Rov­ing the land with a mas­ter sto­ry­teller

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is chief lit­er­ary critic of The Aus­tralian.

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.

Then this:

“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.

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