domestic. It begins in a suburban Australian living room one idle afternoon with a father watching his son pretend to be an undersea creature while his wife prepares drinks.
“Glenda is bringing me a gin and tonic. Alcohol plays no part in this story; it’s just taking the glass from her requires me to lean forward in my chair, and this means I see James on his one true possession, a bicycle with silver pedals, heading in the direction of the Wolfson’s. “This,” he continues, “is the last moment I can account for him with any authority for some time, and what I want to do is recreate those hours after James left the house, a sea lily disguised as a small boy.”
What follows is a horror story of the most mundane kind — and a 20-page masterclass in writing short fiction. There is the skittering prose approximating the thought processes of a father attempting to keep a lid on growing panic. There is the elaborate time scheme, which fuses retrospective inference with simultaneous account. There is the hyperrealist’s eye for detail, weirdly yet powerfully at odds with narrative requirement, such as the “long pearly artificial nails” of an insurance call worker, “that make her do everything with the last-minute flicks of a flamenco dancer”. And there is the breathtaking indirection of the plot, which resolves itself as a McGuffin and tragedy in one.
But while these technical accomplishments contribute to the story’s success, it is the unexpected angle and impetus of the author’s attentions, the modulating toughness and fragility, that give the tale its special quality of lift. When eventually I steeled myself to finish Unnecessary Gifts, a poem by Auden came to mind: Musee des Beaux Arts, with its famous opening:
About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along ...
There is a clutch of stories in The High Places as good as this one, though each is successful in a different way. Those Americans Falling from the Sky, for instance, leans on its evocations of prewar country Queensland. Here narrator Jeannie recalls the summers of her childhood, including a muddy waterhole “shaded by dry bush, sticky with duck mess, floating in spring with the froth of the frogs that sang through the summer. The water was soft and brown and took the heat away, momentarily, until we resurfaced and it cupped over us again like a wet hand”.
In Mycenae, an Australian couple travels to Greece for a reunion with old American friends. It is a sour comedy of culture in which the antipodeans are so successfully painted as quaint, backward and uncertain that you almost forget it is an Australian writing their lines: The Dwyers were both too large for the chairs at the cafe in Plaka — they teetered,
with the chairs, on the cobblestones — but Janet was relieved to be sitting down, however precariously. She was made uneasy by the marble pavements of Athens, over which she slipped in the soft soles of her comfortable shoes. The Parthenon was humourless above them; it meant too much. It was almost offensive. Janet felt it was wasteful not to look at it while she had the opportunity; at the same time, it exhausted her. She could find nothing human about it — nothing like Mycenae’s shining masks.
Even the few weaker pieces — or not weaker, just more exploratory in form — have significant graces. The brief, visionary Man and Bird, in which the new reverend of an unnamed town moves from eccentricity to outright madness, shows how thorough, swift and sure McFarlane’s sketches of character can be:
He walked with an incongruous maritime swell that might, in another man, have passed for a swagger, and was careful in the maintenance of a small yellow car that he rarely drove faster than seventy kilometres an hour. He spoke in long, dignified sentences, rich in clauses, reminiscent of a veteran’s parade on a memorial holiday, and as he delivered his sermons he had a tendency to rise to the tips of his toes, so that finally he appeared to be levitating behind the pulpit.
The variousness of geographical setting in McFarlane’s stories suggests the roving modernist cosmopolitanism of Christina Stead or Michelle de Kretser. Yet the stories set on native soil are so subtly attuned to registers of speech or qualities of place that they could have emerged from the pen of Olga Masters or Amy Witting. She seems equally at home in past and present, city and country; writing in the mode of dun-coloured realism or the ecstatic epiphanic.
In the final, eponymous story from the collection these modes are fused in a manner that is uncanny, even unearthly. A farmer on an outback sheep station suffering from drought asks his family to pray for rain. He is a practical man, his religion mainly bent toward the preservation of his remaining livestock. His 16-yearold son is made from different stuff — he’s full of fear and trembling. Then a sequence of events whose source could only be supernatural forces the farmer to renegotiate not just his sense of his teenage son but the very reality through which he moves. The two prepare a burnt offering of a few remaining sheep on a small hill.
Jack stood on the hilltop. It was so long since he’d seen an elevated view, and he was disgusted, standing there, by the terrible dry sloped world, the thinness he felt in the air around him, and the small distance between heaven and Earth ... He could stand on the hill and see the hand of God, laid out there over the plain: each knuckle and vein, and all the fingers.
The writer, too, is a creator. And in these remarkable stories McFarlane reminds us the world revivified by the artist’s imagination, made strange and new, may be the only one in which we truly see.