Katherine Susannah Prichard’s ‘Happiness’ is a packed story: it’s about the growth and troubles of a homestead, observed from the outside by Nardadu, who is described as being a Nyedee woman. Nardadu has many thoughts about the homestead and the brother and sister who run it, John and Megga. The homestead itself is ‘beyond natural’, but worse, in her eyes, is the controlling sister Megga, who runs the household and is extremely precious about her chickens. At the story’s opening, Nardadu is ‘sitting beside the stockyard fence in the offal of a dead beast’. She is sourcing food, among the ‘mess of blood and dung’, and she is singing. The description immediately sets up a comparison between lifestyles; the homestead is painted white, the chickens are white and the Aboriginal house girls must wash themselves thoroughly before coming inside.
Nardadu likes John, he is a ‘man of men’, but she doesn’t understand why he lets his sister rule him. The Nyedee also wonder why he does not want children, but after the homestead is settled he does indeed take a wife. At first the Nyedee are amused by the war that ensues between Megga and Margie, the new wife. Unlike at the uloo (camp) bad feelings are not caught on the breeze, they fester. Nardadu, in one of the memorable, environment-based descriptions in the story, sees it like this: ‘the house seemed to be cramped down over one of those dark, slimy, fungus growths which poison the air about them’.
While this story features vivid imagery, overall I found both the format and message to be confused. In the opening, many characters (and new words) are quickly introduced, and it’s a few pages in before we begin to understand who all these people are and how they fit together. At the end, Nardadu observes her son coming back from the ‘dogging’, and expresses her happiness, but I don’t know where this sits in relationship to the homestead where Megga, whom she disapproves of and who killed her dog, ‘wins’ over the new wife. Perhaps it is just to say that the white family has no impact at all on her life, but this is contradicted by earlier events in the story. It seems reductive, too, if the story were just about Nardadu being happy with ‘simple things’, like the offal with which she will feed her grandson. But perhaps that’s where Prichard was going, and if so, I’m not sure that’s very profound. In fact, it’s problematic. Then again, Prichard was the first white Australian writer to attempt to form narratives from an Aboriginal point of view (as with her novel Coonardoo) and that certainly should be acknowledged.
How different a story is Tom Cho’s ‘Today on Dr Phil’? Told in the first person, ‘Tom’ (character) tells us that today he and his Auntie Lien are appearing on ‘the television show of the famed psychologist Dr Phil’. Cho’s stories are absurd, appropriative, and often erotic. The character of Tom becomes (versions of) himself through an engagement with pop culture. Here, he shares with Dr Phil’s audience his fantasy about turning into a Hulk-like creature (even with the line ‘Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’) and as he becomes angrier his girlfriend not only becomes more aroused, but she de-ages until she is a 16-year-old virgin. They then spend all night ‘having the hottest sex you can imagine’.
Dr Phil is extremely fascinated by Auntie Lien’s knowledge of Euripidean drama but to Tom’s fantasy all he can offer is a cliché: ‘You have to name it before you can claim it’. Cho’s stories have parodic elements, obviously, but their overall aim is more a genuine integration of elements of selfhood and becoming, of imagination and intellect (and limits to them), and of the images and messages (media, entertainment, commercial) that we encounter. He does confront, question or subvert these messages, but in a way that says: ‘I am a part of this too’.
Though this sounds rather intellectual (Cho’s narrator also has a tendency to intellectualise and analyse) ‘Today on Dr Phil’ is also emotionally engaging. This is mainly because Cho’s story is precise in style and tone, which means that as a whole it has a strong impact, no matter how you interpret its ‘message’. Whereas, as mentioned, Prichard’s story seems to (slightly) miss the mark. The focus is a little blurred. ‘Happiness’ was definitely interesting enough to make me want to read more of Prichard’s work, but Cho’s distinct, clever and funny story ‘Today on Dr Phil’ is the winner of this round.
WINNER: TODAY ON DR PHIL by TOM CHO
Angela Meyer’s favourite short stories include Franz Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’, Richard Yates’ ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’, Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Evening Party’ and Janet Frame’s ‘The Mythmaker’s Office’. She’s written a few herself, published in The Lifted Brow, Torpedo, Wet Ink, Seizure and elsewhere, and is now working on a novel as part of a DCA via the University of Western Sydney. She reviews books for various publications.
Jess: Can I start by just start by saying how wonderful it is to be back for another year of reading other people’s highbrow contributions to distinguished literary competitions, and then adding our nonsensical two cents to it? The good folk at Meanjin have kept our office exactly how we left it – all we have to do is update our Wall Of Heroes with these One Direction posters I’ve been collecting in the ten months since we last had security clearance to enter Meanjin HQ, and we’re sorted for another tournament! And now that we’re suitably inspired by the foppish curls and sartorial magnificence of Harry, I say we get cracking with assessing the results of our first match up.
Ben: Well, we kick off this year’s tournament with an intriguing study in contrasts. Going purely by the titles, Katherine Susannah Prichard seems to have an edge in gaining readers' sympathies, as her “Happiness” hints at joy and laughter and pleasantries, while Tom Cho’s “Today on Dr Phil” hints at deep psychological trauma and being annoyed. But as is so often the case in the tough, brutal world of professional short storyism, all is not as it seems. In fact, Prichard reveals herself to be basically a liar, as her so-called “Happiness” is about a sad woman who sits around in blood and dung. A tactical error on Prichard’s part? Audiences these days want a bit of a chuckle, they don’t want to be mired in blood and dung all the time, surely? On the other hand, Cho’s story is much more honestly titled, and is actually about Dr Phil, which I’d have called a major mistake to start with, so I just wasn’t sure what to think at first.
Jess: So Dr Phil isn’t your cup of daytime tea, Ben? Good to know. In any case, it seems that the famous proverb “Any story that ends with Dr Phil being punched in the face is always a winner” remains yet to be disproved. Whether this is still the case by the end of the tournament is anyone’s guess.