I have read these two stories a few times before, and although they both belong to the genre of ‘sketch-stories’, the emotional response they evoke is quite different. This is mainly because the sketches they create are different: one is sharp, bold, staring at you straight; whilst the other is blurred, hesitant, shy, as if wanting the reader to look away.
The difference is also reflected in the titles of the two stories: ‘The Drover’s Wife’ versus ‘Static’. Lawson’s sketch of a drover’s wife is compelling. Here she is: ‘The gaunt, sun-browned bushwoman…’ holding her baby ‘on her left hip,’ reaching for a stick. And again: ‘She also fought the pleuro-pneumonia—dosed and bled the few remaining cattle, and wept again when her two best cows died.’ There are no ifs and buts in the portrayal, no symbols, no metaphors; just straight in your face.
Kennedy on the other hand prefers a detour. The title ‘Static’ is made to work like a metaphor of the noise in and outside the mind of Anthony, its main protagonist. If Lawson’s snake is a ‘real’ snake and dog a ‘real’ dog, Kennedy turns most things in her story into symbols: comics, Wii, walkie-talkie, cherry pips, two-gong Tibetan chime, digital camera, cacti, stones in the landscape garden. The sketch of Anthony appears veiled by a haze of words, and, hence, elusive, fleeting.
Lawson doesn’t want the reader to lose track. He places his bushwoman right in front of you, to look at her in awe, admiration and empathy. Take for example the final two lines: ‘And she hugs him to her worn-out breast and kisses him; and they sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over the bush.’
Kennedy’s story unfolds at and around a family Christmas lunch; it builds up expectation that something untoward is just about to unravel, but nothing of that kind happens, which strangely comes as a relief. But this also deflates the impact of the story. You are left unsatisfied. Perhaps that is what the story is aiming to do: to create a sense of unease, disquiet, imbalance.
In this contest of two stories, Kennedy starts with a major handicap. Her story is competing against an Australian classic: a story with a history. You can’t read it without Russell Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife gazing at you.
It is true that our reading of ‘The Drover’s Wife’ will be biased by the cultural history which surrounds it but the very fact that it has been able to elicit such creative response is an evidence of its power to affect us emotionally. And the reason is simple: its directness.
Unfortunately Kennedy’s ‘Static’, by being circumspect, and, in some sense, preoccupied by a desire to achieve stylistic perfection, falls short. It is a wonderful story composed by a writer who knows her craft, but I doubt if it would stir someone’s imagination to make a painting, a movie, or a song.
Lawson’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’ wins this contest hands down for me.
WINNER: THE DROVER’S WIFE by HENRY LAWSON
Subhash Jaireth lives in Canberra. His novel After Love (Transit Lounge) was released in October 2012.
Ben: Well Jess, it’s hard to believe we’re already up to our seventh match, and I feel safe in saying this is probably the most fiercely-contested short story competition I have ever seen. Brutal, it’s been. And this match was no exception, as much-beloved bush poet and 1980s fast bowler ‘Henry’ Lawson really went in boots and all against Cate Kennedy, who really seemed a bit underprepared, to be honest. As the old saying goes, ‘don’t bring a knife to a gunfight’; and it’s just as true that you should never bring a verbosely symbolist story to an Australiana fight. Quite simply, Kennedy has been blown off the park here. Her metaphors were no match for Lawson’s patented wife attack. And how could Lawson not win, given you apparently can’t read his story without Russel Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife gazing at you? Maybe Kennedy should have enlisted her own painter?
Jess: Indeed, had our esteemed judge for this round had something visual to refer to while writing an assessment of the two stories fighting it out this round like, oh I don’t know, an Arthur Boyd artwork titled ‘Deoxygenated Silence’ (Brett Whiteley’s ‘Chair Gust’?), perhaps Kennedy’s metaphors may have been looked upon more fondly? Sadly, as you’ve pointed out, the lack of a tie-in with a celebrated Australian paintbrush jockey has quite possibly cost Cate Kennedy more than she could’ve possibly imagined when penning her work of fiction. Foresight, authors! Always collaborate, even just as a back up! You just never know when your literary baby is going to find itself fighting for its reputation in a Tournament of Short Stories.