A lot of bookish types don’t much care for sport. It’s something that I never understood.
Personally, I like it but what I really love is a tournament—regardless of the game being played. It’s episodic storytelling on a grand scale but, beyond the unfolding narrative, its real appeal lies in its capacity for unlikely heroism, for romance. Because, at some point, the rank outsider has to meet the defending champion, the wildcard must come up against the favourite. And sometimes they win.
Which brings me to Tara June Winch and Thea Astley. Winch is no-one’s idea of a roughie, with victories and shortlistings in several newspaper and premier’s awards, but in Thea Astley she strikes an absolute thoroughbred who, single-handedly, kept up the women’s quota of Miles Franklin Awards for decades. So, in terms of pedigree, this might seem a one-sided contest. However the bulk of Astley’s impressive reputation rests on her novels while Winch’s career, so far, has been evenly balanced between longer and shorter form fiction, with many readers even choosing to read her novel, Swallow the Air, as a series of inter-linked short stories. The hint that Winch might have a slight edge as more of a short form specialist brings the form lines closer together.
‘It’s Too Difficult to Explain’ by Tara June Winch was first published by the American literary journal McSweeney’s earlier this year. It’s the story of Vincent, a young athlete who, like a lot of men of action, feels he can only really express himself through the precision and mute force of his body. Words are clumsy and strange, while his power and energy as a sprinter lends him a physical eloquence that truly articulates who he is. He fits in nowhere; he has no family and no identity. But as a sprinter, with a personal best of 10.07 seconds for the 100m, he is his country’s fastest man. As a runner, he touches the earth lightly. As a man he feels heavy with inertia, knowing that wherever he goes and whatever he does, ‘he was still the point from which he moved’.
As he grows older his power wanes and his dedication to training and technique slips away. He gets slower. Weaker. His flimsy sense of self dwindles along with his ability to run fast. One night, an innocuous after-dinner conversation with his girlfriend’s family sparks a crisis when the girl’s mother asks, innocently, if a man’s actions stand alone from the man himself. Will people ‘remember the man or the run, Vincent?’ Vincent is transfixed and unable to answer. It is, simply, too difficult to explain. He panics and does the only thing he knows—he runs; away from the house and the awkward questions and into the night leaving his girlfriend to find him later and to try and make sense of it all.
‘Hunting The Wild Pineapple’, the title story from Astley’s 1979 collection, is a comedy of manners set in north Queensland as the, slightly unhinged, lord and master of a plantation takes his guests on a drunken, nocturnal tour of his property, his plants, and his people. Queensland is the most class-conscious place in Australia and no one knew this better than Thea Astley. This is social observation written with a razor blade. She neatly captures provincial insecurity, desperate ‘to prove we’re not all grubbing away at the soil up here, that we’re smooth, polished, and have swung quite nicely, ta ever so, into the sophisticated seventies.’
Equally strong is her portrait of old Queensland, thrilled and terrified in equal measure by the cavalcade of interlopers and immigrants. She also understands that language is so often a weapon for policing social boundaries and is as susceptible to fashion as food and clothing and dance crazes. Underneath it all lurks the shadow of the faintly psychotic flipside to all the sparkling persiflage. The raw hatred that flickers briefly before the polite laughter. The snarl that is barely visible in the toffy smiles.
From the start, this was a clash of styles: Astley’s relentless energy and wit versus Winch’s patient, measured prose. Astley runs at breakneck speed, barely drawing breath, while Winch prefers to take her time, comfortable in her silences, gesturing at gigantic private histories that remain unspoken.
‘It’s Too Difficult to Explain’ seems to embody Ursula LeGuin’s wonderful reflection that ‘The artist deals in what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words.’ There’s a sense here of trying to expose what precedes language and therefore cannot be spoken. Conversely, ‘Hunting The Wild Pineapple’ sets out to test the outer limits of language. To exhaust it and all its accents and slang and buzzwords. It’s an exercise in the Ethel Merman school of writing: always leave them wanting less.
So, how to compare two stories that are, pretty much, working opposite sides of the street? How do you judge satire against personal tragedy? Too often, this just becomes an exercise in taste but I’m going to put aside my preference for restrained prose and give it to Astley. Yes, for all the penetrating insight she runs the risk of becoming just a tourist in what she calls ‘the human geography’ and the relentless wordplay does get a little tiresome (‘the possibility of the pineapple’, being ‘punched in the privacy’) and, after all, it is really just a drawing room comedy, even if all of Queensland is her drawing room, but ‘Hunting The Wild Pineapple’ displays a writer at the peak of her form with a delightful dexterity of language. Unfortunately for Winch, what was too difficult to explain seemed, ultimately, too difficult to understand. Too much of the story seemed to lurk beneath the surface and beyond reach.
Astley is a whipsong writer. Hers is a wit that stings and delights in stinging. ‘Banter!’, as Tracy Jordan might say.
WINNER: HUNTING THE WILD PINEAPPLE by THEA ASTLEY
John Hunter publishes some of Australia’s best short story writers, including Tony Birch, Patrick Holland, and Josephine Rowe.
Ben: Well, now, here we have an interesting battle, a kind of grudge match, between Tara June Winch’s tale of a man who runs away for no reason, and Thea Astley’s story about pineapple hunters. To be honest I felt that Astley had the edge as soon as I saw that Winch was “comfortable in her silences”. Readers never like writers to be comfortable in their silences: it leaves them tapping their feet, crying, “come on, when are you going to start writing again, we have a train to catch!” On the other hand, naturally Astley was taking a risk, putting all her pineapples in one punnet, as it were, by setting her story in Queensland, a notoriously bad setting for stories, as Hemingway’s first draft The Snows Of Tibrogargan proved. Still, Astley was always the favourite.
Jess: Agreed, Ben. When Tara June Winch was described by John Hunter as “no one’s idea of a roughie” , it seemed to me as though our esteemed judge for this bout was basically calling Winch soft. Never a good sign. Astley, meanwhile, is labelled an “absolute thoroughbred”. And while I don’t claim to know much about much, young Ben, I have lived through enough Spring Racing carnivals in Melbourne to know that this is probably a compliment. Until Astley starts losing her owner’s money and ends up at the knackery, anyway. But she needn’t worry about ending up as pet food yet! The good news for “owner” Thea Astley is that her horse Hunting The Wild Pineapple, with a metaphorical jockey named Wordplay sitting on her back and whipping her relentlessly as she gallops her way around the track, has crossed the finish line ahead of It’s Too Difficult To Explain. [sidenote: these actually sound like real life horse names, don’t they?]
Ben: Therein lies the key to the whole match, Jess: Hunter’s description of Winch as “no one’s idea of a roughie” suggests that he saw Winch as a kind of fish, and so it becomes clear just why Astley won. In a fair race on level ground, a good horse will always beat a good fish, and so it has proved. I look forward to the results when Astley is put out to stud.