I was chatting to an editor the other day about contemporary Australian short fiction, and he said, somewhat exasperated, ‘Where are all the funny stories?’ The question has also been posed about contemporary Australian fiction more broadly, and when Toni Jordan surveyed critics and publications for laughs in Oz Fic for the Wheeler Centre earlier this year, she concluded, ‘it seems we’re mostly looking backwards to find examples’.
I’m not suggesting one needs to look all the way back to 1976, when Elizabeth Jolley’s ‘Five Acre Virgin’ was written, but it’s a pretty good spot to land. Humorous, but never just jokey, irony is lightly but devastatingly applied here, making it a story that yields more in each successive reading.
The ‘five acre virgin’ of the title is a piece of land, a steep plot in the country. Mother thinks that purchasing some land might be a comfort to Mr Hodgetts, her lodger, a surgeon who works long, odd hours. A local saint, Mother has the concerns of her local friends constantly at heart. Opportunities present themselves in the course of her job cleaning luxury apartments belonging to the rich. Occasionally, she lets her friends from down the road into these palaces ‘to enjoy some of the things which rich people take for granted’, like plentiful hot water: ‘Old Mrs Myer was always first in to Baldpate’s penthouse to soak her poor painful feet.’
Mother has two children, the unnamed narrator and a troublesome son. The narrator spills out observations in runnels; long, querulous first-person sentences that betray not a little naiveté. Like a child, the narrator faithfully reports the family’s activities and conversations. Thus, it becomes clear that Mr Hodgetts is no surgeon, but a man who believes he is one. Mother is revealed as a kind-hearted soul supporting this fantasy, possibly beyond safe bounds.
There’s plenty of humour in this; Mother, despairing of the artifice, worries: ‘There isn’t a soul for his outpatients clinic tonight. The street’s all been. Wherever am I going to find someone else to come.’ But it’s not so much funny-ha-ha, or funny-weird, as funny-quirk-of-the-mouth-that-might-also-be-a-frown. The narrator understands not a fraction of the relationship’s undercurrents, which Jolley leaves tantalisingly inconclusive. Throughout the tale, we’re uncertain: is Mother a do-gooder unaffected by the doings of her friends? Or does she have closeted hopes that are dashed unwittingly by her callous, clamorous relatives?
On the surface, this might seem to be just a quirky little story about small-town eccentrics. But some darker points suck the light down. Mother’s poor-as-rich ventriloquism—apartment squatting, the pretence of property acquisition—highlight the impermeability of class barriers in this family’s world, and the poverty of hope that lies therein. The final paragraphs of the story, which see Mother singing a nonsense song from her youth, constitute a seemingly absurd flourish. But her helpless laughter at an unexpected turn of events makes her appear almost mad; so much as to make the narrator think ‘she must be really round the bend this time.’
Humour lives in Sonya Hartnett’s ‘Any Dog’, too, but sparingly, almost as blessed relief from the tension of this story, which takes place against staggering heat: a record-breaking forty-four degrees. It’s ‘killing weather’, not a day to get lost outside or to leave a dog locked up in a car. Yet Kevin Collier is found wandering the streets, having stolen his daughter-in-law’s car and gone for a drive. Now that his family have come to collect him, the cops are relieved: ‘Thank God. We’re not babysitters.’
The title might lead one to imagine a vast, undifferentiated mass of hounds, from which any pup might be taken, to do as a decade’s companion. But it’s a specific dog that haunts this story. Brought into the police station after he was found lost in the heat, Kevin overhears policemen discussing his situation. They say he has dementia; that he drove the car to god knows where and got out, leaving it behind. They’re talking about a dog. But ‘there wasn’t any dog’, thinks Kevin, ‘Unless they mean old Taf.’
In the push and pull between Kevin’s memories and half-understanding of the present, Hartnett explores the hold a child’s first dog can have on them. The severe heat ushers in Kevin’s memory of the sizzling day he first encountered Taf at the market: ‘the sun is on my head like honey, drizzling into my shoes’. Rendered in capital letters, the memory’s dialogue has a fixed, mythic quality, like silent-film captions or carnival signs: ‘HOW MUCH ARE THE PUPPIES?’ boy Kevin asks. ‘HOW MUCH HAVE YOU GOT?’ counters the man beside the wicker cage.
From this quick but seemingly fated meeting between Taf and Kevin, ownership becomes companionship, love and respect. The boy–dog relationship acquires even greater significance as Kevin’s fervent remembrances reach fever pitch: ‘You dog, you holy relic.’
Hartnett’s well-established affinity for coltish, solitary youths is evident in ‘Any Dog’, as is her ability to gaze at everyday terrors without flinching. While Kevin straddles the present and the past, time is running down on a tragedy that only he can prevent. His inability to remember more recent times raises intense, ugly emotions in his son and grandson, even as they plead with him. The unbridgeable distance between Kevin and his family is an acute marker of just how far dementia has taken him from the Taf-loving child he once was, of how beautiful and cruel memories become when disconnected from living, breathing reality.
The verdict? ‘Five Acre Virgin’ has the edge for me. It’s the classic swimming duck, an unassuming façade masking the maelstrom beneath. With all its subtlety and well-controlled disclosures, the story delivers an emotional load freighted not only with familial complexity but also inescapable social pressures. Deservedly an Australian classic.
WINNER: FIVE ACRE VIRGIN by ELIZABETH JOLLEY
Jess: Our fourth match up of the tournament has left us with a decision to make, Ben. What is more appealing? Short stories about fake doctors and slightly crazy mothers, lightly sprinkled with irony and a kind of funniness that sounds a little like Bell’s palsy? Or tense, sweaty tales of men named Kevin and the dogs they loved in their childhood? It’s a tough decision, to be sure.
Ben: To tell the truth I was relieved as I came to grips with this match, as the title ‘The Five-Acre Virgin’ had made me afraid that the story was one of egregious fat-shaming, and I will not tolerate this. Luckily, as you say, it is a whimsical tale of mental illness that brings us a few laughs, or at least a few mouth-spasms. It’s no wonder that Jolley—how aptly named!—came out on top, as a bit of merriment is always a crowd-pleaser. One wonders whether Sonya Hartnett suffered from her crucial decision to tell a tale that is haunted by a specific dog. Specificity in dogs is always a risk— would she have stood a better chance if she’d made her story more universal, about ALL dogs, rather than just one? Also she uses capital letters for dialogue, which makes us feel like the writer is shouting at us, which is a bit of a turn-off. As are dogs in general, to be honest. Stop writing stories about dogs, Australia.
Jess: Ben, as a dog lover I’d normally feel inclined right now to haughtily inform you that your seething disdain toward canines is way off the mark, but seeing as though ‘The Five-Acre Virgin’ came out on top in this particular meet up, it seems as though you may be onto something. Down with dogs and perspiring chaps named Kevin! Long live kooky mums and doctors with questionable credentials!